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The San Diego Padres are now less than three weeks away from beginning Major League Baseball's regular season with a two-game set against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Seoul, South Korea. The Padres followed up a disappointing season with a transformative winter; gone are manager Bob Melvin and stars Juan Soto, Josh Hader, and Trent Grisham. There were no big external additions to take their places, either. Indeed, the Padres are, in effect, taking a step away from their recent trajectory. 

That includes in the outfield, where Fernando Tatis Jr. is the only sure thing. Otherwise, the Padres are in the midst of a two-position battle with more than a handful of entrants. As new manager Mike Shildt told reporters (including Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune): "The outfield competition is real. I mean, where do you start?"

We know our answer. With due respect to the others vying for a spot -- José Azocar, Jurickson Profar, Cal Mitchell … take a breath … Bryce Johnson, Óscar Mercado, Tim Locastro, and Jakob Marsee -- the most intriguing potential part of San Diego's outfield equation is Jackson Merrill, a 20-year-old converted shortstop with 46 games worth of experience at or above the Double-A level. 

Just what makes Merrill so interesting? And why does it seem more likely than not that he'll play a role in San Diego's Opening Day outfield? Let's highlight three factors.

1. Merrill is a legitimate prospect

Merrill has been on our radar since spring 2021, and he entered that summer's draft with as much helium as anyone else in the class. We ranked him 50th that July, noting that he was a polarizing prospect based on his background and projections:

Merrill is a risk-reward play for the final spot on this list. He's moved up boards quickly over the last month, though estimates on where he'll go in the draft are all over the place. His boosters see him as an above-average hitter, complete with good pop from the left side, whereas his detractors would like to see him go to Kentucky and prove that he isn't the product of facing Maryland high schoolers. However Merrill's career plays out, he's likely to be one of the most second-guessed selections in this class.

The Padres proved to be on the "booster" side of the spectrum, selecting Merrill 27th overall. He's since developed into one of the game's best prospects. To wit, CBS Sports recently ranked Merrill as the 12th best prospect in the minors. Here is our report, which we will note was originally penned last winter:

The Padres made three of the first 75 picks in the 2021 draft. Two of their selections (James Wood and Robert Gasser) have since been traded as part of deals for Juan Soto and Josh Hader. Merrill, the highest drafted of the three, remains in the organization. He should soon become part of the big-league lineup. Merrill connected on more than 80% of his swings last season, resulting in a cumulative .277/.326/.444 slash line across High- and Double-A. His ability to put the bat on the ball is his top selling point. He does have some power, but it's almost exclusively to his pull side, and it's hard to see him displacing Xander Bogaerts as the Padres' everyday shortstop. San Diego started playing Merrill at other positions down the stretch, including at first and second base and out in left field. If he remains with the Padres into next season -- and, as Wood and Gasser illustrate, you can never say for sure -- he could begin his pro career in more of a utility-starter role.

Since then, a lot has changed about the Padres' circumstances. Bogaerts is now the everyday second baseman out of deference to Ha Seong Kim, and Merrill might begin his career as an outfielder. The overall gist remains true: Merrill is a skilled contact hitter with pull-side power and the athleticism to be a good glove at various positions.

You don't have to take our word for any of this, either. Merrill has already shown enough this spring to convince Tatis to publicly endorse him making the Opening Day roster as part of a recent ESPN broadcast. Tatis has since offered even more praise of Merrill, proving in the process to be a skilled hype man.

"He just can play ball," Tatis told reporters. "He can play ball --  like real baseball, baseball that should be played every single day. The guy can play that game. I see him hit, see him playing defense, see him running the bases, and the guy is gonna help in every single area."

2. Lack of great alternatives

The old saying about starting quarterbacks is that if you have two of them then you actually have none. We won't get that pithy with the Padres' outfield situation, but look at the names above. They can safely be classified as either journeyman types (Profar, Mercado, Locastro, Mitchell) or decent, not great prospects (Azocar, Marsee, Johnson). The heart of it is that the Padres don't have a lot of great options on paper.  

Perhaps it's no wonder then why, according to Dennis Lin of The Athletic, the Padres remain open to adding outfielders -- as they did earlier this week, when they signed the aforementioned Locastro to a minor-league deal. 

That thinking could even entail a reunion with Tommy Pham, a member of the 2020-21 Padres. We ranked Pham as the 34th best free agent entering the winter on the basis of his above-average offensive production and sparkling ball-tracking data. If the Padres were to sign Pham, that would still leave center field available to Merrill. And if they don't, but they continue to pursue external options, where might that lead Here is a complete list of the other unsigned outfielders who made our top 50 rankings:

  • Michael A. Taylor, No. 31

It wouldn't be completely accurate to describe Taylor and Pham as polar opposites, but you would be more correct than not. Taylor is an outstanding defensive center fielder coming off the best two-year stretch of his career as a hitter. Unfortunately, two things can be true at once: Taylor hit about as well as he's ever hit as a big-league player, and the product of that relatively good hitting span was a sub-.300 on-base percentage.

The Padres were linked to Taylor earlier this year. It's unclear which outfielder is more likely to join San Diego's roster. Either is a fine to good option in their own ways. If we had to guess, though, we suspect the Padres would be in the market to add only one of the two, leaving a pathway for Merrill to secure a meaningful role. Why? Let's segue. 

3. Payroll considerations

Keep in mind that one of the reasons the Padres traded Soto and allowed Hader and most of their rotation to leave in free agency was the desire to reduce expenses. The Padres reportedly took out a loan late last year to cover payroll. Late owner Peter Seidler, who died over the offseason, may have been willing to run a deficit to win a ring, but MLB has rules about debt compliance that every team must oblige by.

As it stands, the Padres are projected to have their lowest full-season Opening Day payroll since the 2019 campaign -- somewhere around $160 million, according to Baseball Prospectus' Cot's Contracts. Their luxury tax number is significantly higher, however, checking in at $222 million. That leaves the Padres with less than $15 million wiggle room between their current situation and the tax line. Given that they gutted chunks of their roster to drop expenses, it's probably fair to assume the front office will do what they can to stay underneath the tax line this year and reset their penalty.

Adding one more veteran outfielder would cut into that number. Attempting to add two would complicate sticking by that mission while making further in-season additions.

In other words, the Padres have plenty of motivation to give Merrill an opportunity to make one of their vacant outfield spots his own.