New Padres OF Matt Kemp

Are the San Diego Padres a serious contender or merely watchable?

The San Diego Padres have taken Major League Baseball by storm in the past couple of weeks, with a flurry of moves that have them as the talk of the baseball world for the first time in quite a while. If their hope was to remove the label as the Cleveland Browns of baseball, due to their overwhelming irrelevance in recent years, then it would appear that they have definitely done the job.

A team that lacked true impact talent in the field, the Pads went out and acquired a trio of outfielders, in Matt KempWil Myers, and Justin Upton. While an offensive regression for each of the three would appear imminent, they each provide high upside and immediately improve the outfield offense for the Padres. San Diego also brought in Derek Norris and were able to acquire Will Middlebrooks, who was in need of a change of scenery, in unloading some of their surplus of catchers.

The new acquisitions will be coupled with a pitching rotation that features Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross at the top, as well as Ian Kennedy and potential rebound candidates in Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow. The question isn’t whether the Padres have improved – they have to an overwhelming degree. But can they actually contend in a division that features the Los Angeles Dodgers throwing a ton of money around every which way, and the San Francisco Giants winning a world championship every other year?

On paper, they certainly have a team to acquire such a task. Kemp, Myers, and Upton is an outstanding outfield, if healthy and anywhere near their upside. If Norris can hit right-handed pitching a little bit, he’s one of the better offensive catchers in the game. Middlebrooks could bounce back with a change of scenery. The pitching staff is good enough at the pitcher’s paradise that is Petco Park, if they can stay on the field.

Looking specifically at the new outfield of Kemp, Upton, and Myers, we see tremendous upside, if not major questions. Matt Kemp is coming off of an outstanding offensive season, in which he appeared in 150 games, his highest total since 2011. Even if reaching base at a .346 clip and a terrific 140 wRC+, he still only went for a WAR of 1.8 due to his atrocious defense. His UZR was less than -22, just to give an indication of how poor it actually was. The hope here is that a permanent move to right field can help to mitigate some of those defensive concerns and make him a pure asset, more so than a liability.

Upton is a similar case. While his defense isn’t as poor as that of Kemp, he isn’t exactly a Gold Glover out in the field. He has a solid track record in his career at Petco, with a .359 OBP and 10 home runs across 46 games. If the Padres can work out an extension with him, something Upton has said he’s open to prior to spring training, he’s an offensive weapon they can build around. If not, it certainly raises some questions for the future of San Diego.

Wil Myers is perhaps the most interesting quantity of the three. We haven’t seen him reach his full potential yet, as he hasn’t logged a full season in the bigs. This was due to injury last year. He’s also been mentioned as a potential piece in a Cole Hamels trade. Nonetheless, the Padres insist they’re keeping him and they intend to give him a run in centerfield. He provides slightly better defense than the other two, and he’s less of a power threat, but still has the ability to hit for extra bases. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles centerfield, and what a full season of him on offense actually looks like, as we haven’t seen it yet.

So the Padres have improved their outfield offense drastically, even if suffering a bit defensively. Derek Norris’ splits against right-handed pitching improved as the season wore on last year. His strikeout rate against righties was obviously higher and his OBP was 53 points lower, as he split time with Oakland’s extensive stable of catchers. Steamer projects him at a .149 ISO, so expect the ability to hit for extra bases to be there. If he can post anything resembling last year’s numbers, Norris should be a very nice get for the Pads, and one of the better offensive options behind the plate anywhere. Not much is expected of Middlebrooks at this point, as he bounced back and forth between Boston and Pawtucket while essentially being forced out west. He’ll provide power, but is only projected a .275 OBP in 2015. We’ll monitor that situation.

The five new guys will join a lineup that features Jedd Gyorko, who isn’t nearly as bad as his 2014 season indicated, and Yonder Alonso. The two should pan out to be very nice complementary pieces for the new impact bats taking their place at Petco. What the Padres intend to do with the remainder of their surplus of outfielders remains to be seen.

In the rotation, Cashner and Ross represent tremendously high upside pitchers. For the former, it’s a matter of staying healthy, as he did for the better part of 2014. Ross is coming off of his best season yet, giving the Padres a very formidable 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation. Ian Kennedy is a free agent after next year, but has rebounded nicely in San Diego after a rough go at the end of his tenure in Arizona. Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow will have an opportunity to crack the rotation, but coming off of extensive injury-plagued stretches, it remains to be seen how much they’ll contribute, at least until the spring.

The Padres have improved their big league club drastically. That is undeniable. The Padres were dead last in the league in runs scored last year. They’ve managed to turn that completely around with a series of bats that can put them in the middle of the pack, at the very least. In combining that with a pitching staff that was fourth in the league in ERA last year, including a bullpen that was top three in the league, you could easily declare the San Diego Padres to be players for a playoff spot next year. They may not be title contenders, but they’ll be a blast to watch and should be in the mix for a spot in the postseason dance by the time next October rolls around.

About Randy Holt

Spending his days as an English teacher, Randy spends his afternoons, nights, and weekends as a writer on the Bloguin Network, as well as SB Nation. He is a staff writer for both Puck Drunk Love and The Outside corner, as well as Second City Hockey and Beyond the Box Score on SB Nation, showcasing his love for both hockey and baseball, as well as run-on sentences. A Chicago native (and Phoenix resident), he is an avid Game of Thrones viewer/reader and lover of red meat.

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