How much do the Padres value service time, and how will that affect the Opening Day roster?
Before we get into specifics, let’s first clarify what the MLB’s much-maligned service time rule actually is. According to MLB.com, “each Major League regular season consists of 187 days, and each day spent on the active roster or injured list earns a player one day of service time…A player is deemed to have reached ‘one year’ of Major League service upon accruing 172 days in a given year. Upon reaching six years of Major League service, a player becomes eligible for free agency at the end of that season.” So, under this rule, a top prospect would have to be held out of the Major Leagues for at least 16 days in order for their free agency to be pushed back a year, thus giving the team an extra year of control. We’ve seen it done with Kris Bryant in 2015 and Ronald Acuña last year. It’s expected to happen to Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. again this year. It’s a horrible rule that ultimately incentivizes keeping your best players off the field, but the MLBPA agreed to it and teams would be dumb not to take advantage of it.
The Padres have two prospects of their own who, with a strong spring, could easily prove to be one of the 25 best players in the organization but may be held back due to service time manipulation: Chris Paddack and Fernando Tatís, Jr. Paddack stands a far better chance of making the Opening Day roster for two reasons. One, he’s a pitcher, and as we all know, pitchers only have so many “bullets” in their arm before it goes dead. Those bullets are much better used at the Major League level. Two, Paddack’s innings are expected to be limited this season – the number 150 was brought up as a goal by Paddack himself in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. This is significant because it allows the Padres to get creative. With the innings limit in mind, they could theoretically include Paddack in the Opening Day rotation, pitch him 150 innings, shut him down, then option him to the minors at the end of the season. The rule doesn’t specify when the 172 days of Major League service has to occur, so Paddack could break camp with the club, be on the Opening Day roster and still preserve his extra year of service time.
Tatís, on the other hand, likely won’t be sent back down to the minors once he makes his major league debut. It’s clear that he is the best shortstop in the organization and under normal circumstances, there would be little doubt that he’d be starting there Opening Day. He’s likely been told he’ll be able to compete for an Opening Day spot if he produces in the spring, but the reality is that there’s probably a glass ceiling preventing him from ever doing so, even if he were to homer 50 times in 60 at-bats. It’s unfortunate for just about everyone involved, and it may be tempting to ride the momentum of this offseason by starting him Opening Day, but the chances of Tatís making the big-league roster out of camp are slim-to-none. Instead, look for him to make his debut in mid-April, with Urías sliding over to shortstop for the time being and Kinsler manning second.
Is Matt Strahm a starter or a reliever?
Matt Strahm was mostly brilliant last year in a relief role, posting a 2.05 ERA in 41 appearances. However, with all but one or two rotation spots up for grabs and Strahm possessing a traditional starter’s four-pitch arsenal, it seems reasonable to believe he can transition into a full-time rotation piece. He tossed two scoreless frames in his spring debut on Wednesday, and both he and manager Andy Green have publicly stated their belief that he has the ability to make the jump. The bullpen will be a good, if not great, unit for the Padres with or without Strahm in 2019. The same cannot be said about the starting rotation. I had him projected as a starter earlier in the article, and at this point, the only thing that appears to be standing between Strahm and a rotation spot is a productive, healthy spring.
An outfielder has to be traded, right?
Common knowledge would tell you that six outfielders for three spots is too many. And yet, there hasn’t been much of a sense at all in recent days that a trade of one or more of the Padres’ six outfielders is imminent, even with the knowledge that the front office likes to operate on the down-low. As I wrote a couple of days ago, Hunter Renfroe makes the most sense as the centerpiece of a trade with all things considered, and if it were just Renfroe being sent away in a deal, it would make sense. But if the Padres are aiming for Stroman or Bauer like has been suggested, Renfroe for either one of them straight up probably doesn’t get it done. So, attaching prospects would likely be required, but the Padres have shown no real indication that they have any interest in parting with any of their prospects right now. And if Renfroe, or any other outfielder for that matter, were to be traded for someone lesser than Stroman or Bauer, it’s probable that the Padres would be overpaying, and there lies the dilemma.
With the current trade market, it appears the Padres are stuck in the middle, and the previously unthinkable of holding on to all six outfielders seems like it may be a real possibility. Of course, that would certainly require at least one of them to be optioned to the minors to get full-time reps, and my guess is Franchy Cordero would be the odd man out. A lot of times spring training performances don’t mean much, especially among players with previous big-league experience, but in this case, it’s possible that no outfielders are traded, and center field and right field will be determined by whoever has the better spring between Margot and Cordero, and Reyes and Renfroe, respectively.
If this were to happen, A.J. Preller and company would be in a good position to go trade deadline shopping as more pitchers are inevitably made available by selling teams.
How are the innings behind the plate going to be distributed?
In the 22 games the Padres played with both Francisco Mejía and Austin Hedges on the Major League roster in 2018, Hedges started 11, Mejia started 10 and A.J. Ellis started one. Minus the A.J. Ellis part, it’s reasonable to expect the distribution to look similar for the beginning portion of 2019.
Hedges most likely has the inside track to start Opening Day, simply because of his established rapport with the pitching staff and improvement with the bat towards the end of last season, but a great spring from Mejía, or conversely, a not so great one from Hedges, could easily change that. Regardless of who starts Opening Day, though, it will be very interesting to see how Andy Green distributes the innings behind the plate. A near 50/50 split like he utilized at the end of 2018 seems like a logical choice for at least the first month of the season, but there’s always the possibility of inadvertently stunting the development of both young backstops in an effort to give them a chance to compete. There’s also the option of choosing a clear starter right away, the one who will catch 130-140 games. The risk there, of course, comes with potentially choosing the wrong one.
The situation is certainly cloudy right now, but one thing is for sure: the organization is committed to keeping both and giving them the opportunity to prove themselves. The question now for Andy Green is how to properly balance the playing time of his two young, talented catchers. We should have a clearer answer to that question by the time Opening Day rolls around.