Mike Shildt is known for player development. The 2024 Padres are counting on it
From the Appalachian League to Busch Stadium, Mike Shildt spent a dozen seasons as a manager in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. In time, he came to relish both ends of a certain rite of passage.
There was the pleasure of informing a minor leaguer of his first big-league call-up. When breaking the news to players such as Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez that they were leaving his minor-league clubs, Shildt typically opted for a direct delivery. “I shoot it straight, man,” Shildt said. “I just give them a big hug.”
Then there was the privilege of welcoming Tommy Edman, Dakota Hudson and other newcomers to the big leagues, as their new major-league manager.
As soon as next month, Shildt could again serve as a bearer of life-changing news, an onboarding director or both. The San Diego Padres will embark on an abbreviated spring training when pitchers and catchers report Sunday — the team is scheduled to depart for South Korea in less than five weeks — and their first-year manager anticipates he’ll oversee more than a few rookies in 2024.
“I do expect that,” Shildt said. “I know (Padres president of baseball operations A.J. Preller) is still open for business and doing what he can to always make our club better and add to it. But I think regardless of what additions we may or may not make, the organization — rightfully so — feels confident in a lot of our younger players, whether it be on the position-player or pitcher side, and there’s clearly opportunities to be had.”
Those opportunities exist because, over the past 12 months, the Padres have gone from a popular World Series pick to a club with limited financial flexibility and looming gaps on the roster. At the same time, San Diego pushed several of its best prospects to Double A and traded Juan Soto for a package of young pitching. The organization again boasts, in the estimation of some evaluators, a top-10 farm system. Last spring, star power and megacontracts were the talk of Peoria, Ariz. A year later, youth — the kind of youth that could inexpensively fill out a roster — has moved to the forefront.
Camp participants attempting to reach the majors this year include Jackson Merrill, Robby Snelling, Drew Thorpe, Jairo Iriarte, Graham Pauley, Jakob Marsee, Adam Mazur, Ryan Bergert and Austin Krob. Randy Vásquez, Matt Waldron and Alek Jacob have held on to their rookie statuses. (Yuki Matsui and Woo-Suk Go technically will be rookies, too.) After a quiet winter, Preller still could strike a deal at any time. But for now, there are four jobs seemingly available between the starting outfield and the starting rotation. The Padres, who tend to challenge prospects as aggressively as any organization, also must field a bench.
The man tasked with finding answers during a quick spring spent parts of the past two years advising the Padres’ player development staff. Before that, Shildt spent 18 seasons with the Cardinals, who gave him the George Kissell Award for excellence in player development in 2010. From July 2018 through the end of the 2021 season, Shildt managed a number of notable St. Louis rookies, including some he previously managed in the minor leagues.
“Having been in player development for as long as I was, it allowed me the opportunity to think about how to help players make the transition and figure out what it looks like,” Shildt said, “because it is a transition, but also not make it bigger than it is.”
Cardinals players who experienced rookie-year success under Shildt included Edman, Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson and Dakota Hudson. (After debuting in Aug. 2020, Carlson technically remained a rookie at the start of the following season.) “I think the biggest part, really, was the welcoming from the established players,” Shildt said. “The clubhouse was open. There wasn’t a lot of hazing or any of that. It was a welcoming environment. ‘You’re here to help us win.’” And the Cardinals did. Over Shildt’s 3 1/2 seasons as manager, they compiled a .559 winning percentage and three playoff appearances.
The Padres have affable personalities in their clubhouse, but they lack the institutional track record of St. Louis. They also could find themselves torn between urgency and development. Highly-paid veterans Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove aren’t getting any younger. Meanwhile, the organization’s top upper-level prospects have limited experience actually playing at upper levels — Merrill, Snelling, Thorpe, Iriarte, Pauley and Marsee all reached Double A last July or later. The Athletic’s Keith Law rates the Padres as the No. 18 farm system in baseball, citing a potential lack of near-ready contributors.
“Some of that grouping that got to Double A at the end of the year, I think they’ve earned the opportunity to compete. I think a few of them had a chance to go to the (Arizona Fall League) … that helps us speed up their development and gives them a little bit more experience,” Preller said. “But I think we understand, too, playing at the big-league level, that’s a whole other jump and a whole other level. We’ll see how they handle it, but they’ve worked hard in the offseason, and we feel good about giving those guys a chance to come in and compete and see where they’re at.”
Shildt acknowledged that the majority of the players he managed in St. Louis already had played at least a full season at Double A or Triple A. “But I’ve had guys that have been able to go quicker,” he added. “Harrison Bader was in Triple A in his first full season of professional baseball and then broke in the next year. So, it’s a case-by-case study. I think some guys are ready for it physically and emotionally and mentally, and there’s a learning curve to all of it for every single guy. And then some guys maybe need those extra at-bats or innings (in the minor leagues.)
“I was always, and still will be, very intentional about creating those relationships in spring training, knowing they’re going to come up at some point to help us, making sure there’s a clear communication with the player development (staff) of not only what the skill set is but more or less how the player is, what their routines are,” said Shildt, whose coaching staff includes several instructors who previously worked in the Padres’ player development department. “So when they get there, I just share, ‘Hey, you’re here for a reason. I’m going to trust you. You trust yourself. Just go play, be aggressive, let the chips fall where they may.’”
Notable rookie seasons under Shildt
|Prior AAA time
* Reached the majors before Shildt became interim manager in 2018
Among the organization’s more advanced prospects, the Padres are especially high on Merrill, who is attending his second big-league camp weeks before his 21st birthday. Merrill got a handful of games in left field last summer, a potential path to introduce the young shortstop to a shortstop-laden roster. Conventional wisdom suggests having a rookie learn a new position while breaking into the majors could unnecessarily increase the degree of difficulty, but the Padres believe Merrill possesses the talent and fortitude to make such a jump, whenever it comes.
Shildt mentioned Edman and former Cardinals infielder Daniel Descalso, who played for Shildt in the minors, as two players who capably adjusted to the majors while being exposed to new defensive assignments. The Padres could pose a similar test. Merrill spent time this offseason working with first-base coach and outfield instructor David Macias.
“He could play some center (field), could play some left (field) clearly and of course shortstop, and he’s been able to play some second (base),” Shildt said. “He’s got the ability and the enthusiasm to do it. But it also depends on who else is in those positions that creates opportunity for him to get a chance.”
For now, there is no shortage of opportunity. The Padres have only two outfielders on their 40-man roster, and the current expectation is that Pauley, another young hitter the organization likes, will play more infield than outfield in camp. (“Graham’s been concentrating mostly on third and second,” Shildt said, “and he’s starting to get some more work at first base a little more recently.”) With the projected starting rotation uncertain after Darvish, Musgrove and Michael King, the team hopes recent technological advancements will help pitching coach Ruben Niebla and pitching development director Rob Marcello fast-track a few young arms to the majors.
Inexperience also means significant patience continues to be required. Can the Padres, fielding an aging core, afford it? External expectations have been drastically lowered, and the Los Angeles Dodgers appear destined for another division title, but Shildt does not talk as if he inherited a team in retreat.
“This group is a special group, and they go about it the right way, so I’m excited for them and the opportunity,” Shildt said. “I can tell you we’ll do everything we can to be prepared every day to … play the game right every day that will allow us to compete and win the (National League) West. And we clearly respect our opponents. We know it’s a very strong division. We know teams have improved themselves in the offseason. We’re not naive to that, but we’re getting excited about how this club is going to compete.”
Shildt, of course, was hired for more than his optimism. Facing financial constraints, the Padres finally appear motivated to keep more prospects than they trade away. The upcoming season could hinge on those players’ development, some of which will have to occur at the highest level. On that front, Shildt comes with more than a little track record.
“All those past experiences, it’s a big part of his skill set, and I think we’re going to look to utilize that a lot this year because we have a group of young guys that we feel really good about,” Preller said.
(Top photo of Mike Shildt: Orlando Ramirez / Getty Images)