What will the Padres do with Jackson Merrill?

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Prediction: Jackson Merrill is going to be a starting outfielder for the San Diego Padres in South Korea. Merrill will also be a starting outfielder for the Friars in the home opener against the Giants.

Barring a major injury, Jackson Merrill has already done enough to potentially earn an Opening Day spot.

His attitude and defensive skills are impressive for a man with less than 200 at-bats beyond Single-A ball and for a player who has barely spent any time in the outfield. The bat looks decent and feels like it will develop. The question is: how?

I think the San Diego Padres, and most fans, feel that Merrill will at least provide better defense than Juan Soto in left field and better offense (eventually, at least) than Grisham did in center field for the Padres in 2023. It might take a little time to get there, but for someone considered solid defensively and capable offensively, something positive will happen over time.

The question becomes: Where do you put Merrill?

He’s spent most of the time in center field, the position of glaring need and the one that’s the most expensive/difficult to fill via free agency. He’s also never played the outfield and is being asked to play THE premier position on the grass. The Padres have experience with moving outfielders from corner to center with sub-average results (Wil Myers).

To have a rookie who’s never really played on the grass and has never been in the big leagues take over center is probably a bridge too far.

There’s also a school of thought that he might be better suited for the Western Metal corner instead. Left field is traditionally an “easier position” with less stress and less of a learning curve, the perfect spot for someone like an infielder looking to move to the outfield. Merrill’s hitting ability also projects nicely to the corner outfield position. Regardless of where he plays, Merrill on the team will lead to cascading effects throughout the roster.

Here are just a few possible options:

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If Merrill goes to center field

  • The Padres will go with Jurickson Profar as their left fielder.

The Padres appeared destined not to spend any more money (or anything of substance) this off-season until they signed Brad Miller Tuesday morning. Even with such signings, the team appears to be playing at the extreme margins of the market. San Diego wants to give itself some leeway for the July trade deadline but, equally, to get under control from the previous year’s overspending.

As such, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Profar was a starting outfielder when the Padres went to the NLCS, and as soon as he re-joined the Padres, the team became something more akin to the 2022 run than the 2023 disaster. Profar is familiar with left field in Petco. He’s comfortable, he has a good working relationship with Tatis, and you have two veteran defenders to help teach an inexperienced center fielder the ropes without being too pressured.

  • Jose Azocar is your fourth outfielder.

I feel like this is the most obvious one and something that has practically been penned in since the end of last year. “Sugar” continues to impress in Spring Training, and this is a spot he’s very comfortable in. He appears to be putting things together at the plate after several years of development and is hitting much better than in past years. Azocar can play everywhere and gives the team more defensive flexibility, can serve as a pinch runner as well as a hitter, and there’s a certain comfort to him being in this spot.

  • The Padres will send Jakob Marsee to San Antonio to start the season.

While Marsee’s arm is probably a better fit at left field, he hasn’t stepped up to the degree that Merrill has in Spring Training. This is strictly a move to keep Marsee playing regularly. Mike Shildt, via A.J. Cassavell, has already said that he won’t put prospects on the bench when they should be playing full-time. This is a big change in development and one the Padres desperately need. Marsee, like any number of top prospects, needs a bit more time to develop. That could be a few months with a call-up in July/August, or it could be in 2025. Barring a major collapse, however, Marsee to San Diego is inevitable; it just won’t happen in April 2024.

  • The Padres will carry Eguy Rosario and Graham Pauley on the bench.

The bench will be an interesting topic of discussion, but with Profar, originally thought to be a super-utility who is now starting at left field, the Padres find they need more versatility on the bench. Rosario can effectively play shortstop, a key position. Eguy Rosario can spell third, second, and short and give the team a break.

Equally important is the addition of Pauley, and I believe he’ll make it for a few reasons. First is his bat. It’s impressive and a big shot into the arm to an offensively challenged team, especially combined with his decent speed. Second, he’s left-handed, and that is crucial to a right-handed heavy roster. Third, he can DH (assuming Manny is healthy), and it would hide a bunch of his defensive struggles.

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IF Merrill goes to left field

  • Jose Azocar is your likely starting CF

While there are a few decent options at left field in free agency (Tommy Pham being the primary example), the options in center field are worse. The Padres don’t appear to be willing to spend much (if any) money right now, nor do they appear to have interest in Adam Duvall or Michael Taylor. With that in mind, they’ll turn to a roster and clubhouse favorite who already provides similar skills to Grisham, has a great working relationship with Tatis, and is already comfortable in Petco’s vast center field. Azocar has a golden opportunity to start here, and he needs to run with it.

  • Azocar has a short leash.

While the team may be comfortable with Sugar to start, he must know that someone is on his tail. The most obvious someone is Marsee, the man who has been hyped by A.J. Prellar since the Soto trade occurred. While he’s not ready just yet, he could be in that wave ready to be promoted by midseason alongside other top prospects. Marsee, however, could be lapped if he doesn’t continue his development, with Homer Bush Jr. being a dark horse for center.

  • The fourth outfield role gets very interesting.

Now, the Padres will find themselves in need of a fourth outfielder. The three guys the Padres have, Oscar Mercado, Tim Locasto, and Cal Mitchell all can be good fourth outfielders and can play everywhere on the grass. It’ll just be a question of which the Padres value most: Locasto’s speed, Mercado’s hitting ability, or Mitchell’s all-around skill. What’s equally important is that the Padres could even start riding the hot hand in the outfield if Merrill or Azocar struggle and potentially play the lefty/righty matchups good managers use, but the Padres have been unable to do so for years.

  • Profar and Rosario are your bench guys; Pauley heads to the minors.

Rosario can play pretty much all over the infield, and Profar can play the infield and outfield. You have two members of the bench who can do it all and give players a legitimate breather. As mentioned, 2023’s biggest disaster was not having a balanced bench. Matt Carpenter and Nelson Cruz took half the spots while only each being able to play a single position was a foreseeable disaster, and one made infinitely worse when Rosario was lost most of the season to injury. Profar and Rosario give the team a lot of flexibility and give the team the chance to bench or DH players who need a breather.

In addition, it gives Pauley a chance to play with the other young guns in either San Antonio or El Paso, continue to develop as a group, and be prepared to come up as early as July.

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