There seems to be a split decision on the San Diego Padres. While just about everyone is giving a thumbs-up to the James Shields signing, there isn't a consensus view on how good the Padres will be in 2015. The analytical community is worried about the team's defense and infield while the other viewpoint sees the big names added to a lineup that failed to score runs last year and projects the Padres as a contender for the NL West crown. Everybody agrees that the Padres are certainly more interesting than they've been in years.
Just remember this: You don't win anything in the offseason. Remember when the Marlins signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell and won the offseason? Remember when the Blue Jays traded for Reyes, Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson and won the offseason? Wasn't everybody excited about the Rangers last offseason, when they acquired Prince Fielder and signed Shin-Soo Choo?
Here's what they're saying ...
Shields is 33, but people shouldn't consider pitcher age the same way they do with a hitter. While hitters tend to have a definable aging curve, pitcher aging generally looks like long, fairly consistent slope down from when they first have success in the majors, peppered with the possible cliffs due to the higher injury rate. Until a pitcher starts pushing 40, a good pitcher on the wrong side of 30 isn't inherently any riskier than a good pitcher on the right side.
The ZiPS projection system, which factors in this inherent risk, values Shields at $84 million in San Diego over the next four seasons, with his projected WAR only barely dipping below three in his final guaranteed season. Even in the possible fifth -- the team reportedly has a club option -- Shields still projects as a safely above-average starter who can fit in as a No. 2 or 3 in the rotation, something that has significant value.
Assuming they don't find a way to play Maybin or Venable, the Padres' defense projects to be awful. Matt Kemp hasn't been a plus defender in five years, and he was terrible as a center fielder the last three. He moves to left in San Diego. Justin Upton is an average right fielder who is a bit error-prone. Wil Myers was a below-average right fielder across one full season of playing time in Tampa Bay. He's athletic and he's just 24 years old, but nothing in his track record suggests he has the speed to be an asset in center. It's not impossible to have success with a bad defensive outfield, but you have to strike out a lot of batters to do it. The 2014 Tigers had the second-worst defensive outfield in the game by UZR, but they struck out everyone and scored a bunch of runs. They were also the exception in a group that included the White Sox, Astros, Twins and Indians.
The infield isn't much better; Jedd Gyorko is a bad second baseman, Middlebrooks is a below-average third baseman and Solarte is no better. The outfield at least brings some pop; it's hard to see what this group of players, which also includes Barmes or Amarista and perennial disappointment Yonder Alonso, is contributing. Even new addition Derek Norris is more bat than glove behind the plate. The Padres outfield might be the worst defensive unit in the game, but the Padres infield might well be the worst overall unit. They need Gyorko to bounce back at least to his 2013 line (113 OPS+, 23 HR) and to get some kind of improvement from the players at the corners.
The Padres have generated headlines, added payroll and certainly added hitters with upside. Despite all this, they will have serious problems fielding a good team on Opening Day because of their talent alignment.
Is it a better team? Almost certainly. Even if Matt Kemp continues to have injury issues and Justin Upton remains the good-but-not-as-good-as-people-thought-he’d-one-day-be player from his early days in Arizona, the offense is improved. If Kemp looks like he did in the second half last year and Wil Myers rebounds to his rookie form, all bets are off. Shields provides them with a near-certain 200+ above average and, occasionally, excellent innings. The team is much stronger than it’s been.
That doesn’t mean Padres fans should start setting aside money for playoff ticket deposits yet, of course. There are a lot of uncertainties here. The new hitters conquering Petco Park is not a given, even if they are healthy. Shields has a lot of miles on the odometer. The Padres were just a 77-win team last year and, as history has shown, making 15-20 game improvements in a single season is not an easy trick. Ask the 2013 Blue Jays and 2012 Marlins how adding a bunch of big pieces in a single offseason can go.
But there is definitely reason for excitement in San Diego. For one thing, all of these additions came at a relatively limited cost. The Padres did not give up any of their top prospects to acquire the talent they got and, even if you include Shields’ deal, none of the financial outlays for the new players are particularly crazy.
Need a reason to pinch yourself this morning?
A skeptic could give you 27,469 reasons to approach the Padres’ James Shields deal with pessimism. We’re focusing, instead, on five reasons to get on board with General Manager A.J. Preller’s jaw-dropping offseason.
Matt Kemp. Justin Upton. Wil Myers. Derek Norris.
And now Shields?
In adding to a strength, the Padres have not only fortified their rotation for Preller’s all-in push for 2015, they’ve put an exclamation point on ownership’s statement this offseason:
These aren’t your father’s Padres.
Really, these Padres are wholly unrecognizable to anyone who’s followed this beleaguered franchise through a history of salary dumping, skimping and bad deals.
Well, that settles it. If there was any question about the most improved team of the Hot Stove season, it was answered when James Shields agreed to his deal with the Padres.
That A.J. Preller knows how to throw a party. San Diego's new general manager started one when he acquired a whole new outfield at the Winter Meetings, and he just kept going and going, and take a look at the National League West now.
No longer is the conversation about the Giants and the Dodgers. The question is whether the vastly improved Padres can rush past both of them. Talent in, talent out, there's no question that San Diego is the most improved team in baseball.
Like with the Royals acquisition of Shields, I think there was probably a better path forward for the Padres than taking Kemp’s contract, trading for a rent-an-Upton, and hoping that outfield defense doesn’t matter before signing an aging pitcher whose strikeout rate is quickly going the wrong way. But the 2014 Padres were completely irrelevant in a way that the 2015 Padres have little chance to be, and we can’t ignore that side of the equation either. I think this experiment is likely to fail, but we have to capture the magnitude of the value of success to fully evaluate the decision to go for it.
Even if it’s 80-85 percent likely that the Padres don’t make the playoffs this year, the rewards from simply being relevant are perhaps high enough to justify the risks. This is baseball’s equivalent of throwing a 50 yard bomb in football; you don’t expect it to work that often, but you still run high risk/high reward plays, since the value of one or two catches outweighs the cost of seven or eight incompletions.
The Padres’ tidal wave of moves has advanced them from unwatchable to a team that we’ll all be paying attention to in 2015, because of the stature of the players involved. Matt Kemp, MVP runner-up. Two-time All-Star Justin Upton. All-Star catcher Derek Norris. And now All-Star James Shields, who started games in the World Series a few months ago.
In comparison to all of that, the moves made by the Dodgers -- the defending NL West champions, a team the Padres are chasing -- have been unsexy, about functionality. It’s as if the Padres have rolled out the swimsuit issue of MLB’s offseason, while L.A. has been improving the printing process.
The Dodgers have invested in roster infrastructure, in depth. L.A. won 94 games last season, overcoming problems with their defense and production in some corners of their roster. The Dodgers were a dynamic offensive team in the second half of last season, leading the NL in runs after the All-Star break, and it’s very possible that with Kemp and Hanley Ramirez gone, Don Mattingly’s lineup won’t generate as many homers.
But L.A. has a chance for improvement in many other ways. As written here before, the Dodgers appear to have upgraded significantly at shortstop and second base with Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, and whatever combination Mattingly uses in center field and right field on a daily basis will likely be better than the defensive duo of Yasiel Puig in center and Kemp in right field, whether it be Joc Pederson in center and Puig in right or Chris Heisey and Puig.