Padres roster projection: Much to learn, not much time as full-squad work begins

PEORIA, Ariz. — The early social media darling of Padres camp is listed at 5 feet 8 and 165 pounds. He has never appeared in a big-league game, and he has acknowledged the difficulty he had throwing larger baseballs than he was used to during the 2023 World Baseball Classic.

Yuki Matsui’s résumé also includes 236 career saves and a 2.43 ERA in Nippon Professional Baseball; a 36.4 percent strikeout rate over the past three seasons as closer for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles; and, in addition to his native Japanese, a rapidly growing handle on both English and Spanish.

Earlier this week, Japan’s most decorated big-league pitcher was asked what kind of advice he had for his countryman and WBC teammate.

“No advice from my end,” Yu Darvish said through interpreter Shingo Horie. “It’s more about me learning from (Matsui) — just his demeanor, how open he is, how happy he is, how he doesn’t shy away from talking with teammates and stuff like that. I feel like he’s already been here for a couple of years, and it’s really good to see.”

An educational spring for veterans and newcomers alike has barely begun. Yet the real games are not far off. The Cactus League opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers is less than a week away. Not four weeks from now, both teams will fly to Seoul, South Korea, to start the regular season.

Who knows what San Diego’s projected roster will look like by then? Particularly in the outfield, this team remains incomplete and devoid of last spring’s feverish hype. Matsui isn’t the only player nearing his big-league debut, and he may be called upon to close a game sooner or later. Moves are coming at some point, but payroll constraints could encourage the Padres to lean on youth and inexperience in 2024.

So, there will be plenty to learn in the next four weeks. In the meantime, we can examine some of what we already know. Here’s our first guess at how the roster might shake out, based strictly on the players in camp and a few still sorting out visa issues.

Starting pitchers (5): Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish, Michael King, Randy Vásquez, Pedro Avila

Others on the 40-man roster: Jhony Brito, Matt Waldron, Jairo Iriarte, Glenn Otto, Jay Groome

Non-roster invitees: Drew Thorpe, Robby Snelling, Adam Mazur, Ryan Bergert, Austin Krob, Ryan Carpenter, Nolan Watson

King has the talent and stuff to build on a tantalizing final season with the New York Yankees. Does he have the durability to quickly approach his full potential for a Padres team in obvious need of innings? The elbow King fractured in 2022 presents one red flag, but the right-hander said he experienced no lingering issues in 2023, even as the Yankees carefully managed his workload.

“I had nothing happen to me last year,” King said. “I think that I was having a nagging bone injury for a long time. I even had it in college, and then I think it popped up in ’19. And I think it was just something that almost needed to go, and now that I have hardware in there to protect me, I have all the confidence in the world that it’s going to last for the rest of my career.”

Vásquez and Brito, two young pitchers who came with King from New York, also could be thrust into the initial rotation. Avila, who has held his own in various roles, could be a decent placeholder for either of them, or for someone else. Thorpe, the fourth and youngest pitcher included in the Juan Soto trade, could be deemed ready for the majors early in the season. The Padres, lacking lefty starters, have talked with veteran Hyun Jin Ryu, but even after a second Tommy John surgery, the Scott Boras client may not be inclined to take a discount.

Relief pitchers (8): Robert Suarez, Yuki Matsui, Wandy Peralta, Steven Wilson, Enyel De Los Santos, Tom Cosgrove, Woo-Suk Go, Jhony Brito

Others on the 40-man roster: Iriarte, Adrian Morejon, Alek Jacob, Luis Patiño, Stephen Kolek, Jeremiah Estrada, Sean Reynolds, Logan Gillaspie

Non-roster invitees: Tommy Nance, Nick Hernandez, Matt Festa, Drew Carlton, Jayvien Sandridge, Moises Lugo, Daniel Camarena, Yovanny Cruz, Kevin Kopps, Lake Bachar

After extensive practice over the winter, Matsui said he is at “a totally different level” of comfort with major-league-size baseballs. If he makes a successful adjustment in games, he should earn plenty of high-leverage opportunities. The Padres, given Suarez’s troubling 2023, could use multiple closer options.

Once a $22 million investment, Morejon might be on his last chance with the Padres. The team is hopeful, of course, that Morejon will finally extract his sizable talent. “Everything’s coming out great,” manager Mike Shildt said. “I think we likely see him more in a long reliever, multi-inning (role), but how he pitches and how he goes about it, he could turn it into a lot of different roles.”

Iriarte, who reached Double A last season, occupies the hot-prospect status Morejon formerly held. The right-hander has the kind of big stuff that could play in starts or relief appearances. The latter route could help him reach the big leagues quicker.

Catchers (2): Luis Campusano, Kyle Higashioka

Others on the 40-man roster: Brett Sullivan

Non-roster invitees: Ethan Salas, Kevin Plawecki, Chandler Seagle

Could Higashioka be the primary catcher for King and, if they’re in the rotation, Vásquez or Brito? A former Yankee, Higashioka has experience with those pitchers, especially King. “I think that makes some sense for Higgy to catch some of those guys,” Shildt said, “but I also think it’s important for (Campusano) and other guys to catch them as well to create that familiarity.”

Campusano, of course, is the projected primary catcher for the entire staff. Health will be crucial to a potential breakout, but the Padres have been pleased with Campusano’s maturation over the past year.

Salas, widely considered the sport’s top catching prospect, looks noticeably stronger than he was even several months ago. It makes sense; he’s a growing 17-year-old who had never played as many games as he did last summer. (By his own admission, Salas suffered some fatigue toward the end of the season.)

Jake Cronenworth is hoping to turn things around after a down year. (Kiyoshi Mio / USA Today)

Infielders (6): Jake Cronenworth, Ha-Seong Kim, Xander Bogaerts, Manny Machado, Matthew Batten, Eguy Rosario

Others on the 40-man roster: Tucupita Marcano

Non-roster invitees: Graham Pauley, Nathan Martorella, Mason McCoy, Tyler Wade, Nate Mondou, Marcos Castañon

As long as Machado continues to progress in his rehabilitation from elbow surgery, the Padres are poised to run it back with last year’s starting infield. It’s not the most natural setup, but it could be a productive one if Cronenworth, in particular, rediscovers past success. The expected starting first baseman is coming off both a down year and an offseason that included what Cronenworth described as “swing adjustments” and significant self-reflection.

“Obviously, a cruddy way to end the year last year (with a) broken wrist, but I really felt I started to turn things around there those last couple months and kind of started playing like the guy I was the (previous) three years,” Cronenworth said. “Going into the offseason, I made myself vulnerable and had the ability to learn and grow and do some things to put myself in a better position to succeed.”

Because Cronenworth is the only established left-handed hitter on the 40-man roster, the Padres would love to see at least one of their lefty-hitting prospects earn a job out of camp. Pauley, a former college player, might be the most polished offensively after a big 2023. His defensive future remains in question, and the Padres have had him start getting more work at first base.

Outfielders (5): Jackson Merrill, José Azocar, Fernando Tatis Jr., Jurickson Profar, Óscar Mercado*

Others on the 40-man roster: N/A

Non-roster invitees: Jakob Marsee, Cal Mitchell, Bryce Johnson, Tirso Ornelas, Robert Perez Jr.

*Non-roster invitee

Profar easily could be the Opening Day left fielder. The Padres would rather he serve, from the outset, as more of a bench bat. Meanwhile, a critical spring awaits Merrill, the organization’s top non-catching prospect.

A natural shortstop, Merrill has a good chance of making the team despite limited experience in left field, center field and Double A. The Padres could acquire another outfielder — and they almost certainly will — and Merrill still might have a decent chance.

Would it all be too much too soon? Quite possibly. Outside of Tatis, this regime has failed to turn numerous highly regarded prospects into stars or even above-average regulars. Still, the Padres consistently have raved about Merrill’s blend of talent and makeup. They should soon learn just how much the 20-year-old can handle.

(Top photo of Yuki Matsui: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

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