2016 Padres: Tough road toward the top

The National League West won’t be an easy take for any club this season, but competing for the division summit may prove especially hard for the meandering San Diego Padres.

Projections don’t expect much of the Padres in 2016, with ZiPS spitting out a 73-89 record for a club that just a year ago was the most ambitious in the National League West.

Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers headlined the Padres’ star acquisitions ahead of the 2015 season, with club general manager A.J. Preller loading the the team’s offense up at the expense of organization’s pitching-and-defense-first reputation.

It didn’t go so well.

The Padres lost 88 games last year, ending 2015 with sub-.500 records both on the road and at Petco Park. The offense didn’t pan out, as Padres batters finished dead last in the majors in both on base percentage (.300) and batting average (.243). Only five teams, including the young and free-swinging Chicago Cubs, struck out more than the Friars.

By season’s end, nine-year manager Bud Black had been canned, and many in the baseball world expected the axe to next fall on Preller.

It didn’t.

Preller is still the club’s GM despite the second-year exec’s inability to move several lucrative contracts in exchange for prospects ahead of the 2015 trade deadline. By early July it was clear the Padres were not division contenders, prompting expectations of an all-out fire sale. It never came.

Who’s (likely) where in 2016

James Shields, who entered last season as the club’s ace, will not pitch on Opening Day 2016 when the Padres host the Los Angeles Dodgers. First-year manager Andy Green will instead hand the ball to 6-foot-6 right-hander Tyson Ross, who led eligible Padres starters last season with a 3.26 ERA in 196 innings pitched.

Shields, when asked about the matter by the Associated Press in February, didn’t seem upset over Ross getting the top rotation spot:

“I’ve been in this situation before. … I think in 2011, David Price [in Tampa Bay] took my Opening Day start after three years. And I got it right back the next year.”

Shields, 34, signed a four-year, $75 million contract with San Diego last February, seemingly making the right-hander a prime mid-season trade piece for a Padres club stuck somewhere between completely rebuilding and competing for fourth place in an unbalanced NL West. Whomever Shields finishes his current deal with will have a club option worth $16 million for the 2019 season, when the Southern California native will be 37 years old.

Ross, a 28-year-old Berkeley native, will earn just shy of $10 million in 2016.

Kemp will be back in right field for the Padres, and the club will, for the first time, foot the bill for most of the former gold glover’s salary. The 31-year-old, entering his second season with San Diego, saw much of his 2015 earnings paid by his former team.

Last winter, the deep-pocketed Dodgers sent the Padres $32 million along with Kemp and catcher Tim Federowicz in exchange for catcher Yasmani Grandal and minor league pitchers Joe Wieland and Zach Elfin.

Despite significant dips in batting average and on-base percentage last season (.265 and .312, respectively), Kemp still drove in 100 runs. Projections suggest Kemp’s defense will continue its decline (ZiPS projects him at 0.5 WAR partly because of it), but he figures to again hit in the heart of the Padres’ lineup in 2016. Absent this year, however, will be Kemp’s cleanup spot protection in the form of Justin Upton.

Upton lead the Padres with 26 home runs and an OPS of .790 last season, an offensive year good enough to earn the left fielder a six-year deal worth more than $132 million with the Detroit Tigers this offseason.

The Padres were only guaranteed one season of Upton’s services when they acquired him from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for four prospects in December of 2014. San Diego never appeared to be in the running to sign the 28-year-old once he hit free agency this winter.

Replacing Upton and the 81 runs he drove in for the club last season is a job that appears to still be up for the taking.

Wil Myers’ bat is still the Padres’ to boast, though it appears the club is done playing the 25-year-old in the outfield. The Padres tried Myers at all three outfield positions last season, but Myer’s has spent all 113 of his defensive innings this Spring Training at first base.

But will Myers be healthy? He played in just 60 games in 2015 and made three separate trips to the disabled list, all for wrist issues. If he’s healthy, Myers can provide an athletic, versatile lineup presence that has shown potential to hit for both power and average.

Myers was the Padres’ Opening Day center fielder in 2015, a job that could now belong to John Jay. The Padres traded Jedd Gyorko to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Jay, who logged 93 innings in center for San Diego this spring. Jay, 31, is owed more than $6 million for this season and will be an unrestricted free agent when it ends.

The Padres’ closer role will in all likelihood be Fernando Rodney‘s to lose. San Diego signed the 39-year-old to a one-year, $2 million deal in February to fill the gap left by Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel saved 39 games for the Padres last season and held opposing hitters to a .185 batting average in 61 appearances. The Padres sent Kimbrel and what remains of his $42 million contract to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for prospects in November.

Rodney, two years removed from setting the Seattle Mariners’ franchise record of 42 saves in a season, finished 2015 with the Chicago Cubs. The right-hander has allowed two earned runs in five Spring Training innings with the Padres.

On the margins

Jabari Blash — his real name —  hits baseballs very, very hard. When he hits them that is.

The recently-acquired outfield prospect hit 32 home runs last season between the Mariners’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, but offset that impressive tally by striking out in one of every four plate appearances. Blash’s knack for returning to the dugout empty-handed followed him into camp this spring, where he’s lead the Padres with 21 strikeouts in just 49 at bats.

Striking out in more than a quarter of a season’s at bats is easy to forgive if you’re Mike Trout. Angels fans do it every season. The 26-year-old from St. Thomas isn’t Trout, though, and Blash probably won’t make the opening day roster. But he could be in a Padres uniform before season’s end.

The four home runs the 6-foot-5 right-handed hitter slugged in Spring Training will give club scouts something to think about as the season progresses, as a blast against the Astros in Mexico City might demonstrate best.

Melvin Upton Jr. could take his younger brother Justin’s spot in left field after a relatively impressive offensive display this spring. The older Upton was the bitter pill the Padres had to swallow in order to acquire Kimbrel from the Braves, but has seen somewhat of an offensive revival since moving west. He hit .259 in 205 at bats with San Diego last season, which is scores better than the .196 batting clip Upton posted in two seasons in Atlanta.

Melvin Upton is set to earn more than $16 million for the 2016 season. His contract expires after the 2017 season.