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2015 team preview: The San Diego Padres will be a lot more fun this year

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The Padres had a big offseason under new management, and should contend for a playoff spot in 2015.

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

You could be forgiven if you don't know any players that were on the 2014 San Diego Padres roster. For one, the Tigers and Padres only face off once every three seasons. Most Padres games start at 10:00 p.m. on the East coast, and finishing a game makes for a rough morning the next day. The Padres have also been rather forgettable lately, with one winning season in the past seven years.

Of course, it doesn't matter if you don't remember anyone that was on the Padres' roster last year. Odds are they won't be around in 2015.

The Padres hired A.J. Preller as their general manager on August 5th, shortly after they traded Huston Street, Chase Headley, and Chris Denorfia away at the trade deadline. Preller took a couple of months to get situated, then began using a burgeoning farm system to leverage several high-profile deals for impact talent. Case in point: Preller and the Padres introduced Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, and Will Middlebrooks as the newest members of the team on the same day. Preller capped off his attempted coup d'état of the NL West by signing James Shields to a four year, $75 million deal in February. But will it be enough to move the needle in a top-heavy National League?

Manager: Bud Black (9th season)
2014 record: 77-85
SB Nation blog: Gaslamp Ball

Lineup

One thing Preller's sleepless December did was to completely retool a Padres outfield that produced just 3.9 fWAR last season. None of those players are gone (aside from Denorfia), but they have all been displaced. As the youngest and least-battered, Wil Myers will likely be the team's primary center fielder. He only played in 87 games last season due to a wrist injury, but wasn't particularly impressive at the plate before or after his stint on the disabled list. The good news: he's already used to playing his home games in extreme pitcher's parks. If Myers can't handle the spacious Petco Park outfield, Cameron Maybin is around and healthy (for the moment).

The most impressive aspect of A.J. Preller's "come at me, bro" offseason is that he was able to pull off a number of deals without trading top prospects Austin Hedges, Matt Wisler, or Hunter Renfroe.

Justin Upton and Matt Kemp will flank Myers, provided the 24-year-old can hold his own defensively. Kemp's long-term value is in question thanks to his rapidly diminishing athleticism, but he hit .309/.365/.606 with 17 home runs after the All-Star break last season. If that is what injury-free Kemp looks like, 2015 could be a big year. Upton has a reputation as a streaky hitter, but he quietly put up a .363 wOBA, 133 wRC+, and .221 ISO with a career-high 102 RBI in 2014. These numbers were actually better than his bounce-back season with the Braves in 2013. Abraham Almonte is still around from last season's Denorfia trade, and Will Venable is one (awful) year removed from a 20 home run, 20 steal season.

All of that outfield talent may not matter if the Padres' infield doesn't offer up some production in its wake. Second baseman Jedd Gyorko is the safest bet to bounce back in 2015, particularly considering he hit .260/.347/.398 in 222 plate appearances after an eight week stint on the disabled list for plantar fasciitis. The Padres need him to be the player that put up 2.5 WAR in 125 games during his rookie year in 2013, not the replacement level player he was last season. While Gyorko has a job, the other three positions are up for grabs. Clint Barmes and Alexi Amarista will compete for the shortstop job, Yangervis Solarte and Will Middlebrooks are battling at third base, and no one really knows who will play first base. Yonder Alonso will most likely be the guy, but the Padres are also experimenting with Carlos Quentin (and pretty much everyone else) over there. Gaslamp Ball is not happy.

Of the major trades Preller made this offseason, the one to acquire catcher Derek Norris might be my favorite. They had to give up a couple of young pitchers to do it, but Norris was an All-Star after putting up a monstrous .879 OPS in the first half last year. He fell off down the stretch as the inning started to take their toll -- he caught a career-high 114 games -- but is still 26 and has four years of club control remaining. At worst he's a solid backup who mashes left-handed pitching, and we saw his best throughout most of 2014. Norris should also help ease top prospect Austin Hedges into the big leagues, but the Padres are probably a year away from that. For now, veteran Tim Federowicz will give Norris a day off now and then.

Pitchers

Before we get to the rotation, here is a bullpen statistic that is going to make you cry. The Tigers had three relievers log at least 10 innings with an ERA below 3.60 last season. The Padres had eight. Five of them had ERAs in the twos -- all in 30 innings or more -- and three of those guys will be in the bullpen again this year. Leading the charge is closer Joaquin Benoit, who continued to give the "proven closer" theory the finger with a 1.49 ERA and 2.32 FIP in 54 1/3 innings. He had 16 holds as the team's setup man and saved 11 of 12 games after Huston Street was traded. Joining Benoit are returning teammates Kevin Quackenbush, Nick Vincent, Dale Thayer, and Alex Torres. Shawn Kelley and Brandon Maurer are offseason additions that should also contribute. They also signed Jose Valverde for kicks.

Whether or not Valverde makes the team (he won't), the Padres should give their bullpen plenty of leads to hold. We all know what James Shields did in 2014, and a move to the National League should only help curb the aging process. His strikeout and walk rates both dipped last year, but nearly everything else -- BABIP, FIP, ground ball rate, etc. -- was in line with his career numbers. Right-hander Ian Kennedy is also on the wrong side of 30, but he is coming off a 200-inning season with a 3.21 FIP and the best strikeout rate of his career. The gains seem to be legitimate, as Kennedy's fastball velocity jumped after working out some mechanical issues he picked up in Arizona.

The parts don't seem to fit together yet -- they have a gazillion outfielders and none of the good ones can play center field -- but they are far more talented than they were in 2014.

Having a pair of veterans like Shields and Kennedy in the rotation is nice, but especially when they will be playing second fiddle to a pair of young studs. Andrew Cashner had the breakout season that everyone predicted, holding opponents to a 2.55 ERA and 3.09 FIP. Tigers fans will remember the one-hit shutout he twirled against them back in April, one of two complete games on his ledger in 2014. However, elbow and shoulder issues limited him to just 123 1/3 innings. Tyson Ross was good and healthy, allowing a 2.81 ERA and 3.24 FIP in 195 2/3 innings. He made the All-Star team, but was shut down in September with elbow soreness after throwing 60 more innings than he did in 2013.

The fifth starter spot remains a question mark, but the Padres have a plethora of options available. Brandon Morrow should get a long look considering his pedigree, but he hasn't been much of a factor since 2012. Robbie Erlin is a crafty left-hander who had a 3.07 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 1/3 innings last year, but the 4.99 ERA and 1.40 WHIP weren't so shiny. Still, he could provide some nice balance for an otherwise right-handed rotation. I'm pulling for Odrisamer Despaigne based on his name alone, but the 27-year-old Cuban was easily the most productive of the trio in 2014. He made 16 starts for the Padres -- in his first season in America, no less -- and held opponents to a 3.36 ERA and 3.74 FIP.

Down on the farm

Arguably the most impressive aspect of A.J. Preller's "come at me, bro" offseason is that he was able to pull off a number of deals without trading top prospects Austin Hedges, Matt Wisler, or Hunter Renfroe. Hedges is a defensive dynamo who has already drawn comparisons to Yadier Molina, while Renfroe's combination of immense power and surprising speed could make the outfield quite crowded in 2016. Wisler is the most likely of the trio to see substantial major league time in 2015, though he probably won't make the Opening Day rotation. The Padres' system also houses a couple of solid names in Rymer Liriano and Franchy Cordero.

Player to watch: Tyson Ross

Both Ross and Cashner can be great late-night TV when they're pitching, but the 27-year-old Ross is probably a better bet to stay healthy. He was a rock for the Padres throughout 2014, and even had a 2.73 ERA in the second half despite (a) throwing way more innings than the year prior, and (b) getting bombed in his final outing of the year. Ross throws 94 miles per hour with late movement, resulting in a high ground ball rate. However, he also relies heavily on a nasty slider that picks up plenty of strikeouts. His command can get the better of him at times -- he walked four batters or more in seven starts last year -- but he can be as dominant as any starter in baseball when he's on.

Outlook

The Padres and Cubs should provide a pair of interesting case studies on how roster construction can provide a big boost in team performance. The Cubs are well known for their "win from within" plan, but they added a few big pieces to the mix as well. Meanwhile, the Padres went gangbusters in acquiring as many talented players as possible. The parts don't seem to fit together yet -- they have a gazillion outfielders and none of the good ones can play center field -- but they are far more talented than they were in 2014. If they can get enough offense to put their great pitching staff to use, they could have the breakout season that many are expecting. Even if they don't make the playoffs, August and September should be much more fun than in years past.