AJ Preller’s Failed Experiment

Houston Astros v San Diego Padres

By Patrick Brewer

Similarly to the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Miami Marlins, and other teams that were destined to compete in 2015, the San Diego Padres have been quite a disaster this season despite high expectations prior to the season. The Padres have not been good in any aspect of their game this season. The Padres offense, which was the focus of almost all the offseason upgrades, has only slightly improved while both the pitching staff and the defense have taken large steps back from 2014. The Padres have been below average all year, and find themselves far enough out of the playoff race to already be looking forward to 2016.

The scary thing about the Padres season is that their current record is actually a bit better than what their record is expected to be given their base runs numbers. The Padres currently sit at 62-65 which puts them eight and a half games behind the Dodgers. According to the Pythagorean standings, which take into account how many runs a team has scored and given up and projected what their record should be, the Padres should currently be 59-68. Even worse than that, according to Baseruns, which takes into account how many runs a team is expected to score or allow based on their team stats, the Padres should currently have a record of 56-71. So according to these numbers, the Padres have actually been LUCKY this year and are really in a much better spot than their current record would suggest.

AJ Preller completely remade the Padres lineup in an effort to improve the team’s historically bad offense. In 2014, the Padres were dead last in the entire league with only 535 runs scored which was almost forty runs behind the next worst team. It was clear that the Padres offense was the main area of need for the team and so was the main focus of AJ Preller last offseason. The results this year have been mixed up until this point. The Padres currently sit at 19th in runs scored this season with 516 runs scored. The Padres need to score only 19 runs in the final 35 games of the season in order to match their run production from last year. It is more likely that the Padres will be able to surpass their 2014 run total and even exceed 600 runs scored on the year.

AJ Preller did improve what he set out to improve but at the cost of both the Padres defense and pitching. In 2014 the Padres had one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball to go with one of the best bullpens. Last year the Padres starting staff was 9th in both ERA and FIP while the bullpen was 2nd in both ERA and FIP. Beyond that, in total the Padres gave up the 4th fewest runs in all of baseball with only 577 runs. In comparison in 2015, the Padres starting staff has the 12th best ERA and FIP while the bullpen has the 21st best ERA and the 20th best FIP. Clearly there has been a big downgrade in both the Padres starting staff and bullpen from 2014 to 2015.

Beyond the significant downgrade in the Padres pitching staff, the biggest problem in the Padres play this year has been the downright terrible defense for the Padres in 2015 compared to 2014. In 2014 the Padres had the 9th best defense by UZR. By comparison, the Padres have the 3rd worst defense in terms of UZR. This represents a significant downgrade from 2014. Despite some general improvement on offense, the Padres have seen quite a downgrade in both their pitching staff and bullpen, with the biggest downgrade coming for the Padres defense.

Other than downgrades to both the Padres pitching staff and defense, the Padres have also been plagued this year by various injuries that have really significantly hindered their ability to play at full potential. At the top of the list is the injury to Wil Myers. While this injury may have saved the Padres from being even worse on defense than they have been, it definitely greatly diminished their offensive capabilities. If Myers had not gotten injured and had played a majority of the season, it seems likely the Padres would be in a much better position than they currently are in. Beyond the injury to Myers, the Padres also have been playing a majority of the season without a guy who was their best pitcher over the first month of the season in Brandon Morrow. The Padres also have yet to see Josh Johnson or Cory Luebke return from tommy john injuries. As a whole the Padres have suffered several important injuries this year but have still underperformed expectations because of under performance by several important players.

The Padres went into the season with the expectation that several acquisitions would either continue to play at a high level or would have bounce back years after some struggles. The Padres have gotten under performance from almost every big acquisition this offseason as well as from many incumbent players. Justin Upton is having a good year overall but has not played to the level he has in past years and also has experienced several prolonged slumps over the course of the season. Despite a recent surge by Matt Kemp, Kemp has played below expectations behind a terrible first half of the season. Derek Norris got off to a hot start before going into a prolonged slump over the last few months. Yonder Alonso has taken a step back following a great first half of the season. Jedd Gyorko has had another disappointing season overall despite better play in recent weeks. Will Middlebrooks has been a complete disaster. James Shields has had one of the worst years of his entire career. From top to bottom the Padres have gotten down years from just about every one of their most important offseason acquisitions and really many of their older players.

From top to bottom the Padres have underachieved in 2015 and now need to start looking towards 2016.

Planning for the Future

Catcher

Of all the positions around the diamond, the Padres may have more options at catcher than any other position. After trading both Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal following the 2014 season, the Padres acquired Derek Norris to be the new catcher of the future. Norris has been generally good as an offensive option but his defensive value has been a clear step down from either Rivera or Grandal. Following the preseason injury to Tim Federowicz and the struggles of Wil Nieves, the Padres made the decision to call up Austin Hedges. Hedges has shown himself to be one of the best if not the best defensive catchers all year despite his various struggles at the plate. Going forward the Padres have some decisions to make on whether they value offense or defense more at the catcher position. Based on the struggles of the pitching staff in 2015, Austin Hedges may be the best bet as the Padres long-term catcher. This leaves Norris without a natural position for next year.

1st Base

It seemed pretty clear going into 2015 that Yonder Alonso would be the first baseman for the Padres for years to come. However as the season has progressed, the Padres have seemingly gotten more and more options at first base for both the short-term and the long term. Wil Myers got some playing time at first before his injury and seems like a potential long-term option there given his struggles in center field. Beyond that, Derek Norris could be moved to first in either the short-term or long-term, should the Padres decide that Austin Hedges is the better option at catcher. In the Padres best case scenario, it seems likely that Derek Norris or Wil Myers will be at first base come opening day 2016.

2nd Base

Other than shortstop, the Padres have had the most question marks at second base. So far this season, the Padres have split time between Jedd Gyorko, Cory Spangenberg, and even Yangervis Solarte with little to no positive results. Going forward, unless the Padres find some answers outside of the organization, it seems likely that the Padres will stick with Jedd Gyorko going forward given his improved play and the money still left on his contract.

Shortstop

Of all the Padres positions on the field, shortstop is the one position that the Padres truly need to desperately upgrade. Both Alexi Amarista and Clint Barmes have been below average all season and the Padres have been unable to find any answers either within or outside the organization. More than anything else, AJ Preller and company need to look outside the organization to find a shortstop either for the short-term or the long-term.

Third Base

The Padres took a chance on Will Middlebrooks in the offseason and up to this point that chance has not paid off the way they had initially hoped. Middlebrooks won the starting job out of spring training over Yangervis Solarte, who the Padres received in a trade with the Yankees that sent Chase Headley to New York last July. As Middlebrooks sputtered through the season, he eventually was sent back down to Triple A in order to try to regain his form. Since his demotion, Yangervis Solarte has been on fire and has proven himself as more than capable as a starter. Going into 2016, it seems that the third base job is Solarte’s to lose unless the Padres find someone via free agency or in a trade that would unseat Solarte.

Outfield

The Padres seem to only have one sure thing in the outfield for 2016: Matt Kemp. That is such a weird sentence to write. At this point, it seems very unlikely that the Padres will resign Justin Upton to play in left field in 2015. This leaves them with a variety of options. It seems obvious that Wil Myers will not be in center field once again when he returns from injury. This leaves either Melvin Upton to play center field or leaves Travis Jankowski to take the starting job. Beyond that, this leaves the Padres with an opening in left field that will either be filled by Wil Myers, should he not play first base or some other position, or perhaps be filled by a free agent signing, trade acquisition, or even a minor leaguer such as Hunter Renfroe, Rymer Liriano, or Alex Dickerson should any of the three be ready for full time playing time next year. The best outfield configuration seems to be some combination of Matt Kemp, Travis Jankowski, Melvin Upton, and either Wil Myers or Hunter Renfroe.

Starting Pitching

For the first time in quite a few years, the Padres may have some big question marks in their starting pitching staff. The writing is on the wall with “ace” James Shields. It seems more than likely that before opening day 2016, Shields will have a new home. Next is Tyson Ross who should remain with the Padres in the near future and will very likely be the ace if Shields is no longer on the team. Beyond that the Padres staff is filled with even more question marks. It seems likely that the Padres will attempt to Andrew Cashner, who will be in the final year of arbitration before he hits free agency following the 2016 season. Ian Kennedy is currently in the final year of his contract and will most likely not be back next year. Finally Colin Rea seems to have found a place in the Padres rotation for years to come. This leaves the Padres with three likely openings in their rotation that must be filled this offseason. The Padres have a few internal options in Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow, who both no longer have contracts but would probably be willing to return next year, Casey Kelly, who has had a long injury history but could be ready for a promotion, and finally Bud Norris, who is currently in the bullpen and could earn a starting job again with a good spring training next year. Beyond these options the Padres could acquire some pitching talent via trade, or could acquire one of the many free agent starting pitchers going on the market following this season such as David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmerman, among many others. It seems most likely that the Padres will need to bolster their rotation via free agency or a trade to make up for the deficiencies that are clearly going to be present following the season.

Bullpen

The back-end of the Padres bullpen looks set more than anything else. If the Padres bring back Joaquin Benoit, and do not trade Craig Kimbrel, they will still have one of the best 7-8-9 combinations in all of baseball with Brandon Maurer as the 7th inning man. Even if the Padres do lose Joaquin Benoit, Maurer can become the 8th inning man and the Padres will still have a solid back-end of the bullpen. Beyond those two or three guys at the back-end, the Padres have some decisions to make about the rest of their bullpen. They need to decide if they want to resign Shawn Kelley next year and what other players the Padres will keep or acquire to fill out the rest of the bullpen.

Front Office

The biggest question mark of all for the Padres going forward is their front office. With the hiring of AJ Preller, the Padres made quite a transition in their organizational philosophy. Following his offseason makeover, things haven’t worked out the way AJ Preller and company had hoped. This offseason ownership and Preller will have a lot of work to do to fix the mistakes of the past and attempt to field a team that can compete for not only 2016, given the All Star Game coming to town, but also for many years to come. The front office knows what doesn’t work following the disaster of last offseason and this season and they now need to take the initiative to fix those mistakes and not make the same ones going forward. 2016 will be an important year for not only the San Diego Padres as an organization but also for the career of AJ Preller as a general manager as well as for the Padres ownership.

Patrick Brewer is the Lead National League writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on Twitter @PatrickBrewer93, or join in the conversation @CTBPod, in the comment section below or on our Facebook Page.

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