The San Diego Padres finished in last place in the National League West last season and their prospects for climbing in the standings in 2017 are negligible in a division that includes powerhouses in the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants and a team seemingly on the rise in the Colorado Rockies.
Yet Padres manager Andy Green is excited about the possibilities as he gets ready for his second season.
He will likely have two NL Rookie of the Year candidates in his opening-day lineup in center fielder Manuel Margot and right fielder Hunter Renfroe along with a well-regarded young catcher in Austin Hedges.
Hedges, 24, made his major-league debut in 2015 and hit just .168/.215/.248 with three home runs in 56 games. However, he had a strong season this year at Class AAA El Paso, hitting .326/.363/.593 with 21 home runs in 82 games.
Throughout his six seasons in the minor leagues, Hedges has throwing out 34 percent of runners attempting to steal, a mark he has matched at the major-league level.
“It’s going to be as much about the work that he does behind the plate than the work he does at the plate with the bat in his hands,” Green said. “We’ve looked at him for a very long time as a catcher of the future for us. That time looks like it’s arisen at this point in time, and he will have every opportunity to solidify himself as our catcher for the future.
“He’s a guy from a framing perspective is good, game-calling perspective is good, block, catch, throw perspective is very good. I think the industry has looked at him for a long period of time as one of the best defensive catchers in the minor leagues. So, to bring that guy up, and also a guy that’s .320 with over 20 home runs in the PCL last year. So, there’s some offensive punch there as well.”
Margot and Renfroe figure to make up two-thirds of the starting outfield.
Margot, 21, was one of four prospects acquired from the Boston Red Sox in a trade for closer Craig Kimbrel in November, 2015. Renfroe, 23, was the Padres’ first-round draft pick in 2013 from Mississippi State and made an impression last September by becoming the first player to hit a home run on top of the Western Metal & Supply building in left field at Petco Park
“The raw power that exists there. You see a guy that anybody can look at and say 30-plus home run potential on that bat right there,” Green said of Renfore. “He’s going to fight for a job, and I think Manny Margot is about as exciting as any prospect arriving in the major leagues, the ability to defend the field, get on base, steal bases. He fits into the mold of guys you want to defend the middle of the baseball field, steal bases. He does a little bit of everything.”
Ender Inciarte’s holiday season got a little brighter when the Atlanta Braves signed the center fielder and leadoff hitter to a five-year, $30.53-million contract extension that includes a club option for 2022 last week.
One of the most significant aspects of the trade is that Inciarte is the first player the Braves have made a long-term commitment to during their rebuilding process.
Inciarte, 26, made a strong impression last season after being acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade last winter, hitting .291/.351/.381 with three home runs and 16 stolen bases in 131 games. Braves general manager John Coppolella believes he is the best defensive center fielder in the NL.
The signing drew high praise of a scout from one NL team.
“He’s going to be worth every penny of this and even more,” the scout said. “He really makes that lineup go from the top of the order and I think he’s going to steal more bases because you can see his confidence growing in that area. You’ve got to love the defense, too. The only thing he lacks is power but he has everything else.”
One of the biggest surprises of free agency is that right-hander Jason Hammel has received limited interest despite going a combined 25-17 with a 3.79 ERA in 61 starts with the Chicago Cubs over the last two seasons.
However, many teams are unwilling to commit to Hammel beyond one year after the Cubs left him off the postseason roster because of elbow tightness. Scouts also believe the quality of the 34-year-old’s stuff is declining.
Hammel changed agencies earlier this month in hopes of drumming up more suitors, switching to ACES from Octagon.
“He’s going to have to lower his sights,” a scout from an American League team said. “There are just too many questions marks surrounding him. I’m not saying he couldn’t help someone, it’s just that he’s not a sure thing and it’s tough to commit a lot of money to that kind of player.”
Best wishes to longtime Major League Baseball media and team relations employees Katy Feeney and Phyllis Merhige, who are retiring after long and meritorious service to the game.
No one has ever been helpful or a better friend to those who cover baseball than Katy and Phyllis. They will be greatly missed.