What would a successful rookie season for Padres’ Jackson Merrill look like?

Feb 22, 2024; Peoria, Arizona, USA; San Diego Padres outfielder Jackson Merrill against the Los Angeles Dodgers during a spring training game at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson Merrill will start the 2024 season up with the big league club as the centerfielder. What would a successful rookie season for him look like?

One of the most exciting stories out of Spring Training in Peoria for the Padres has been the emergence of Jackson Merrill. He transformed from a touted prospect with minimal experience above Single-A to the opening-day centerfielder in the big leagues. All reports indicate that he will be the Padres’ everyday centerfielder until further notice. He earned his spot on the big league roster. As far as his Spring Training goals are concerned, mission accomplished.

So, now what?

It’s easy to get caught up in expectations for a highly touted prospect making his MLB debut after a strong spring. What should those expectations be, realistically? What is the threshold Merrill needs to cross to consider his rookie year a success?

If we are expecting the second coming of Arizona’s Corbin Carroll, another young lefty outfielder, that simply isn’t fair. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year had a historic rookie season in 2023, with 5.4 WAR, 25 homers, .285 average, an .868 OPS and 134 OPS+. He even finished fifth in NL MVP voting, ahead of Juan Soto.

If Padres fans are expecting that to be the bar, they are bound to be disappointed. Merrill can have a very successful rookie year and still not come close to Carroll’s incredible run last year.

It is fair, however, to hope, and perhaps expect, Merrill to be more productive at the plate than the Padres’ centerfielder last season, Trent Grisham. While Grisham continued to play Gold Glove defense for San Diego, his production at the plate cratered, with .198 average and .666 OPS in 2023.

If Merrill were to put those numbers on the board, it’s fair to say it would be disappointing, given that the Padres had Grisham and then voluntarily traded him away.

FanGraphs’ ZiPS projection might be a good starting point. They project Merrill to play in 109 games, with a .252 average, 12 home runs, and a .676 OPS for a 1.3 fWAR. That might be a good measuring stick.

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Frankly, with the lack of depth the Padres currently have, Merrill should play more than 109 games as long as he is healthy. The baseline for a successful season should be health and availability over more than 130 games. That also suggests he does not struggle so much to the point where the team has no choice but to send him back down.

Merrill’s calling card, aside from his athleticism, is his bat-to-ball skills. With a minimum of 200 plate appearances in the Double-A Texas League last year, Merrill had the fourth-lowest strikeout rate out of 121 hitters. That is something that should play out well in the big leagues. The ZiPS projection of a .252 batting average is solid for a 20-year-old rookie. Given his contact and plate discipline skills, his on-base percentage should be better than the .290 he is projected for. Consequently, that would increase his OPS higher than .676, which is far below league average (.740 in 2023).

Yet, we all must remember this is a player learning a new position on the fly at the big leagues while also playing his first games at the MLB level at 20 years old. All while having just over 200 plate appearances at a level higher than Single-A. There will be a learning curve.

That said, the pressure is on the Padres to put last year behind them with a playoff push. For better or for worse, Merrill will be the everyday centerfielder for a team with cautiously high expectations.

At the very least, if he is a serviceable centerfielder for a playoff team, that is enough in of itself. To get specific, the bar for success for Merrill should look something along the lines of a minimum of 130 games played, at least 10 homers, a league-average OPS (.740), with at least league-average defense in center field. While that may not win him NL Rookie of the Year, that is certainly a stat line the Padres could stomach from their everyday centerfielder as they make a push to make the playoffs in 2024.

Threshold for success: 130+ games, 10+ HR, .740 OPS

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