1st NL West Tour
For San Diego sports fans, this April has mostly been about being frustrated with the Chargers during the day and then partying with the Friars at night. Sorry Dean Spanos, I can’t worry about the Shakespearean tragedy that is your plight to force a city to pay for your new shop. While you’re busy trying to prove something to your father, I’ll be watching Odrisamer Despaigne possibly blossom into a star. The first tour through the National League West for the 2015 Padres was much needed fun. It was a chance to see San Diego’s primary rivalries in their current incarnations, and watch an identity take shape with the squad. Through the first 17 games of the season, it’s clear Bud Black has built around one constant element: Matt Kemp and Justin Upton are his three and four hitters. The two best hitters know where they are going to hit every day, and they, along with the players around them, have benefited.
The Padres didn’t win their first series against the Dodgers in LA, but Matt Kemp was great in his first visit back to the team he started his career with. When the Padres traded for Kemp, it was exciting that they had made their play for a star. Injuries were a question, but it didn’t matter. It felt like a pulse for a franchise that had been a zombie for the last few years, walking around as an easy to kill corpse. I figured Kemp would flash some power and probably pull a hamstring at some point. It was going to be Rihanna jokes and maybe a sniff of a wild card chance for a week in mid-June. But instead of stopping at the one big trade, AJ Preller built a real major league lineup around the star outfielder and set him up with the protection of Justin Upton, a stud entering a contract year. One of the many bright spots of the season so far has been Kemp’s selection at the plate. He feels like a well-adjusted baseball player, interested in making the smart baseball decision at the plate over displaying his already established power. Matt Kemp is hitting .333 with 1 home run and 14 RBI. The power will come, but he seems more than content with moving runners, hitting sac flies and taking walks when he needs to be a leader and keep innings alive.
The Padres’ second tier offensive weapons have pieced themselves around Kemp and Upton nicely. Wil Myers, Derek Norris, Yonder Alonso, and Will Middlebrooks have started in different spots, but have gotten on base and come up with key hits the entire first month. Wil Myers seems to have settled in as the lead off guy, and after a few jitters early on he hasn’t been a disaster in the outfield like most baseball pundits feared. Yonder and Derek Norris have been hot at the plate, and Norris has shown great speed on the bases. Barring injuries (something the Padres haven’t really faced yet), Will Middlebrooks is looking like he will settle between the 5th and 7th spots in the order.
Jedd Gyorko is the biggest question so far. The Padres are locked up with him longer than they want to be and Yangervis Solarte has proven to be a real asset at the plate and in the field. Alexi Amarista, Clint Barmes, Corey Spangenberg and Will Venable have been in and out of the lineup, but Black’s biggest problem is if and when he has to give up on Jedd. This isn’t the worst obstacle in the world to pop up in April. When somebody in the infield goes down, Solarte will fill in and get his at bats. But Jedd looks lost and it could end badly.
The Dodgers are in town and the stakes are as high as they can be in April. The winner of the series will have the division in their hands going forward. The Gyorko/Solarte question and the overall fear of seeing relief pitcher Shawn Kelley warming up are not problems that warrant sky is falling concern. On the surface it appears that there’s a hierarchy within the clubhouse. Whether Matt Kemp runs into a wall or the Padres fail to extend Justin Upton, this weekend we know who will hit in the three and four spots. And simply knowing that is enough for all of us to benefit in April.
Follow on Twitter: @Nicholas_McCann