Jurickson Profar Rejoins the Padres’ Not-So-Crowded Outfield

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Eleven years ago, Jurickson Profar was the consensus pick as the game’s top prospect. Now he’s just days away from his 31st birthday and looking to rebound from the worst performance of his career. According to multiple reports, he’ll be returning to the Padres, a team whose roster is more than a little light on outfielders.

Profar spent the 2020–22 seasons with San Diego, turning in solid campaigns in the two bookends of that run. He posted a 113 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and a 111 wRC+ and a career-high 2.5 WAR in ’22; in the middle season, however, he sank to an 87 wRC+ and -0.6 WAR. After his comparatively strong 2022 showing, he opted out of a $7.5 million guarantee for ’23, instead taking a $1 million buyout. The move pretty much backfired, as he went unsigned last winter before finally inking a one-year, $7.75 million deal with the Rockies in mid-March after playing for Team Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.

Whether it was the late signing date, the difficulty of adjusting to Colorado, or the eventual realization of just what he was in for with a team that lost 94 games in 2022 and had little expectation of improving in ’23, Profar struggled mightily. At the plate he hit just .236/.316/.364 with eight homers in 472 plate appearances for the Rockies, yielding just a 76 wRC+. If that wasn’t bad enough, he was absolutely brutal as a full-time left fielder according to the metrics, with -11 DRS and -12 OAA.

On Aug. 27, the Rockies released him, and four days later, he rejoined the Padres, who sent him to El Paso for a quick tuneup and then added him to the roster on Sept. 9. He collected three hits apiece in his first two games back, including a homer off the Astros’ Cristian Javier, and hit a reassuring .295/.367/.409 (120 wRC+) in 49 PA with San Diego. Still, he finished the year with -2.0 WAR, the lowest mark of any position player in the majors. So while he did land a major league contract, he ended up taking quite a pay cut. He’s guaranteed a base salary of $1 million, with incentives that can add another $1.5 million according to FanSided’s Robert Murray.

Profar was more effective against lefties (.275/.347/.427, 97 wRC+ in 147 PA) than righties (.229/.311/.345, 68 WRC+ in 374 PA) last year, but in the aggregate, he had been pretty platoon neutral prior to last season, with a 104 wRC+ against lefties and 100 against righties from 2018–22. While he showed disciplined when it came to chasing pitches out of the strike zone (just 24.5% in 2023, a point below his career norm) and swung at more pitches than ever inside the zone (68.5%), he just didn’t make much good contact. His 86.5 mph average exit velocity, 4% barrel rate, and 31.7% hard-hit rate respectively ranked in the ninth, 10th, and 12th percentiles, and it’s not as though he legged out extra hits with 13th-percentile speed. He outdid his .344 xSLG by a whole 24 points; otherwise his actual and expected numbers were just a few points apart.

All of which is to say that this isn’t a case of looking at a mediocre performance and seeing obvious signs of potential positive regression. This is one where a rebound is likely to be driven by soft factors. Connected to general manager A.J. Preller from their days with the Rangers, Profar is back in an environment where he has performed well, and one where he’s considered a popular, positive presence. From The Athletic’s Dennis Lin:

A popular teammate, Profar has long been close with such players as [Fernando Tatis Jr.] and infielders Ha-Seong Kim and Manny Machado.

“It’s hard to quantify; otherwise, we would have this thing figured out in our game,” [manager Mike] Shildt said. “But having the experience and knowing how important clubhouses are, how important it is to have positive guys that also can share truths with everybody around them, hold guys accountable in a good way — Jurickson brings that.”

If you’re wondering about how often players who plummet as far below replacement level as Profar did turn things around the next season, the answer is not often. Going back to 2001, I found 28 other player-seasons with at least 200 PA and -2.0 WAR. Twelve of those were by catchers, many whose values were retroactively downgraded by negative framing run estimates; I wasn’t really interested in their fates (sorry, guys). Of the 16 other players, one never played in the majors again, while the rest averaged 376 PA and 0.6 WAR in their follow-up seasons, with Aubrey Huff (5.7 WAR in 2010), Adam Dunn (2.1 WAR in 2012) and Jermaine Dye (1.8 WAR in 2004) the big success stories; each went on to extend his career by at least a couple more years. On the other hand, seven of the 15 were below replacement level the next year as well, and many of them didn’t play much longer. Profar’s own Depth Charts projection looks a lot like that group’s average: .238/.325/.369 (93 wRC+) with 0.2 WAR in 364 PA.

It’s difficult to envision Profar getting a ton of playing time with that kind of performance, but right now, the Padres’ outfield picture is a nearly blank canvas. Prior to his signing, the team had just two outfielders on its 40-man roster, namely Fernando Tatis Jr. and José Azocar, both right-handed hitters. The 25-year-old Tatis played in a career-high 141 games last year after returning from his 80-game suspension for violating the game’s performance-enhancing drug policy, and while he hit just .257/.322/.449 for a career-low 113 wRC+, stellar defense (10 OAA and 29 DRS in right field, 8 OAA and 27 DRS including his 30 innings in center) boosted his overall production to 4.4 WAR. Azocar, who turns 28 on May 11, hit for a 78 wRC+ in 102 PA last year and owns a career .249/.292/.341 (81 wRC+) line in 318 PA over two seasons. The small-sample metrics suggest he’s an above-average center fielder, but he doesn’t project to do much as a hitter.

As for the space that’s been vacated, with the death of chairman Peter Seidler and a mandate to trim last year’s payroll ($280.3 million for Competitive Balance Tax purposes), Juan Soto and Trent Grisham were traded to the Yankees in early December in exchange for a five-player package headlined by Michael King. Soto made 154 starts in left field for the Padres last year, Grisham 142 starts in center; along with Tatis, they accounted for 90.5% of the team’s plate appearances as outfielders. Other than Azocar, who started 14 times in center, nine in right and once in left and took 95 PA as an outfielder, they had seven players who combined for just 100 PA in that capacity, with Profar (24) the leader. The six others are gone from the organization, with David Dahl, the team’s Opening Day right fielder last year, and Adam Engel, who briefly played center, released in the first half of last season. Rougned Odor is now a Yomiuri Giant, while Ben Gamel and Taylor Kohlwey both signed minor league deals with the Mets, and Brandon Dixon has yet to resurface with another organization.

Obviously, that leaves a lot of playing time to give at two of the three outfield spots. Beyond Profar, the team has half a dozen non-roster invitees in camp. Three have major league experience, namely 29-year-old righty-swinging Óscar Mercado, 28-year-old switch-hitter Bryce Johnson, and 24-year-old lefty Cal Mitchell. Mercado is the most experienced, a former Guardians prospect who made 32 PA for the Cardinals — who originally drafted him in the second round in 2013 — last year. He owns a career .237/.289/.388 (82 wRC+) line in 973 PA but has at least shown he can play center field. Last year, he hit .299/.367/.523 (114 wRC+) with 14 homers in 347 PA spread out between Triple-A stops in Memphis, El Paso, and Oklahoma City. Mainly a center fielder, Johnson, a 2017 sixth-round pick by the Giants, hit .163/.229/.256 (35 wRC+) in his 48 PA with San Francisco last year, but he did bat a healthier .280/.373/.455 (103 wRC+) with eight homers and 18 steals in 298 PA at Triple-A Sacramento. Mitchell, a 2017 second-round pick by the Pirates, made just five plate appearances for Pittsburgh last year after hitting .226/.286/.349 (78 wRC+) in 232 PA as a right fielder in 2022. He hit a thin .261/.333/.414 (87 wRC+) at Triple-A Indianapolis in 2023, after a much better showing at that level, .339/.391/.547 (146 wRC+) the year before.

Of more interest among the NRIs are prospects Jakob Marsee, Tirso Ornelas, and Robert Perez Jr. Eric Longenhagen covered the first two in more detail last month in the Padres’ Imminent Big Leaguers roundup. The 22-year-old Marsee, a lefty, is a 40+ FV center field prospect who hit .273/.413/.425 (142 wRC+) with 13 homers and 41 steals in 400 PA at High-A Fort Wayne, then .286/.412/.446 (134 wRC+) with three homers and five steals in 69 PA at Double-A San Antonio, and capped it with an MVP-winning performance in the Arizona Fall League. As you might ascertain from the stolen base totals, his 60-grade speed is his best tool, and his contact and chase-rate data is very promising. Longenhagen described him as a fourth outfielder type whose statistical case is stronger than his visual one: “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.”

Ornelas is a Tijuana-born 23-year-old lefty swinger who hit .285/.371/.452 (111 wRC+) with 15 homers and eight steals split between San Antonio (126 wRC+) and El Paso (92 wRC+). Longehagen, who has compared him to Billy McKinney, wrote that Ornelas has undergone multiple swing changes with limited success in tapping into his plus raw power, but he does hit the ball hard (42% hard-hit rate, 114 mph max exit velo). A 23-year-old righty hitter from Venezuela, Perez hit .242/.321/.416 (93 wRC+) with 17 homers for the Mariners’ Double-A Arkansas affiliate last season. His 7.5% walk rate and 30.5% strikeout rate were downright cringeworthy, which explains what Longenhagen wrote when he placed him among the Mariners’ other prospects of note last summer. “[Perez] has plus power, but his combo of whiffs and poor plate discipline has kept him in this section of the list for a while.”

According to Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Padres plan to experiment with 20-year-old shortstop Jackson Merrill, the team’s 2021 first-round pick, in the outfield as well. Merrill, currently the team’s number two prospect (55 FV), hit a combined .277/.326/.444 (108 wRC+) with 15 homers and 15 steals split between High-A Fort Wayne and Double-A San Antonio. Blocked by Xander Bogaerts and Ha-Seong Kim in the middle infield, he’s already traveling down the defensive spectrum because of his below-average hands; at San Antonio he played five games in left field, two at second base, and one at first. For Longenhagen, playing Merrill at third base (in place of Machado as he recovers from elbow surgery) or left field during the spring represents “the best chance for the Padres to catch a special sort of lightning in a bottle.”

Added Shildt, “We do want to kind of read the tea leaves and get him in the outfield and let him see what that looks like.” While the manager cited Profar’s versatility, his 31 innings at first base and one at second after rejoining the Padres last September were his first non-outfield innings since 2021.

The Padres intend to add another outfielder and a starting pitcher, according to Acee, and still have about $20 million to spend to keep themselves under the first CBT threshold of $237 million. Among the free agent outfielders still on the market are Adam Duvall and Michael A. Taylor, both of whom are capable center fielders, as well as Tommy Pham, Whit Merrifield, Eddie Rosario, Randal Grichuk, and Robbie Grossman. All of which is to say that the ink’s hardly dry on this picture, and despite Profar’s signing, he’ll have to work to keep from getting erased from it.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the cities of the Padres’ High-A and Double-A affiliates. This has been corrected.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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CC AFCmember
3 months ago

Nice set of plate appearances from Marsee at Double A