Padres Sign Big Game James

In a move that would have been unimaginable to most Padres’ fans as little as a few months ago, San Diego signed one of this offseason’s marquee free agents. James Shields agreed to a four-year, $75 million dollar contract on late Sunday, capping off what has been the most exciting off-season in the team’s 46 year history.

San Diego’s new General Manager, A.J. Preller, announced his presence at baseball’s Winter Meetings with the trade for outfielder Matt Kemp from the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for catcher Yasmani Grandal and minor league pitcher Zach Eflin and $32 million back from the neighbors to the north.

What followed was a flurry of trades that saw San Diego acquire outfielders Justin Upton and Wil Myers, third baseman Will Middlebrooks and catcher Derrick Norris. In the process, Preller dealt 12 prospects who appeared in the individual prospect rankings compiled by staff writers, along with last year’s starting catcher, Rene Rivera.

So after reading Dennis Lin’s excellent analysis of the signing in the UT the obvious questions are, will there be another trade and, is San Diego mortgaging its future to serve the present?

Regardless of how well-connected anyone is in the media, most of Preller’s moves have come as relative surprises. But a quick glance at the roster indicates there has to be something in the future involving an outfielder.

Kemp, Myers and Upton will be the starting outfield and most people that cover the team see the left-handed Will Venable, who can play all three outfield positions, as the ideal fourth outfielder along with being one of the few left-handed hitters.

Abraham Almonte, a switch-hitting outfielder acquired from Seattle for Chris Denorfia last summer, would be the idea fifth outfielder. The problem is the organization still has both Cameron Maybin, who is signed for $7.1 million for 2015, $8.1 million in 2016 with a million dollar buy-out in 2017, and the oft-injured Carlos Quentin who is owed $8 million for 2015.

At a minimum, either Maybin or Quentin has to go and if AJ could wave his magic wand both might be playing in other places. Of the two, it may be easier to find a trade partner for Quentin. If Carlos can show he is relatively healthy in spring training and if San Diego was willing to buy out at least half of his contract (the $10 million dollar mutual option in 2016, along with the $3 million buyout only would have vested with 320 games played between 2013-2015, which cannot happen) - and in the process recoup some of their sunk cost.

A three to four million dollar contract could be an acceptable cost for a DH to an American League team to take a flyer as opposed to committing over $16 million to take on Maybin. Another possibility is that Carlos may be forced to retire if his knees can’t hold up.

Preller may also want to take a look at upgrading first base where, after five years in the Major Leagues, Yonder Alsonso owns a career .395 slugging percentage. However, it’s increasingly appearing as if the Padres will go into the year with an infield of Middlebrooks, Alexi Amarista, Jedd Gyorko and Alonso.

Coming into the offseason, the Padres had one of the stronger farm systems in baseball, but its strength was in its depth not necessarily in impact prospects. Preller held onto who he believed were the highest impact prospects - players that his organization perceived to have a chance at stardom (top prospects Matt Wisler, Austin Hedges and Hunter Renfroe) while leveraging the high value that was placed on his other top prospects to acquire quality major league talent.

So yes, the depth is not what is was before the trades but the organization has, as ESPN’s Keith Law noted in his analysis of the signing, significant pitching depth which could allow them to make more moves at the trading deadline.

They will have quality right-handed pitching options in Triple-A El Paso led by Wisler, James Needy, a 6’6” sinkerballer who is coming off of two very good seasons, former top prospect Casey Kelly, and Aaron Northcraft, who came over with Upton. Additional depth in Double-A San Antonio includes youngsters Elliot Morris, Justin Hancock, and the other part of the Norris trade, Seth Streich.

The big void is quality left-handed pitching. Assuming Robbie Erlin breaks camp with the big league club, only former Astros outfield Jason Lane and 19-year-old trade acquisition Jose Castillo are the only southpaws likely to be part of a rotation when full-season ball begins.

Among position players, Rymer Liriano provides some outfield depth and former Poway High star Alex Dickerson’s left-handed power could get an opportunity if Alonso falters early on.

While Preller has been given a bigger budget than his predecessors, maybe the most impressive part of his off-season was that, before signing Shield, he was actually going to come in with a lower payroll than in 2014, and the signing of Shields only pushes them to around $10 million more.

The money has helped, but the creativity and relentless hard work has been the separator.

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