As yet another dismal San Diego Padres season winds to a close, many fans have their eyes on the future. And with their roster sporting a youthful median age of 26.5 years old, that focus may be well justified. Just one team in Major League Baseball — the Tampa Bay Rays — has a younger team than the Friars.
That youth has arrived hand in hand with expectations for the Padres. As the team’s “first wave” of young talent has arrived in the major leagues over the course of the last three years, presumptions of individual progress, if not overall development as a team for players like Austin Hedges, Manuel Margot, and Hunter Renfroe have become the norm. The reality of both the team’s performance , as well as that of their young core of major league players has been more muddled.
A year that many, including Padres officials like executive chairman Ron Fowler and manager Andy Green, had hoped would hold leaps forward for their young players has seen both ups and downs for them. Normal, perhaps, for players adjusting to their second or third complete year in the big leagues, but deserving of a second look statistics-wise nonetheless.
Even the team’s veteran contingent hasn’t been immune. In his first season in San Diego, first baseman Eric Hosmer has stumbled his way through his worst season in recent memory.
Beyond the team’s holdovers from the last few years, or free-agent acquisitions, a flurry of new life has made its way onto the roster. 13 players have made their major league debuts for the Padres this season, second-most in MLB behind the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (14). Some have shown flashes of brilliance and a potential role in the team’s future, while others, as can be expected of the unpredictability that comes with playing at baseball’s highest level, have not.
As hopes of contention for the Friars inch close and closer, and general manager A.J. Preller’s proverbial five-year plan enters its mid to late stages, there’s no better time than now to take stock of what the Padres have (or don’t have) as they await the final pieces of their rebuild to emerge from their highly-touted farm system.
Below, a look at three Padres players who have taken steps forward this season, and two who may have taken steps backward.
Steps Forward: Hunter Renfroe
When Renfroe was demoted to Triple-A El Paso in August 2017 in the midst of a slump, Andy Green and the Padres’ front office instructed him to try to get on base more. An emphasis was placed on Renfroe having fewer strikeouts, and more walks. A year later, it seems that the 26-year-old outfielder has begun to put things together approach-wise at the plate. Though he hadn’t seen regular playing time in 2018 until recently, when he essentially played his way into the lineup, Renfroe has seen positive progress in nearly every area of his offense through 82 games thus far.
His batting line in 2017 through 82 games: .232 BA, .288 OBP, 16 HR, 39 RBI, 22 BB, and 90 SO. Compare that to his 2018 stats: .244 BA, .306 OBP, 14 HR, 45 RBI, 24 BB, and just 74 SO. Taking a closer look, Renfroe has lowered his strikeouts by a substantial margin and raised his on base percentage by nearly 25 points. He’s done so while maintaining the prodigious power that has turned heads in San Diego since his 2016 debut, clubbing 14 home runs as a part of his 45 runs batted in. In essence, Renfroe has done everything the Padres have asked of him in terms of adjustments at the plate. Since August 2nd, he is hitting .303 with six home runs, and his play recently has made things clear: Renfroe is to be included in the outfield conversation for next season.
Steps Forward: Austin Hedges
As catcher Austin Hedges’ major league career has unfolded, its become abundantly clear that the 26-year-old is a glove-first catcher. Its long been known that his defensive skills greatly outclass his tools at the plate, but to what extent that notion was true remained unclear. A career .211 hitter, Hedges began to draw concern when he began the 2018 by failing to raise his batting average above .200 until July 10th — concern enough within the Padres’ front office that Preller may have dealt all-star closer Brad Hand and relief pitcher Adam Cimber to the Cleveland Indians for 21st-ranked catching prospect Francisco Mejia in response to Hedges’ early-season offensive woes. Mejia, tools-wise the inverse of Hedges, is known for his bat. He has slugged .286 with 27 doubles and 10 home runs in 100 games in the minor leagues this season.
Whether Mejia was acquired as a potential Hedges replacement or not, Hedges has swung the bat exponentially better since the July 19th transaction. In the 25 games he has played in since Mejia was traded for, Hedges has hit .247 with six home runs, by far his most productive stretch this season. His current batting average sits at .238, 24 points higher than his 2017 .214 clip. Whether Hedges’ recent improvement is at all correlated with his newfound competition, or whether it will become the new norm for the young backstop, remains unknown. However, with just a month left in the 2018 season, Hedges has shown promising strides offensively that, paired with his elite-level defense, have the chance to make him a valuable player for the Padres in upcoming seasons.
Steps Forward: Matt Strahm
The most recent in a long list of successful reclamation projects for Padres pitching coach Darren Balsey, the Friars bought low on a then-injured Matt Strahm in 2017 and are now reaping the rewards. More than a year removed from a left knee injury that sidelined him for the second half of the 2017 season when he was a Kansas City Royal, he is currently leading the way for the Padres’ bullpen alongside closer Kirby Yates. Strahm, who has posted a 2.12 ERA in 29 appearances, began the season with short outings of just one inning at at time as he tested his newly-repaired knee. Earlier this month, Strahm spoke with East Village Times editor-in-chief James Clark about the condition of his knee, and how close he feels to being fully recovered.
“I’m fully ready to go,” Strahm said. “The big issue I am dealing with now is that I did not have an offseason of strengthening and being ready for 162 games…I had a lot of muscle atrophy happen. What is going to be huge is when I get a full offseason of lifting. It will be nice to worry about strength training as opposed to health.” Muscle atrophy or not, Strahm’s consistency out of the bullpen has been second to only Yates. As his outings have stretched out to three innings at a time, he has remained dominant, with a WHIP of under 1. Controllable by the Padres until 2023, Strahm appears to be primed for another season of growth in 2019, and to be a long-term asset for the Friars out of the bullpen.
Steps Backward: Eric Hosmer
Though the veteran first baseman has begun to get back on track offensively in the last month, his body of work as a whole this season bears little resemblance to the career year he enjoyed in 2017. Batting just .259 with 54 RBI and 13 HR thus far compared to his .318 BA / 94 RBI / 25 HR line of last year, it’s hard to view Hosmer’s effort this season as anything other than a disappointment. Yes, Hosmer is playing in a new ballpark and division with little consistent protection around him in the lineup, but after securing the largest contract in Padres’ history, fans may be justified in their lack of satisfaction with the former Silver Slugger.
Much of this concern has been focused on his launch angle, or lack thereof. In 2018, his launch angle on batted balls has been negative, currently at a -1.4 mark. Compare this to his more normal 3.8 launch angle last season, and arguments of Hosmer hitting the ball on the ground too frequently this year may gain credence. However, Hosmer is an established major league hitter in his prime, with a history of being streaky year to year. He has followed up each of his more successful MLB campaigns with a slightly less productive one, seemingly enjoying career-high numbers every other year. He is likely to figure things out and fully return to form in 2019, and has already began to pick things up as the 2018 season winds down. The 28-year-old is batting a more characteristic .308 over the last month.
Steps Backward: Carlos Asuaje:
Coming off of a rookie season in which he hit .270 in 89 games for the Padres, it appeared that Carlos Asuaje was primed for another year of growth at the Major League level. Though the 26-year-old does not fit into the Padres’ immediate plans at the second base position, with top prospect Luis Urias potentially just weeks from the big leagues, Asuaje could’ve served as a viable stopgap in the meantime. Instead, he has bounced back and forth between San Diego and Triple-A El Paso, getting demoted four times so far this season. The reasoning behind his yo-yoing between the two levels: a lack of production offensively. Asuaje has hit just .199 in 75 games this season, a far cry from his solid stat line a year ago. One reason why Asuaje may have seen his numbers decline in 2018? His Batting Average on Balls in Play is down nearly 100 points from last season, dropping from .346 to .243. Whatever the reason may be behind his struggles offensively, Asuaje’s days in a Padre uniform may be numbered.