Up until Sunday afternoon at around 4:30, right on the eve of the 2015 Opening Day, I was going to say the ceiling for the Padres this year is winning a Wild Card spot and, with the depth of their starting pitching, having a legitimate chance of reaching the National League Division Series.
Then Obi-Wan Preller had to go and swing a deal to bring 4-time All Star Craig Kimbrel to the San Diego bullpen and change that perception completely.
In 2014 the Padres had one of the top three bullpens in baseball, even after they traded All-Star closer Huston Street to the Angels. That ‘pen got even better this off-season and was arguably the best group in the National League. Adding the man who’s led the N.L. in saves for the last four years puts it WAY over the top.
A guy like Kimbrel, who strikes out 14.8 hitters per 9 innings, is the perfect insurance against a team that projects to have a shaky defense (we’ll get to that in a minute). Kimbrel also adds a mental aspect to the game. Opposing teams know, with that guy lurking in the bullpen, they really only have eight innings to score their runs. If they’re behind after that, just call it a loss.
That’s the kind of impact Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera had. Yes, Kimbrel is just that good. And that’s why I think the Padres, now, can legitimately contend for the National League West Division championship.
Let’s go position-by-position and break this thing down, starting with the one we’ve already talked about.
Like I said, easily the best in the National League and now challenging the Royals for the best in baseball. In 2014, the Padres were 33-21 in 1-run games and 10-5 in extra innings. If a game is close, the advantage goes directly to San Diego.
If most people (including myself) think the Dodgers are still the team to beat in the NL West, this is the area where the Padres will have the biggest impact. Los Angeles was 25-20 in 1-run games and 6-12 in extra innings a year ago, and they won’t have injured closer Kenley Jansen for at least a month (I know the Giants are the reigning World Series champions but with no Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence out for about the first month with a broken forearm, uncertain health of Matt Cain’s elbow, and the fact it’s an even-numbered year, we’ll leave them out of this discussion for now).
The Padres have arguable the deepest rotation any place outside of Washington, DC. James Shields is a certified workhorse. You can pencil him in for 200 innings and 15-18 wins every year. Tyson Ross, and All-Star in 2014 who a few people have told me has the best pure stuff on the team, is blossoming in to a front-of-the-rotation starter before our eyes. Andrew Cashner was last year’s Opening Night starter and has ace kind of stuff, and he’s the number 3 guy. Ian Kennedy has his confidence back and looks a lot like the guy who won 21 games in Arizona just a few years back. Brandon Morrow has shown signs of being a top-3 starter but injuries have held him back. Now healthy, he should win a lot of games running up against the cannon fodder most teams throw out at the back end of a rotation.
However, the Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu (who will start the season on the DL with a shoulder issue that is not expected to linger) at the top of their rotation. Kershaw is the best starter in the universe and Greinke is not far behind. Ryu is well above-average. Los Angeles does not have the depth in its rotation that the Padres do, but with their top-2 it doesn’t matter as much as it would to other teams.
This is the great unknown for the Padres. First baseman Yonder Alonso, second baseman Jedd Gyorko and third baseman Will Middlebrooks have shown flashes of being consistent 15-20 home run guys and slightly above-average defenders. They’ve also shown flashes of being easily injured and ineffective both offensively and defensively. Shortstop Alexi Amarista is not a natural shortstop, although he did show at the end of last year he’s not overwhelmed by the position. Amarista turns 26 years old on Opening Day, so he’s still figuring out the Big League game and could have one of those, “A-HA!” seasons where he plays well above his career average. But don’t count on it. If all these guys stay healthy and play to their potential, the Padres infield is playoff-caliber, yes even on defense, where they might not have fantastic range but they also don’t make many mistakes. If not, it’s a liability. Yangervis Solarte, Clint Barmes and Cory Spangenberg provide quality depth off the bench.
The Dodgers have a rock at first in Adrian Gonzalez. He’ll give you Gold Glove-caliber defense and drive in 100 runs every season. They traded away rising star Dee Gordon for the more established but less explosive Howie Kendrick, which is a slight downgrade on defense and takes away one of the few prototypical leadoff hitters in the game. On the left side of the infield, the Dodgers let Hanley Ramirez walk away and added shortstop Jimmy Rollins and still have Juan Uribe, a guy who always seems to swing the bat well against the Padres, is again the third baseman. Even if Rollins and Uribe finally let Father Time start to catch up to them, this is the superior group.
Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp are going to drive in A LOT of runs. A lot more runs than the 2014 Padres outfield did, at least. In 2014, Padres outfielders drove in 175 runs total, and that’s if we add all of Tommy Medica’s RBI (even though most of them came while he was playing 1st base). Upton, Kemp and Myers combined for 226 RBI, and Myers missed half the season with wrist injuries. A lot has been made about the group’s defensive metrics. Upton is never going to win a Gold Glove and is probably the worst of the bunch. Kemp had below-average defensive numbers last year, but that was playing in centerfield. He’s much more suited to a corner spot and should see his defense improve dramatically. Myers played a lot of center in the minors and at the age of 24 is still learning to play the position. He showed more than enough athletic ability in the Cactus League to be a solid defender. Melvin Upton and Will Venable are not consistent offensive threats but are both good defenders off the bench.
The Dodgers will run out Carl Crawford, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig with Andre Ethier and Scott Van Slyke off the bench. Crawford only played 105 games a year ago and has been slowed by injuries. Pederson is a tremendous prospect who just tore up the Cactus League at the age of 22 but has never played a full MLB season and is a bit of an unknown at this point. Puig is insanely talented but you just know about a dozen mental lapses every year are looming. Ethier is a good bat off the bench but is not happy he’s not starting and may not be in L.A. for the entire season. Van Slyke is a solid 5th outfielder who’s not going to be a liability.
Advantage: Padres (but not by much)
Remember those close and extra-inning game numbers from the bullpen section? A lot of that falls on the manager. Don Mattingly is not a very good in-game manager. He has not shown a great ability to handle his relievers or effectively use the double-switch. Bud Black has shown a good understanding of how to use his pieces and now that he has the kinds of players who deserve to be in the same spot in the lineup every day he won’t be tinkering, desperately looking for decent matchups for his overwhelmed offense.
Rick Honeycutt is a good pitching coach. Darren Balsley is the best pitching coach in baseball (even Greg Maddux will tell you that). Mark McGwire has had good success as a hitting coach. Mark Kotsay is in his first year in that role.
See? When you break it down piece by piece you see the Padres could very well win this thing. Not so much because they’re going to make massive strides (which they are, but asking for 90 wins might be a little much) as because the Dodgers seem to be coming back to the pack a bit.
Again, there are an awful lot of variables in play, with health being on top of the list. But, with Ryu and Jansen on the shelf for a while and the Padres mostly healthy, it might take a while for them to hit their stride. If the Padres can avoid their typical slow start and put a little cushion between themselves and their rivals to the north, they’ll be in a position to withstand the mid-season charge the Dodgers typically put together.
And then? Well, then we’ll have ourselves a good, old-fashioned pennant race on our hands.