SAN DIEGO — The Padres just reached their first National League Championship Series in 24 years, and the bulk of their roster is set to return in 2023.
Naturally, manager Bob Melvin likes that foundation.
“You look at the core guys we have coming back, this is going to be as good a group as any,” Melvin said. “[General manager A.J. Preller] has always been good at filling in and filling out the roster. But you look at our group that we have coming back right now, we’re going to be as good as anybody.”
Still, the Padres enter the winter with their share of question marks. Here are five:
1. What’s next for Soto?
If there’s one big-picture storyline that could dominate headlines, it’s this one. When the Padres traded for Juan Soto, they did so knowing they had 2 1/2 years of team contractual control. But they gave up a massive collection of talent to acquire Soto — the type of package you give up when the goal is to sign a superstar to a long-term contract.
Last week, Preller noted the possibility that Soto might be on board for “many years to come,” though the GM pivoted to note that any forthcoming talks would mark the beginning of that process.
“We’ll have that conversation,” Preller said. “From Juan’s standpoint, he’s getting to know the city and getting to know the organization. When we made the deal, we made it knowing that we’d have him for three pennant races but also understanding that … he’s an incredibly talented player, an impact player, and we’ll have those conversations here. This offseason is kind of taking the temperature.”
2. Who’s on first?
The Padres could slide Ha-Seong Kim to second base, Jake Cronenworth to first base and insert Fernando Tatis Jr. back at shortstop. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be active in the search for a first baseman this winter — preferably a thumper who could hit behind Tatis, Soto and Manny Machado.
“We’ll definitely have a conversation with their agents and them personally, where they’re at, what they’re thinking about,” Preller said. “I wouldn’t close the door on anything.”
There’s no position where it’s easier to find offensive help than first base, and the Padres need to make sure they get this one right. Their lineup depth — in particular their lack of slugging — was their biggest weakness in 2022.
Nick Martinez served as swingman in 2022. The Padres would view him as a starter in ’23, but Martinez can opt out of his contract. Meanwhile, Adrian Morejon might transfer from the bullpen to the rotation, but he never has pitched more than 65 1/3 innings in a professional season.
The Padres need to add a starter (or two) this winter. They also might be well served trying to build for beyond 2023, with Darvish and Snell both potential free agents after next season.
4. Is there enough at catcher?
Austin Nola proved a huge asset down the stretch and into the playoffs, handling the pitching staff with ease while reaching base at a .338 clip during the second half. Behind Nola, the Padres seem likely to move on from Jorge Alfaro, clearing a path for rookie Luis Campusano. Team decision makers have been pleased with the strides Campusano made on defense.
“We’ll go into it with Nola and Campusano on the roster, two guys that the staff has a lot of faith in,” Preller said. “We like the situation.”
Maybe they do. But the Padres were linked with a number of catching options at the Trade Deadline, including Willson Contreras (a pending free agent). Expect those rumors to persist this winter.
5. Where does this leave Tatis?
A popular question at the team’s end-of-season presser centered around where Tatis would play next season. Perhaps Preller answered it best when he said simply, “On the field.”
Tatis has made it clear that he views himself as a shortstop. He also has said he’s on board with playing elsewhere.
“He wants to win,” Preller said. “We’ll sit down and have that conversation.”
But here’s the thing: The Padres might not know the answer yet. If Jurickson Profar opts out, they may need a left fielder. If Trent Grisham struggles, they may need a center fielder. If there’s no first baseman available for the right price, maybe Kim and Cronenworth slide over and Tatis is back at short.
“Last year, when he was potentially coming back, … he said, ‘I’ll do whatever I need to do for the team,'” Melvin said. “He worked out in the outfield. He worked out at shortstop. We had the plan of using him in multiple spots, and he was all in.
“My expectation is he’s going to do what he can do to help the team, depending on what the roster looks like.”