Padres Editorial: Reviewing Year One of the Preller Project

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Mandatory Credit: Getty Images
Mandatory Credit: Getty Images

So this year hasn’t gone to plan. General manager A.J. Preller made big moves in the preseason and made it known that he had big expectations this season. Preller has been criticized heavily for failing to deliver on those expectations, but it never was JUST about this season.

Offseason acquisitions Wil Myers, Derek Norris, Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel and James Shields are under contract long-term, and while all have had their struggles this year, they remain a solid group to build around. Part of the building process will hopefully include a trade or two or a free agent signing, but a group of Padres prospects have recently proven worthy to be included in that building process as well. Austin Hedges, Colin Rea, Travis Jankowski and Hunter Renfroe have all taken steps forward this season and look poised to carve out significant roles with the big league club in 2016.

The first of this group to make the majors was defensive wunderkid Austin Hedges. His defense behind the plate has been as advertised, but unfortunately his hitting at the plate has been as well. His .173 batting average as of September 9th is pretty gross, and is being driven by an equally gross .207 BABIP. Neither of those stats are good, but as a defense-first backup at a premium position Hedges can post poor batting numbers and still be valuable for the Padres.

Just how valuable Hedges is defensively is obvious when his advanced statistics. On plays that Inside Edge rates as having a remote chance (1%-10%) of being successfully fielded, Hedges has a 27.3% success rate this season. Seems pretty good right? It is. For comparison, Yadier Molina has a success rate of 22.7% on such plays over the past four seasons. You can take a gander at more of Hedges’ advanced stats here. The Padres can look at catcher as a position of depth for several years to come with Derek Norris and Austin Hedges.

In the preseason it looked like the starting rotation could also be a deep position. Unfortunately, Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson haven’t been able to shake their injury problems, and Odrisamer Despaigne has taken a step back from his 2014 season. The club has turned to rookie Colin Rea to fill in as the 5th started and he’s done reasonably well.

Rea wasn’t a highly touted prospect coming out of college, but his stuff has improved across the board this year. After his 7 inning shutout performance earlier this week, his ERA is now 4.26 and his FIP is actually better at 3.46, which means he’s pitching a little better than his ERA indicates. Rea has a prototypical pitcher’s build and could be a durable innings eater in the coming years. With all the talk of Padres farm being barren outside of the few top prospects A.J. Preller decided not to trade, Rea is a looking like a nice success story.

Speaking of success stories, Travis Jankowski’s 2015 season in the minors was  definitely a success.  In AA this year he hit .316 and in AAA he hit for an eye-popping .392. Major league pitching has proven difficult for him to adjust to  however, and he’s struggling to get on base. Worryingly, his walk rate and strikeout rate are both very poor since being promoted to the majors. On a team that needs outfield defense, his double plus speed and plus fielding ability makes him a great fit to patrol center field at Petco Park, which will put less pressure on his bat.

Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego
Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego

If he can regain his form he had in the minors this year, perhaps he can be the leadoff hitting catalyst the Padres have been looking for. If not, his role in 2016 will be that of a bench guy that comes in to pinch hit/pinch run late in games, and every team needs role players like that. Will Venable had a similar role and Jankowski looks like Venable’s replacement, Jankowski having better speed but lacking Venable’s hitting savvy.  The nice thing about Jankowski, though, is that he came from the Padres farm and is on a much cheaper contract than Venable was. The Padres decision not to trade big money players away at the deadline to cut salary and rebuild the farm at the same time was heavily criticized by national media. In that context, it is interesting that the Padres were able to utilize their farm and cut salary by trading Venable and calling up Jankowski.

With the promotion of Jankowski and return of Wil Myers from injury, there is a bit of a logjam in the outfield. Assuming Justin Upton leaves San Diego to pursue free agency, the Padres will be looking add a power bat, though, and could look to Hunter Renfroe for that power boost. Renfroe struggled in AA early on this season, but recently he’s put those struggles behind him.

Through 21 games in AAA he’s already hit 6 home runs and is slugging .633. He has a history of needing time to adjust when starting a new level, so perhaps expectations should be tempered going into 2016. Either way, it looks more likely now than it did earlier this season that Renfroe will become a guy capable of 20+ HR per year at the major league level. 2016 might not be his breakout year, but in 2017 and beyond, he very well could be the 2nd part of a potent one two punch along with Wil Myers at the heart of the Padres batting lineup.

Sure a lot of young talent was traded away and the plan didn’t pan out this season, but the plan wasn’t just about this season, and a lot of young talent is still in San Diego. Maybe A.J. Preller hasn’t ruined anything?

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