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Fresh faces leading the way for San Diego Padres

First year GM A.J. Preller and the San Diego Padres had one of the more active offseasons in recent memory. The team was a big player on the trade market and on the free agent market. The early returns are mixed, as they find themselves a game over .500 and in second place in the NL West.

Matt Kemp was one of the headliners that the Padres picked up this offseason. However, he's batting just .264/.295/.371 so far in 2015.
Matt Kemp was one of the headliners that the Padres picked up this offseason. However, he's batting just .264/.295/.371 so far in 2015.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In August of 2014, the San Diego Padres hired former Texas Rangers Assistant GM A.J. Preller as their new General Manager.  Preller had a difficult task taking the reins of a team that scored the fewest runs in baseball last season (535) in 2014 and has scored the third fewest over the past five years (3,062).  While their home park, known as the best pitcher's park in all of baseball, has been partially responsible for their offensive woes, the roster construction was at fault as well.  How did Preller respond?  He went out and had one of the busiest offseasons in recent memory.  Let's just look at the Padres' moves from December 18 through December 20...

  • Preller dealt starting catcher Yasmani Grandal and a pair of prospects to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp
  • He traded a breakout starting pitcher from 2014, Jesse Hahn, and a prospect to the A's to acquire former Nats' farmhand Derek Norris
  • He then made the blockbuster that the Nats were involved in, trading Rene Rivera, Burch Smith, Jake Bauers, Joe Ross, and (presumably) Trea Turner to acquire Wil Myers, Ryan Hanigan, and a couple of prospects
  • Later that day, Preller went out and got Justin Upton from the Braves for top prospect Max Fried, Jace Peterson, Dustin Peterson, and Mallex Smith
  • Somehow Preller found time in the middle of that hectic day to try and buy low on free agent starting pitcher Brandon Morrow.  Morrow was coming off of a few disappointing and injury-riddled seasons in Toronto, but still has gobs of talent, a 3.91 career ERA, and a career 9.2 K/9 rate
  • One day after acquiring Hanigan in the Myers trade, Preller flipped him to Boston for boom or bust power hitting third baseman Will Middlebrooks

Yes... all of that happened in three days! Preller wasn't done, though.  In February, he ended up signing one of the top free agent starting pitchers, James Shields, to a four year, $75 million deal.  Finally, he'd complete the flood of offseason moves by adding one of the top closers in the game, Craig Kimbrel, for a pair of prospects and a pair of underachieving veterans.

When all was said and done, Preller had replaced five of his starting position players (Upton, Myers, Kemp, Norris, Middlebrooks), plugged two holes in the starting rotation (Morrow, Shields), and acquired a top notch closer.  The cost in prospects and former personnel was pretty high, as most of these players were acquired via trade.  Still, he brought in some star power and made a significant effort to improve the big league product.  Has it worked?

It's still too early to tell.  The Padres are currently 18-17, which puts them in second place in the NL West, five games behind the Dodgers.  Considering that probably the best "win now" player that they acquired in the offseason (Justin Upton) is a free agent after the season, it will be difficult to justify all of the wheeling and dealing if they fall short of the playoffs in 2015.  Still, Norris (club control through 2018), Myers (club control through 2019), and Middlebrooks (2018) could give them a young and affordable core.  The Shields signing will keep him in San Diego through at least 2018 (option year for 2019), so that has to be considered a move for the long term.

The biggest question mark has to be the Matt Kemp acquisition.  The Dodgers ended up chipping in $32 million of Kemp's remaining salary, but the Padres will still end up paying $76.25 million from 2015-2019 for Kemp's services.  While it would seem unreasonable for them to expect the 30-year-old to return to being the player he was in 2011, when he finished second in the NL MVP voting, they were surely expecting more from him than his .264/.295/.371 line so far this season.  As of right now, Kemp has -0.3 fWAR in 2015.  This has to be a concern considering that he's coming up on his decline years and his contract status moving forward.

The San Diego offense does seem to look quite a bit better than it has in recent years, though.

  • Wil Myers has seemed to take to batting in the leadoff spot, though the Nats might not see him this weekend (day to day with a wrist injury).
  • Derek Norris has been their leader in fWAR, although I'm not a big fan of his change in approach so far in 2015 (12+% walk rate the past two years in Oakland... 3.1% so far this season).
  • Justin Upton hasn't really seemed to have any issues moving to the most difficult park in the league to hit a home run in.  His ISO is actually up from .221 last season to .252 so far in 2015.  Upton is currently on pace for 36 bombs, which would be a career high.  He's also 8 for 8 (!) in stolen base attempts.  Upton had stolen 8 bases in each of the past two seasons, but he's already done so in 34 games this year
  • Returning first baseman Yonder Alonso has reaped the benefits of having a stronger team around him.  He's not hitting for much power, but he finds himself batting .333/.427/.437 through his first 103 plate appearances.

The Padres 161 runs so far this season have them tied for third in the National League and seventh in MLB with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  This is with Matt Kemp struggling.  It's with the Padres getting mediocre performances from their second and third base platoon (Middlebrooks, Jedd Gyorko, and Yangervis Solarte).  It's with the Padres getting virtually nothing from the one position Preller didn't focus on improving this offseason: Shortstop.  Alexi Amarista has seen the bulk of the work at Shortstop and is batting just .190/.306/.286.  Unlike the Padres teams we're used to seeing, this team can score some runs.

Their pitching hasn't been quite as impressive.  San Diego's 4.22 ERA ranks 21st in the majors.  Shields has been solid but unspectacular... though he is 5-0.  Flame-throwing youngster Andrew Cashner has been quite a bit better than Shields (3.07 ERA, 4.35 FIP vs. Shields' 3.91 ERA, 4.84 FIP), but it hasn't translated into wins (1-6).  Tyson Ross has struggled a bit with his walk rate and isn't off to a great start.  Morrow was off to a nice start, but the oft-injured buy low candidate that Preller signed is...... injured again.  Even Kimbrel hasn't been the monster that we saw when he was in Atlanta.  He's only blown one of his eleven save chances, but he's allowed at least one run in five of his fifteen outings and has a 5.93 ERA and 3.36 FIP.... well above his career 1.64 ERA and 1.61 FIP.

The Padres made a ton of changes this offseason, but that doesn't always work.  So far, it's seemed that all of their offseason maneuvering has made them just slightly better than they've been the past few seasons.  It's still early in the season and there's plenty of time for a few of these guys (primarily Kemp) to start performing more as they're expected to.  At least they haven't looked like the 2012 Marlins, who went 69-93 after signing Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell in the previous offseason (only to trade them all away for pennies on the dollar).  This is a talented team, but one that the Nats should be able to win a series against.