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The Padres could be the most exciting team in baseball

The baseball community was certainly surprised that the free agency period dragged on so long for both Manny Machado. But perhaps more shocking was that the San Diego Padres–a team that has not made the playoffs in over a decade–were the team to sign Machado to a franchise-altering mega deal.

Machado not only makes the Friars more productive and marketable as a franchise cornerstone, but he also provides an uninhibited level of excitement to a franchise that has been mostly dormant in the National League West. Yet to focus solely on Macahado’s impending impact on the club is a disservice to what general manager A.J. Preller is building in San Diego.

The Padres boast arguably the best prospect pool in baseball, with all of their top five up-and-comers in the top 40 of MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospect rankings. And make no mistake, they could be ready to compete sooner rather than later.

The young positional talent is evident…

For starters, Fernando Tatis Jr. has shown that he is capable of living up to the hype, hitting over .300 with an OPS close to 1.000 during Spring Training. Tatis’ level of promise rivals Machado–given their similar build and skill set–but he also has more speed.

At just 20 years old, the Padres will be keeping a keen eye on their no. 1 prospect as he looks to make an immediate impact at Triple-A with the hopes of a big-league call up sometime this season.

Then there is Luis Urias (22 years old), who will almost certainly be the team’s shortstop on Opening Day. While he has not had the same level of success as Tatis in Spring Training, pairing with Machado on the left side of that infield should give him a mentor to navigate his first full season in the majors, and should Tatis break into the bigs this year he can easily move over to second base.

Urias will be thrown into the fire for a full big-league season, but he has tremendous potential to adapt and learn on the fly from Machado and the other veterans on the infield such as Ian Kinsler and Eric Hosmer.

Catcher Francisco Mejia was the prize of the deal that sent Brad Hand to the Indians last season, and he impressed immediately by hitting a pair of homers in his first major league game. Although he struggled in his final nine games, Mejia has been raking this Spring.

The 23-year-old is hitting .438 with three homers and a staggering 1.314 OPS. Again, fans should not take too much stock in Spring Training. But those are eye-popping numbers for a player of any age or talent level. And make no mistake, Mejia is talented.

Unlike Urias, Mejia may actually benefit from platooning with Austin Hedges. This would allow the switch-hitting youngster to slowly build on a season where could earn the starting catcher role on a full-time basis.

…and the arms are coming up too

But when you think about where the Padres are lacking, the starting rotation is bound to surface as the most glaring deficiency of this San Diego team.

Padres starters posted a 5.09 ERA last season, which was 27th in the MLB. However, according to Baseball-Reference, the Friars actually ranked dead last in WAR among starters. That said, the arm talent is coming up the pipe… and some of it will be on full display from Opening Day.

Chris Paddack–the no. 5 prospect for San Diego according to MLB Pipeline has looked tremendous in Spring Training, including a seven-strikeout performance over four scoreless innings against the Oakland A’s.

Armed with tremendous velocity and stuff, Paddack will be inserted into the starting rotation immediately after spending just half a season in Double-A, which makes this unit all the more intriguing.

MacKenzie Gore’s progression will be equally interesting to follow. Gore, 19, was taken with the third overall pick in the 2017 Amateur Draft, and promptly breezed through the Arizona Fall League. Although he struggled a bit at Single-A, he will likely start the season in High-A or Double-A and have the chance to quickly ascend up the ladder.

Joey Lucchesi and Eric Lauer are both extremely young and just coming off of their first full big-league seasons. How they progress individually will undoubtedly be a massive determinant in San Diego’s success this season.

But in terms of excitement and promise, Paddack and Gore offer as much as any other young player or prospect in the league.

Will these guys rebound?

The Padres have a trio of players who could have a drastic impact on the lineup with turnaround seasons.

San Diego gave Hosmer an eight-year deal worth a total of $144 million guaranteed last offseason after he had the best season of his career in 2017 with the Kansas City Royals. How did he reward the Friars? With one of the most disappointing seasons of his career.

Hosmer’s batting average dropped 65 points while his slugging dipped by 100 full points, and he posted a negative fWAR. Still, there is a sense that Hosmer may have been pressing in the first year of a big contract, and he also had to adjust to a ballpark that is not as friendly for left-handed hitters. He could reassert himself as one of the best first basemen in the league this season.

The outfield saw a pair of underperformers in Wil Myers and Manuel Margot. Myers played in just 83 games in yet another injury-riddled season, while Margot took a step back after an impressive rookie season in 2017.

Myers may not be the hitter with the same kind of promise many expected after he won AL Rookie of the Year in 2013 despite playing just 83 games, but he still has 30-homer power and can steal bases. The 28-year-old also showed promise as an outfielder, although San Diego’s affinity for moving him all over the place positionally could have a lot to do with his injuries. After all, he was healthy when he spent two full seasons at first base (although he was a poor fielder at the position).

Health is and will always be the biggest question with Myers, but the production has been fairly consistent, so you know what you are getting. Margot is a different story.

The Padres were hoping that the former Red Sox prospect would build on a 2017 where he hit .263 with 13 homers and 17 stolen bases. But Margot succumbed to a sophomore slump, posting a measly .675 OPS while hitting fewer homers and stealing fewer bases.

Margot is an everyday player for his Gold Glove-caliber potential in center field, but the Padres would feel a whole lot more comfortable with their lineup if they were confident in Margot as a leadoff man.

Rebounds from these three are absolutely crucial if San Diego really hopes to remain competitive in the NL West, especially because of the inexperience in their starting rotation.

Could be buyers or sellers

Perhaps no team has as much potential for volatility as the Padres. If the young players thrive alongside a typically excellent Machado and a bullpen that was had the second-highest fWAR in baseball last season, then this team could turn heads and even make a Wild Card bid in the National League.

Yet San Diego could just as easily succumb to injuries while their young arms fail to develop, making them a prime candidate to sell the likes of Myers or potentially Kirby Yates or Craig Stammen.

And of course, Manny will be at the center of it all. He earned the $300 million contract, but can he fulfill his promise to be a mentor to Tatis and the other youngsters while helping to turn the franchise around? Only time will tell, but those questions are part of what make the Padres the most exciting team to watch this season.