There was a time, not too long ago, when Jon Jay looked like the prototypical Padres pickup. He was hitting an empty .260something with center field defense that made you long for the days of Wil Myers. He was a 31-year-old outfielder coming off a miserable year, someone who didn’t have a future on the Padres yet was simultaneously blocking other players—think Jabari Blash or Travis Jankowski—from getting their everyday shot. Internet scribes were calling for his benching (at least against lefties).
Then, as it almost always does, things changed. Jay’s empty .260 batting average crept up, slowly, reaching .300 briefly and sticking in the general vicinity to date. While Jay’s patience or home run power won’t light up his stat page, he leads the league with 24 doubles and, somehow, he’s OPSing .850 vs. lefties. And his defense—whew, his defense! Jay, who played center field in April not unlike an out-of-position little leaguer might, now suddenly roams the Petco expanses like a seasoned pro, routinely making highlight-reel catches like this one. (The metrics don’t necessarily agree on the defense, but let’s not get too bogged down in details).
What’s been fun about Jay is pretty simple. For one, it’s fun to watch good baseball players perform well. It can be fun to watch them stink, too—we’ve had our practice there. Mostly, though, we like to watch them play well, and Jay’s been playing well for weeks now. Two, we like to watch players unexpectedly perform well. It’s not that Jay’s outlook was dreadfully bad coming into this season, but he had just finished a .563 OPS, injury-plagued campaign, one that pushed his longtime team, the Cardinals, to jettison him to the west coast. Recently, at least, players don’t come to San Diego to unexpectedly succeed (especially hitters), and there was a question as to whether Jay could regain his early career form.
Of course, Jay’s performance has come on a awful team, one that’s probably two or three (or more) years away from returning to contention. Jay, 31 and on the final year of his contract, is almost certain to be dealt by July 31—that is, unless A.J. Preller reads this or unless Jay’s recent injury turns into something serious. It’s great that Jay’s increased his trade value, but he’s still 31, on the last year of his contract, and a year removed from the worst season of his career, factors that will limit his trade value despite the unexpected performance. Maybe he’ll return a relief pitching prospect or a low-level starter or a young outfielder three years away from turning into another Jay . . . if everything works out.
That’s the disappointing thing. The Padres hit on Jay; they bought low and have watched him outplay everyone’s expectations. In the end, however, because nothing around Jay has worked out—outside of Myers, Drew Pomeranz, and the spare part here or there—there will be nothing more to show for Jay’s success than another prospect or two, where the Padres will have to hit again. Jay’s sliding catches and resurgent bat are fun, in a vacuum, but they’re dragged down by the slog that is Padres baseball in 2016—a team without an identity and without a clear path to getting one.
In a perfect world, Jay would have been a complementary piece on a good Padres team, his already fun play amplified by its surroundings. Instead he’s relegated to an on-field audition for his next big-league stop, and we’re left to wonder what it would have felt like to watch that catch in the context of a pennant race.