On opening day, the Padres will play the Dodgers in LA. Matt Kemp will step to the plate wearing a San Diego uniform and the crowd will -in all likelihood – give him a standing ovation. Then, in the bottom of the first, James Shields will throw his first pitch as a Padre to Derek Norris behind the plate. San Diego’s magical offseason will be over and everything will be real. After AJ Preller’s moves in December, the team made itself attractive enough to lock up Shields on a four-year deal that will pay him just over $75 million. The veteran right hander’s signing was the largest contract issued by the Friars since the three-year, $52 million contract given to Jake Peavy during the 2007-08 offseason. The 33-year-old Shields, who pitched more than 200 innings in every season since 2007, chose to sign because he saw the same thing that everyone paying attention to baseball had noticed: the Padres were trying. Sure, he will solidify a rotation that includes Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, Ian Kennedy, and a fifth spot in all probability going to Odrisamer Despaigne or Brandon Marrow, but he means more than the rest of them. He represents a new beginning, even for a staff that poses some old questions.
Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross have shown flashes that they can be staff aces. However, staying healthy is still a question for both. Cashner, on a base salary of $4.05 million, is set to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. Last year he posted a 5-7 record with a 2.55 ERA in 2014 with 93 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings pitched. He was the opening day starter a year ago, but quickly fell to injury, leaving an opening for Tyson Ross to take the leadership role. Ross made the all-star team and Cashner was never really right. As conducive as Petco Park is to subduing offensive production, baseball’s most reliable hurlers can manage to get hitters out without the help of their defense. Ross’ strikeout rate really helped him last year. But like Cashner, Tyson has had health concerns his entire career. This year they both hope to reach 30 starts.
Ian Kennedy is coming off of a great 2014 campaign for the Padres, having posted a 3.63 ERA and a 207/70 K/BB ratio in 201 innings. If he can limit home runs, as he did last season, he should have another strong showing in 2015. He just needs to be a solid 4th starter and eat innings along with Shields if Ross or Cash go down. I just hope Ian and Carlos Quentin are roommates in Peoria so they can work on their next plot to destroy Zack Greinke. After Carlos broke Zacky’s collarbone, Kennedy – then on the Diamondbacks – threw at his head. It’s not just about pitching for him. I agree with Ian Kennedy on everything that matters.
Brandon Morrow and Odrisamer Despaigne have emerged this spring as the two most likely to take the 5th spot in the rotation. It’s not a high priority to have this position locked down in the beginning of the season, but both have looked dependable. Morrow pitched great in 2012 with the Blue Jays and was on his way to becoming a cornerstone for their future. He posted a 2.96 ERA and 3.65 FIP in 124.2 innings that year. However, he has struggled since then with injuries. Morrow could end up coming out of the bullpen as an effective option for the Padres. Odrisamer Despaigne signed with the club out of Cuba in 2014, but he was relatively unheralded, garnering just a $1 million bonus even though he was not subject to international spending rules. In 96.1 innings last year, he posted a 3.26 ERA. If it’s close at the end of spring, it might be worth it to give Morrow the shot to start the year and put Despaigne at triple A so he can get starts and keep his pitch count up. If Morrow doesn’t work out, the Padres can put him in the bullpen and bring up Odrisamer for another look.
James Shields ranks first among MLB pitchers with 1,785 2/3 innings pitched since 2007. He has a career 114-90 record and 3.72 ERA over nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Royals. Last year he had a 14-8 record with a 3.21 ERA, 180 strikeouts and just 44 walks in 227 innings. Even though he struggled for the Royals in the postseason, he now heads a staff as the only member with a World Series start. Shields has repeatedly emphasized that he wants the Padres starting staff to account for 1,000 innings in 2015. Whether or not that’s realistic isn’t important. What matters is that San Diego now has a leader who can say that and really be heard. The Padres haven’t had a real alpha dog on their staff since they paid for one in Jake Peavy. Paying for that kind of value is something they apparently do now. His body of work is there and he’s hungry to get back to the biggest stage. The rest of the team needs to follow.
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