April 15, 2024

The Padres need an offensive infusion. Saturday showed one option

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Padres traded Juan Soto, re-signed Jurickson Profar for $1 million and, citing budget constraints, did almost nothing else this past offseason to address an offense that was the biggest culprit in a disappointing 2023 season. Meanwhile, there was another factor that helped explain a lack of additions: Team officials believed prospects such as Jackson Merrill and Graham Pauley could, at low cost, approximate the projected production of a free agent such as Tommy Pham.

This line of thinking is not exclusive to San Diego. Clubs around the majors are taking more and more chances on young players with limited minor-league experience, often preferring the risk of a substantial learning curve to the downside (and price) of an aging veteran. As the Padres hosted the San Francisco Giants on Saturday — and as Merrill, 20, made his fourth professional start in center field — Pham and former Giants fixture Brandon Belt were two of the most accomplished players still looking for work.

At the same time, Pauley was still looking for his first major-league start.

“I wish there were 10 positions and 12 different opportunities to play people,” Padres manager Mike Shildt told reporters before Saturday’s game. “I’m probably never gonna give the greatest answer that you want relative to why a guy is playing or not playing. I can just tell you Tyler Wade’s played really, really well, and he’s helped us win baseball games, and I love Pauley to death, and today I have Wade in there (starting at third base). Graham will get his opportunity for sure at some point.”

After Saturday’s game, a 9-6 loss to the Giants, Shildt likely has more reason to give Pauley that opportunity as soon as Sunday’s series finale. The Padres, who got three solo homers from Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado for their lone runs in the previous night’s defeat, were trailing by eight runs before Eguy Rosario and Pauley came off the bench and went deep in the bottom of the ninth. Rosario’s two-run swat was the third career home run for a utility infielder who first reached the majors in 2022. Pauley’s three-run smash off the right-field foul pole at Petco Park was the first hit of his career, in his third career at-bat.

It went down as the Padres’ brightest moment in a game that, for eight innings, magnified preexisting concerns about the depth of the offense. (Even afterward, fans continued to use various social media platforms to call for the team to sign Pham, 36, to be the team’s primary left fielder.) And it encouraged the typically optimistic Shildt to put an especially positive spin on the final result.

“You might think I’m nuts, but I’m more proud of this club or maybe equally as proud … as the first game (of the series) when we came back and won,” Shildt said. “Clearly — don’t misrepresent this — we’re here to win games. But … who you are is what you do when you’re not completely comfortable, and no one was loving that situation we were in. But not one guy was giving in one iota. When you got a team that doesn’t give in, you got guys that won’t give in, that compete regardless of circumstances, that’s what good teams do.”

The Padres (2-3) cannot yet say, definitively, that they are a good team. It’s been only five games, but the bullpen might be even more of a concern than the lineup. Tom Cosgrove, who thrived as a rookie, surrendered six runs in the top of the eighth Saturday. The lineup, however, seems to be drawing the most scrutiny from fans and professional evaluators alike. That’s what will happen when you subtract a hitter as gifted as Soto, essentially replace him with Profar (minus-2.0 FanGraphs WAR in 2023) and, with Machado still building up his surgically repaired elbow, deploy Wade (career .597 OPS) as an opening-day third baseman.

Both Profar and Wade, to their credit, have been positive contributors early this season. Profar is hitting .308. Wade, a plus base runner, is hitting .400. Yet history suggests these clips are unsustainable. And San Diego’s sporadic offense the last two games stood in contrast to a balanced attack by a Giants team that shelled out $236 million over the offseason to sign Jung Hoo Lee, Matt Chapman, Jorge Soler and Tom Murphy.

The Padres, in an even greater contrast, reduced their payroll by nearly $90 million to get under the luxury-tax threshold while returning to compliance with the league’s debt-service rules. Their move toward austerity helps explain why they were outbid for Lee, who so far appears to be earning a six-year, $113 million contract that required an additional posting fee — and why they presumably have not offered Pham more than a few million dollars. (The former Padre made $6 million last season while producing a .774 OPS and helping the Arizona Diamondbacks to the World Series.)

If the Padres sputter this summer, 10th-year general manager A.J. Preller and Shildt — who received only a two-year contract — will face questions about their job security. Both men can derive early encouragement from the performance of Merrill, a lifelong shortstop who has made consistent hard contact and a quick adjustment to center field. Pauley, too, is a significant source of hope, although he is not considered a strong defender anywhere — which might help explain why the Padres have not yet started him at third base or first, the two positions where he is most comfortable.

“A lot of guys have broken into the big leagues all different ways,” Preller said last week. “It doesn’t mean you have to play every single day to maximize your development. I think Graham will get opportunity. We definitely see him as a guy that can come off the bench and play that way. … I think he’s gonna get opportunity, I hope he makes the most of it, and I think the more he plays well, he’ll get more and more chances.”

Before Saturday, Pauley’s big-league career had consisted of a pinch-hit appearance on Opening Day in South Korea. (He struck out against Evan Phillips, one of the better closers in the sport.) Before Saturday’s game, Pauley expressed gratitude for his current station. A year ago, he was preparing to begin a season with Low-A Lake Elsinore. He also described what it was like acclimating to an unfamiliar role.

“Not playing every day is not something that I’ve really ever done, so, you know, it’s difficult,” said Pauley, who also had rarely pinch hit in the past.

In recent days, Pauley has been talking with Shildt and others — including Padres special assistants and former big leaguers A.J. Ellis and Allen Craig — about how to stay ready. From Ellis, Pauley said, he had learned a few of the intricacies of preparing to enter a game as a pinch hitter.

“Since he’s a righty, he would look at the (other team’s) lefty bullpen and see the guys that are hot that day and, late in the game, maybe the closer or eighth-inning, high-leverage guys that he would have to face,” Pauley said. “He’d watch video on them and just make sure the body stays hot, whether that’s in the gym or getting swings or whatever it might be.”

The advice appeared to pay off late in Saturday’s game. After grounding out in an eighth-inning pinch-hit appearance, Pauley stayed in as the third baseman and received another at-bat the following inning against right-hander Camilo Doval, one of the top closers in the game. This time, after working the count full, he demonstrated the kind of swing that helped him advance to Double A last season. Standing on second, Merrill — Pauley’s close friend and roommate — reacted with youthful enthusiasm.

Some 30 minutes later, Pauley described how “surreal” it had been to homer for his first major-league hit in front of his parents, who considered flying home before the game before deciding to stay. When Shildt stopped by Pauley’s locker for a congratulatory chat, Merrill, who occupies a locker next to Pauley, exuberantly reenacted his in-game response to his friend’s home run. The Padres had lost, but especially for two rookies, the ninth inning provided a moment to remember forever.

“I feel like GP and I here, we come to the field every day and we just be ourselves as young guys,” Merrill had said two days earlier. “And I feel like that’s important, just bringing the young-guy culture to the clubhouse. They haven’t really had that lately. It’s been a lot of vets and a lot of, like, signed guys, so it’s cool to see two young guys come in the clubhouse and be themselves and do everything they possibly can to change the culture.”

It’s early, but after five games, this much is obvious: The Padres also could use an infusion of offense. Whether that means testing Pauley with regular playing time, adding Pham or another hitter, or some combination of both, they should be motivated to act sooner than later.

(Photo of Graham Pauley watching the flight of his ninth-inning three-run home run Saturday: Denis Poroy / Associated Press)