Filling A Juan Soto Sized Hole in the Padres’ Outfield

Taking a look at the Padres' outfield options.

The San Diego Padres came into the offseason with two major goals in mind. Goal number one was to acquire pitching in bulk to offset the losses of reigning Cy Young award winner Blake Snell, Seth Lugo, and Michael Wacha in the rotation and Josh Hader and Nick Martinez in the bullpen. And goal number two was to slash payroll – which had risen to franchise-high levels over the past two seasons – in the wake of the passing of owner Peter Siedler and the uncertainty surrounding broadcasting revenue. The Friars appeared to have dealt with both in one fail swoop when they traded star left fielder Juan Soto, along with last year’s starting center fielder Trent Grisham, to the Yankees in a blockbuster offseason deal. The trade allowed the Padres to remake their pitching staff on the fly by bring in four pitchers, headlined by Michael King, with a chance to contribute meaningful innings in 2024. Simultaneously, they were able to shed the combined $36.5 million owed to Soto and Grisham this coming season from their books. Two birds, one stone.

Padres Projected Rotation, Before and After Trading Juan Soto

 Projected Rotation Pre-Juan Soto Trade 2024 Projected ERA (ZiPS) Prost-Juan Soto Trade 2024 Projected ERA (ZiPS)
SP1 Joe Musgrove 3.38 Joe Musgrove 3.38
SP2 Yu Darvish 3.96 Yu Darvish 3.96
SP3 Matt Waldron 4.49 Michael King 3.49
SP4 Pedro Avila 4.53 Jhony Brito 4.03
SP5 Jay Groome 4.95 Randy Vasquez 4.24

However, when you trade away two-thirds of your starting outfield, you have two-thirds of a starting outfield to replace, and the Padres have still yet to make a significant addition to address the voids left by Soto and Grisham with less than two weeks to go until the team opens their season in Korea. They are not easily replaceable players either. Soto has a case to be considered the best hitter in baseball, slashing a ridiculous .284/.421/.524 for his career, and he only just turned 25 in October. He has never even had a single season where is OBP was below .400, serving as a beacon of dependability in the Padres lineup. Losing Grisham doesn’t hurt to the same degree – and the Padres appeared eager to dump him and his salary to the Yankees in the trade – but he is a plus defensive center fielder with just enough pop in his bat to compensate for his poor hit tool and be a cromulent starter.

Padres Projected Outfield, Before and After Trading Juan Soto

Position Pre-Juan Soto Trade 2024 Projected wRC+ (ZiPS) Post-Juan Soto Trade 2024 Projected wRC+ (ZiPS)
RF Fernando Tatis Jr. 137 Fernando Tatis Jr. 137
CF Trent Grisham 103 ????? ?????
LF Juan Soto 160 ????? ?????

As things currently stand, the electric Fernando Tatis Jr. is penned into the starting right field job, but who will be flanking him in left and center remains a mystery. The Padres currently only have two other outfielders on their 40 man roster: Jose Azocar, and Jurickson Profar. Neither is a particularly inspiring option – Azocar has hit poorly in his 318 career big league plate appearances and Profar is coming off an atrocious 2023 where he was “worth” -1.3 bWAR and -2.0 fWAR. Of course, Azocar and Profar have not locked themselves into starting spots just yet, and the Padres have six other outfielders competing for roles on the big league club as non-roster invitees to spring training and have even toyed with playing top shortstop prospect Jackson Merrill on the grass as well. I’ve sorted the internal candidates for the the two starting roles, as well as the bench spots, into two buckets: the veterans and the prospects.

Veteran Options

Profar is an old friend of Padres GM A.J. Preller, going back to their time with the Rangers over a decade ago. Preller has since signed Profar a whopping four times with the Padres: to a one year deal before the 2020 season, to a three year deal with opt-outs before 2021, to a minor league deal after he was released by the Rockies late in the 2023 season, and a final time this offseason on a deal worth $1 million. Despite Preller’s seeming infatuation with the Curacaoan utility man, Profar is coming off of the worst season of his career, struggling to offensively despite calling the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field his home for most of the year. Though Profar is good at putting the ball in play, posting a strong 79.9% contact rate last season, he hits the ball too softly to do considerable damage. He rarely barrels up on the ball and his exit velocities have routinely been at the bottom of the league. By contrast, Soto was in the 99th percentile in hard hit rate last year with even better contact numbers than Profar.

Jurickson Profar Batted Ball Percentile Rates

Year Barrell% Avg Exit Velocity Hard Hit %
2021 7 3 7
2022 14 22 19
2023 10 9 12

** Percentile Ranks via Baseball Savant

While Profar has some defensive versatility, with experience in the infield as well as in both corner spots, at this point in his career his glovework is not strong. In 779 innings in left field last season he was worth -11 DRS and -12 RAA, both marks ranking as the second worst in MLB (only the Phillies Kyle Schwarber performed worse). Soto is not a defensive stalwart either – weird 2022 gold glove finalist appearance notwithstanding – and was worth an ugly -6 DRS and -8 RAA in 2023. But even if their defensive deficiencies more or less cancel each other out, the drop-off from Soto to Profar with a bat in their hands is immense.

Beyond Profar, the Padres have two other established veterans with the club in Spring Training: Oscar Mercado and Tim Locastro. Mercado had a strong rookie campaign in 2019 with the Guardians, but his offense has fallen off of a cliff since then. From 2020-2023 he has hit .206/.262/.334, good for just a 65 wRC+. A potential reason for optimism could be Mercado’s 31 game stint in AAA El Paso last season, where he blasted ten homers en route to a robust .339/.399/.669 line with ten stolen bases to boot. Even with the caveats of small sample size and it happening in the very offensive friendly Pacific Coast League (PCL), that’s impressive stuff. However, the Padres were not swayed enough by Mercado’s dominant run at their top affiliate to promote him to the majors and allowed him to opt-out of his deal in search of big league opportunities elsewhere (he ultimately finished the season with the Dodgers). Now with Soto and Grisham out the door, the Friars seem inclined to see if Mercado’s newfound power is for real. For what it’s worth – and history indicates it might be very little – he has been crushing it in spring training so far, with an .778 SLG in nine games as of March 6th. Mercado also can hold his own in center, further buoying his profile.

Locastro is not likely not replace Soto or Grisham as a starting outfielder but could be an interesting option off of the bench. He’s one of the fastest players in the sport, providing solid value as a pinch runner. And while he’s not an offensive force, Locastro knows how to get on base – in the most painful way possible. Last year in just 67 plate appearances, he was hit-by-pitch six times, or in other words about once in every 11 PAs. This wasn’t a one-off for 2023 either; for his career Locastro has been hit by a pitch one in about every 14.3 PAs. He generally makes little to no effort to get out of the way of pitchers heading anywhere near him, even leaning into to them at times.

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Though Jose Azocar is on the 40 man roster, giving him a leg up on the competition for an outfield spot, he does have a minor league option remaining so he is not a lock to make the team out of camp. Though not a true veteran due to his lack of big league playing time, he has played in the majors each of the past two seasons, which combined with his 40-man roster status makes me no longer view him as a prospect. Azocar only has 318 major league plater appearances to his name and he has yet to demonstrate that he can hit big league pitching; in his MLB career he’s struck out more than four times as much as he’s walked while only hitting two homers. It’s not as if he’s been a masher in the minors either, hitting just .269/.307/.388 in the very offense friendly Pacific Coast League as a 27 year old in 2023. In a full time role, Azocar likely will be a black hole at the end of the lineup.

Azocar does have some built in floor however, thanks to his speed (29.6 feet/second sprint speed last year) and strong defensive track record. In 2022, defensive metrics thought that Azocar was superlative in his limited playing time, posting 7 RAA in just 534 innings. While his glovework didn’t receive as strong marks in 2023, he remained a solid option. His ability to play a good centerfield in addition covering the corner spots might give him a leg up on the competition when it comes to playing time, particularly early in the season. The biggest drop-off between Azocar and Grisham in center comes in the power department, as he lacks the erstwhile Padre’s ability to blast the ball over the fence.

The Prospects

It’s been a long running joke that the Padres have a team built entirely out of shortstops. From Manny Machado to Xander Bogaerts to Tatis, San Diego is full of capable shortstops playing out of position due to the team’s surplus. Even one of the team’s top prospects, 20 year old Jackson Merrill is a shortstop. However, with the Padres’ lack of experienced outfield options, the team has been trotting out Merrill in the outfield this spring (primarily in center) in hopes that he they can get his bat into the lineup, if not now then by the summer.

Merrill is a consensus top 50 prospect in the sport, with his strong hit tool helping him stand out from the pack. Merrill has a sweet swing, and prospect writers celebrate his all-fields approach to hitting. He held his own in both high A and AA in 2023 as a young for the level player, recording a 111 and 104 wRC+ at each respective stop. That’s really impressive stuff, but it’s not as if he decimated the opposition in a way that indicates that he is ready for the big leagues right now. Ideally, with a young player like Merrill you would like to give him the time to get more seasoning in the minors and force the issue when he’s ready to make the majors. The Padres themselves recently bore witness to the perils of having a young top prospect forced into big league action too soon with C.J. Abrams and his rough start to the 2022 season; Abrams never could quite find his footing in San Diego, only hitting for a 77 wRC+ before getting shipped out of town as part of the first Juan Soto trade at that season’s trade deadline. Throw in that Merrill would be learning a new position on the fly, and it’s not hard to see him having a challenging time adopting to the majors if he begins the year on the Padres roster. His upside, however, is likely the greatest of all of Padres’ internal options, and by midseason he could be laying waste to the minors and proven himself ready to contribute to the big league club.

While not a prospect with the same level of reputation as Merrill, Jakob Marsee is a very intriguing option to get outfield reps. Marsee’s profile is mostly built on a combination contact ability, plate discipline, and speed. A sixth round of the 2022 draft, he’s been an on-base machine in the minors, posting an OBP above .400 at every stop he’s made. Marsee spent most of 2023 in High A Fort Wayne, where he slashed .273/.412/.425 – good for a 142 wRC+ – while walking more often than he struck out and stealing 41 bases. Upon promotion to AA, Marsee continued to produce, hitting .286/.412/.446 in 16 games. He impressed even more in the Arizona Fall League, claiming the league’s MVP honors with a bonkers .391/.508/.707 line along with 16 steals.

With such strong stats, it’s interesting that Marsee has not received more prospect buzz. One of the biggest knocks against the 22 year old is his lack of power, as MLB Pipeline reports that he has not posted strong exit velocities in the minors. It also can be risky betting on someone whose minor league numbers are inflated by taking a lot of walks, as big league pitchers generally have superior command that cannot be as easily exploited for free passes. FanGraphs Eric Longenhagen laid out some of his concerns with Marsee in his latest scouting report at FanGraphs.

“Marsee is barrel chested and stocky, a bit stiff, and I think he has some plate coverage issues (big velo up/away) that have yet to be exposed by (mostly) A-ball pitching. Marsee is a short-levered pull hitter capable of doing damage versus pitches on the very inner edge of the plate, and I think pitchers can neutralize his power by staying away from him. Purely from an eyeball scouting standpoint, Marsee looks like he’ll peak as a fourth outfielder.”

Despite these concerns, Marsee’s statistical track record is arguably the strongest of the Padres’ options. It might be wise to see if he can hack it in the majors given their dearth of established big league options.

Cal Mitchell is another potential option for the Padres after signing a minor league deal with the organization this offseason. The San Diego native and longtime Pittsburgh Pirate farmhand tore up AAA as a 23 year old in 2022, hitting .339/.391/.547 with a strong 14.6% strikeout rate. That performance was good enough to get Mitchell a big league call-up, but he struggled in his 232 PAs to the tune of a 76 wRC+. He also graded out quite poorly as a defender in right field, putting up -4 DRS and -3 RAA. In 2023 Mitchell spent practically the whole year in AAA but without the same level of success, watching his strikeout rate balloon to 29.4%. Mitchell has shown promise in the past, but he’s going to have to figure out how to cut back down on the strikeouts once again to be successful at the big league level. With a corner-only profile and some defensive question marks, he’ll need his bat to play up if he wants to make an impact.

Tirso Orneales and Robert Perez Jr. are two other outfielders in Padres camp who have yet to reach the big leagues. Orneales has been a longtime Padre and demonstrated more pop in 2023 than in years past, mashing 15 homers between AA and AAA to best his previous season high of eight back in 2018. However, Orneales has yet to produce big offensive numbers in the minors on the whole and is a corner outfield defender. He could be an interesting role player, but his offensive ceiling isn’t at the same level as Merrill or Marsee. Perez is a similar story. Signed as a minor league free agent after years in the Mariners system, Perez has demonstrated some pop in the minors, but he had an ungodly 30.5% strikeout rate in AA last season. He’s need to have Joey Gallo-esq power or be an incredible defender to make the level of strikeout viable, and unfortunately he has neither.

The Padres have a few other potential outfield options. The recently signed Brad Miller has some corner outfield experience, and prospect Graham Pauley is still searching for a defensive home and might be able to hold his own in left field. Some solid free agent options, like old friend Tommy Pham and defensive stalwart Michael A. Taylor, still remain on the free agent market and likely can be had for cheap this late into the offseason. But as things currently stand, the Padres outfield mix is full of a mix of mediocrity and uncertainty. The team’s best bet for success? Look for upside where they can find it and try to maximize the skillsets of the players they have. There’s no easy way to replace Juan Soto, but if San Diego can replicate even a quarter of his production, that would count as a somewhat of a win.



One response to “Filling A Juan Soto Sized Hole in the Padres’ Outfield”

  1. Yancy Eaton says:

    This was an excellent article. Extremely impressed.

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