Five important questions facing the Padres as Spring Training begins

Credit: EVT Sports

Credit: EVT Sports

As the calendar flips to February, pitchers and catchers have begun reporting in droves to baseball complexes across Arizona and Florida. Specifically for the Padres, they’ll be looking to build off of an improbable run to the 2022 National League Championship Series.

After the success, the team enjoyed in 2022 and the offseason spending spree that has taken place over the past three months, expectations for the Padres have seemingly never been higher. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of the question to consider the 2023 season the most highly anticipated in Padres history.

As with all teams entering Spring, the Padres will start the year with a host of questions to answer before they break camp and play the Colorado Rockies on March 30th for Opening Day at Petco Park. Below are five of the most important that need to be addressed:

1. How is Fernando Tatis Jr. going to fare in his first return to live action?

Fernando Tatis Jr. has had a rollercoaster of a past 18 months, to say the least. After leading the National League with 42 home runs during the 2021 season (while dealing with multiple nagging shoulder subluxations and trips to the Injured List), Tatis suffered a broken wrist from an offseason motorcycle accident and was was given an 80-game suspension for violating the league’s Performance Enhancing Drugs Policy which caused him to miss the entire 2022 season.

Tatis has since chosen to have surgery on his injured shoulder in order to provide more stabilization, as well as an additional surgery on his injured wrist in order to insert a screw to assist the healing process. In multiple media appearances during Spring Training, Tatis has emphasized that he is healthy and ready to help the team win in 2023 and beyond.

However, Tatis will be attempting to make one of the more difficult returns to sport in recent memory. He’ll be returning to live game action for the first time since September 2021 and will be doing so in front of rabid visiting crowds. It will be unlike anything he has experienced before, and he’ll be attempting to do so while trying to get comfortable with his previously injured shoulder and wrist.

While it’s not out of the question for Tatis to return to full strength and become a force once again, an adjustment period may be required. The most notable comparison to Tatis, who suffered a similar shoulder injury, is the Chicago Cubs’ Cody Bellinger, who was the National League MVP in 2019 before posting poor seasons from 2020-2022, leading to his eventual release from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Padres certainly have enough firepower to supplant Tatis as they look to form one of the best lineups in the sport in 2023. However, a healthy and productive Tatis would go a long way towards the Padres ending their World Series drought.

2. What is there to be made of the catching situation?

It’s been a while since the Padres have had an everyday catcher who can provide both above-average offense and defense. For the past few years, the position has been notoriously thin across the league as teams continue to search for value.

The Padres have, inevitably, been one of those teams as they made a pursuit for Christian Vazquez earlier this offseason before he signed with the Minnesota Twins. As such, it seems likely that the team is going to deploy a catching duo of Austin Nola and Luis Campusano to start the 2023 season.

Credit: AP Photo

In 110 games in 2022, Nola posted a below league-average OPS+ of 91 and has limited upside in terms of power and bat-to-ball skills. He’s also 33 and can’t be counted on to catch every day, as evidenced by injuries that limited him to only 56 games during the 2021 season.

It should be said, though, that Nola has been widely regarded as a positive influence on the pitching staff. He is also under contract for the next three seasons.

Campusano, on the other hand, represents a higher ceiling with a potentially lower floor than Nola. In parts of three seasons at the major league level, he’s posted a .188/.239/.271 slash line as the Padres coaching staff remains reluctant to give him ample opportunities. They may be hard-pressed to do so in 2023, though, as the depth behind the pair remains rather thin. Pedro Severino, signed to a minor league deal this past offseason, could serve as the third option but is also coming off of a PED suspension himself.

It’s more than likely the team starts 2023 with the duo of Nola and Campusano, but things may get dicey if either has to miss an extended period of time.

3. How will the starting rotation shake out?

As of Tuesday morning, the Padres had reportedly agreed to a contract with free agent starting pitcher Michael Wacha (according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal). The deal is rumored to be up to four years and worth more than $24 million, though both player and team options may be present as well.

Wacha enjoyed a successful 2022 season with the Boston Red Sox, pitching to an 11-2 record and 3.32 ERA while adding 3.3 WAR. This comes after having three below-average years with the Cardinals, Mets, and Rays from 2019-2021.

Padres Yu Darvish
Credit: AP Photo

With the signing of Wacha, the Padres seemingly have six starting pitchers at the MLB level to start the season. Wacha will join some order of a group that includes Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, Nick Martinez, and Seth Lugo. While all will likely start at certain point throughout the season, it is to be determined whether or not the team will deploy a six man starting rotation.

In 2022, the Padres used a similar tactic and had success for the duration of its implementation. It’s also worth mentioning that employing an extra starting pitcher will lead to one fewer relief pitcher, which may prove to be problematic as Martinez and Lugo have been used most recently as relief pitchers and may struggle to provide needed length throughout the season.

Here’s guessing that the team starts with a six man rotation to open the season, with it being likely that either Martinez or Lugo shifts to the bullpen at some point during the season.

4. How will the team’s World Baseball Classic participation impact Spring Training?

The anticipation for the first World Baseball Classic since 2017 is building, and a handful of Padres players will be joining their respective countries for a significant portion of Spring Training. Among the notable players expected to participate are Darvish (Japan), Ha-Seong Kim (Korea), Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz, and Luis Garcia (all Dominican Republic), as well as new signee Xander Bogaerts (Netherlands), among others.

With so many of the team’s primary starters missing during Spring Training (the World Baseball Classic runs from March 8-21, with training camps already getting underway), it will be interesting to see the various depth options the team has as they try to produce a 26 man roster for Opening Day. It will also be interesting to see how the team chooses to use Tatis (who is ineligible to participate due to his suspension but is eligible for Cactus League games) in the field. While it’s widely assumed that Tatis will man right field upon his return to the lineup in April, it also wouldn’t be surprising to see him spend time at shortstop, as three of the team’s four starting infielders will be absent.

Among those who may see increased opportunities as a result is outfielder David Dahl, who struggled in parts of seasons for the Rockies in 2020 and Rangers in 2021 but is only a few years removed from being an All-Star in 2019 (he is also only 28).

Assuming he has a decent spring, Dahl could be a candidate to break the Opening Day roster as a 4th or 5th outfielder until Tatis returns from his suspension.

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5. Will Machado come to an agreement on a new contract extension?

After the Padres doled out $280 million over 11 years to Bogaerts and more recently handed Darvish a six-year, $108 million extension that runs through 2028, Machado is the next prime candidate to be extended. Machado is eligible to opt out of his current 10-year, $300 million contract at the end of the 2023 season, and it has been widely rumored that he will do so if a long-term deal isn’t reached with the Padres before then.

With the current nature of free agent contracts, it isn’t wild to suggest that Machado could be paid over $30 million annually through his age-40 season and beyond. The Padres have also shown they aren’t shy in paying players past that threshold, as is evidenced by the recent signings of Bogaerts and Darvish, which will pay each through their age 41 and 42 seasons, respectively. Machado has also demonstrated his ability to be a leader as well as provide durability, as he has played in at least 150 games in every season during his Padres tenure (excluding the 2020 season, where Machado played in all 60 games).

While it may be ambitious to suggest that Machado’s contract is reworked before the end of Spring Training, it’s reasonable to assume that he and the Padres come to an agreement before the season’s end, keeping him in San Diego for the remainder of his career.

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