Following the conclusion of the 2014 season, it was made clear by the San Diego Padres front office that things would be different under new general manager A.J. Preller. From the onset of the winter meetings, it was pretty evident that the Padres would be focusing on revamping what was arguably the worst offense in all of baseball. A majority of the Padres offseason moves would be focused on bolstering the offense, with James Shields being the only substantial change in the rotation.
Even though the Padres remade offense was only slightly better in 2015, the pitching staff ended up being the real surprise. After being one of the top pitching staffs a whole in 2014, nearly every pitcher on the staff, save for Tyson Ross, had a substantial regression in the 2015 season. James Shields was not the same pitcher he had been in years past in Kansas City and Tampa Bay, and Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner and Odrisamer Despaigne all took substantial steps back as a whole in 2015. Both Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson were kept off the field due to various injuries, and Colin Rea came up near the end of the season with decent results overall.
While improving the offense still should be a priority in the offseason, fixing the 2015 struggles of the pitching staff should also be on the top of the to-do list. With Ian Kennedy likely declining a qualifying offer and potentially leaving via free agency, the Padres are left with some combination of Cashner, Ross, Shields, Despaigne and Rea as it currently stands. With this potential set up in mind, the Padres front office has several options available to them to improve the situation.
Given the large remaining contract of James Shields, and the potential escalating costs of both Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross in arbitration this offseason, it appears likely that the Padres will attempt to shop one or more of these three pitchers in order to decrease an already franchise high payroll for next year. With arbitration raises in mind, the Padres 2016 payroll will surpass the 2015 payroll, even before any free agent additions or trades have been made this offseason.
In terms of value, the easiest pitcher to trade would be Tyson Ross. Ross is coming off the best year of his career in 2015 and is still under team control through both 2016 and 2017. Ross has drawn interest from several teams over the last year, including at last year’s trade deadline, and would draw a decent prospect haul in return. The Padres had discussed a potential trade with the Cubs last July, and could revisit these talks during the offseason. This would also perhaps fill another whole on the diamond if the Padres can pry one of the Cubs many young prospects, mainly shortstops, away.
Moving on from Ross, Andrew Cashner’s trade value has torpedoed quite a bit after a poor showing in 2015. Despite this decline in value, Cashner still could be an option for a team looking for a cheap middle to back-end of the rotation arm. Cashner will be entering the final year of team control, and will be a free agent following the 2016 season. It is for this reason that it makes sense that the Padres would want to trade Cashner either before the beginning of the season, or perhaps at next year’s trade deadline.
Finally, James Shields is coming off of arguably the worst year of his career, or at least the worst year he has had in quite some time. On top of that, given the four years and 79 million left on his contract, which would be less if the team exercises a two million dollar buyout following the 2018 season, Shields trade value is not particularly high at this point. Another obstacle to trading Shields is his opt out clause following next season, which could effectively make his contract a lame duck for any team willing to acquire him. With these limitations in mind, it appears unlikely that the Padres will be able to trade Shields without acquiring sunk costs.
As it currently stands for the Padres, it makes the most sense to trade Tyson Ross, getting the most substantial value back of any of the potential rotation pieces, and hanging on to both Cashner and Shields and hoping for bounce back seasons to increase later trade value. Colin Rea seems like a decent option at the back-end of the rotation, and the Padres could attempt to bring Kennedy back on a cheaper multi-year contract, if the market for the pitcher does not pan out.
That leaves potentially one or two spots at the middle to back of the rotation, depending on if they are able to re-sign Ian Kennedy, which could be filled by in-house options or cheaper free agent options. In terms of in-house options, the Padres have a few that could be interesting. Casey Kelly has had an up and down career filled with a long injury history, but he was able to throw some meaningful big league innings at the end of last season.
Beyond that the Padres could attempt to bring back Brandon Morrow on a cheap contract, if he can prove to the team that he is healthy for next season. A third interesting, in-house option is transitioning Brandon Maurer from his bullpen role back to a starter role. Maurer was dominant in his first year with the Padres, and does have some experience as a starter from his days in Seattle. This would weaken the bullpen, but would provide a realistic option in the starting staff.
If these in-house options do not pan out, or more likely deemed insufficient from the start, the Padres could instead choose to enter the free agent market for cheap reclamation projects. This would be something similar to what they did with Bud Norris near the end of the last season; signing a player who is on a down swing and hoping a change of scenery will lead to a bounce back. Some potential names for this type of signing include Doug Fister, Kyle Kendrick, Rich Hill, Jeff Samardzija or even someone like Cliff Lee. There are options out there and, given the Padres payroll constraints, cheap options may be the best road the Padres can go down.
What remains clear is that fixing the Padres starting rotation will not an easy task, and it certainly won’t be a quick fix. It will involve mixing and matching several different options until the right combination is reached. The Padres may lose one or more of their current starters and may need to bring in some outside options on cheaper contracts to build more depth. 2016 won’t be easy for the Padres pitching staff, but reworking the current staff is certainly a good start.