Five Questions: San Diego Padres

Spring is the season of new beginnings and hopes. The days are brighter and clearer and longer. The anticipation of a summer full of good times starts to enter the mind.

This year, San Diego‘s spring is more exciting than usual. In Downtown’s East Village, the cranes no longer dominate the landscape; instead, Petco Park’s light standards and tower buildings and scoreboards fill the sky. And, for the first time in years, the Padres enter the season as legitimate contenders.

1) What does Petco Park mean?

It’s not retro, it’s not neo-retro, it’s not futuristic. It’s… San Diego. It’s sandstone and adobe, open and scenic. No matter where you are in the park, you have an incredible view of both the game and the scenery, of the downtown skyline, San Diego Bay, Point Loma and even the distant hills of Mexico. It’s an unparalleled aesthetic setting. It’s a ballpark befitting San Diego.

It also houses a vast and treacherous right field. Not only is the right-center corner 411 feet from home plate, but the home run porch in right field creates a series of angles that is difficult to corral. The Padres entered the off-season with an outfield of Brian Giles, Xavier Nady and Ryan Klesko; Giles can handle CF, but is stretched, and neither Nady nor Klesko are impressive outfielders, even in the corners. Even projecting best-case offensive numbers from that trio, the defensive impact was scary.

Enter Jay Payton. While Payton has his flaws, he fits this club well. Payton is capable of handling center, allowing Giles to move to right; though Giles has little experience in right field, he is a surprisingly good outfielder and is the Padres’ best option to handle Petco’s gimmicky RF. Klesko slides over to LF, which he played extensively as a Brave. Klesko’s fielding isn’t pretty, but he gets the job done; though he looks clumsy moving around, he does get to his share of balls.

This outfield isn’t in the same class as Seattle’s the last few seasons or Oakland’s in the early ’80s or St. Louis in the mid-’80s, but (when healthy) it is good enough to turn Petco’s large and quirky outfield into a home-field advantage.

Most significantly, for the team’s long-term success, is the business impact of Petco. The Padres have already shattered their season-ticket record, and look certain to clear three million in attendance, a level long considered unattainable in this market. Thanks to Petco and the improved ballclub, the team will gross well over $100 million in revenue, clearly be in the top half of major-league teams in revenue, and possibly in the top-10. This is uncharted territory for the organization; the Padres haven’t signed a marquee free agent since Bruce Hurst, but ought to be in a position to do so next off-season.

2) How good is the Padres’ Big Three of Brian Giles, Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin?

When healthy, each of these players have been very productive with the bat; here are their OPS+ figures for the last five years:

          1999     2000     2001     2002     2003
Giles      157      158      153      173      148
Klesko     133      137      145      150      118
Nevin      123      137      158      106      121

OPS+ gives Nevin and Klesko proper credit for hitting in pitcher-friendly Qualcomm Stadium. The bottom two lines represent All-Star caliber hitters while the top one is near-MVP level.

Looking back, those three players would have made a devastating lineup core a few years ago. Going forward, however, question marks surround all three players. Note that 2003 was a down year for all three hitters; all three suffered from injuries, missing some games and often struggling through the pain. All of them have “old players’ skills”; Bill James demonstrated long ago that players who rely on power and walks tend not to age as gracefully as the Kenny Loftons and Willie McGees of the world.

If all three of these players stay healthy, the trio is among the best in the league. However, the best guess is that one will suffer a debilitating injury, wiping out much of his value, and at least one of the others will suffer through the nagging injuries and decline common to players of that age.

3) What’s with all the crappy veterans?

For a contending team, there seems to be a lot of chaff on the roster (especially considering salaries): Terrence Long, Jeff Cirillo, Ismael Valdes, and even Rey Ordonez, before he recently bolted camp.

San Diego GM Kevin Towers, the self-styled sludge merchant, had plenty of sludge to deal this off-season, as both Kevin Jarvis and Wiki Gonzalez were due large salaries and no longer fit into the team’s plans (while Jarvis’ problem is simply lack of talent, Gonzalez’s lackluster work ethic has exasperated the team’s front office and coaching staff). Towers dealt both players to Seattle for Cirillo; though Cirillo is arguably the largest millstone in baseball, due $7M in each of the next two seasons, the deal was structured so that neither team’s cash commitment changes.

After figuring in the cash received from the Mariners, the Padres owe Cirillo roughly what they owed Jarvis and Gonzalez before the deal. Towers did well to make this deal, as Cirillo actually has a modicum of value and a slight chance of returning to form. Okay, he’s unlikely to really add any value, but at least he only takes up one spot on the 40-man roster.

Long was similarly acquired, to balance salaries in the Mark Kotsay-Ramon Hernandez trade. At the time of the trade, it made sense to acquire a reserve outfielder who can handle CF. But this team has a history of deciding that certain players just can’t handle certain positions, and last week’s Kerry Robinson acquisition implies that Bochy has decided that Long is unable to handle the occasional start in CF. This negates any value Long brought to the table; but due to his contract, he will get some playing time in hopes that he hits enough to entice another team to take on at least part of his contract.

Over the past five years, the Padres have been more willing to give young players jobs to see what they could do. Xavier Nady was ticketed for more seasoning at AAA in 2003, but Phil Nevin’s injury gave Nady the right-field job. Many young pitchers have assumed major-league roles before their minor-league performance justified it. Some (like Jake Peavy in 2002 and Kevin Walker in 2000) swam, but many sank.

This year, in another sign that the front office plans to contend, Towers has brought in plenty of veterans for these roles. While in years past, Dennis Tankersley would’ve been given every shot at the fifth spot in the rotation, Towers brought in veteran castoffs Sterling Hitchcock and Ismael Valdes. Instead of locking Khalil Greene into the shortstop position, Towers made no promises and signed Rey Ordonez as insurance. Rather than relying on Nady to start and Henri Stanley to back up in the outfield, Towers acquired Payton, Long and Kerry Robinson.

In every case, there’s a decent chance that the youngsters will outproduce the veterans; but there’s also significant risk. The current plan gives the team more options in-season: if Valdes or Hitchcock stinks, Tankersley is still around; if Nady tears up AAA pitching, he can step in after the inevitable starting outfielder’s injury.

4) How are Kevin Towers and Bruce Bochy still employed, after five losing seasons?

The Padres enjoyed two magical runs in a 30-month span covering ’96-’98. While Kevin Towers and Bruce Bochy have had their critics, their contributions to the club’s success were undeniable. Towers made some poor decisions after the ’98 season, as did the team’s ownership and top management over the following few off-seasons. The team (and its fans) have suffered through five consecutive losing seasons.

Throughout this time, however, Towers has made decisions that fit the “stathead” model. He acquired Ramon Vazquez and Bubba Trammell and Henri Stanley and Akinori Ohtsuka and so on. So while the sabermetric community endorses his moves, Towers’s clubs haven’t produced on the field. This off-season, it is clear that Towers is expecting things to come together; as mentioned above, he has been building depth and adding proven players, rather than going for youth and upside. This is a refreshing change for Padre fans.

Bochy has a maddening tendency to play mediocre veterans over promising or unheralded youngsters. But this is really a manifestation of his habit to give lots of playing time to everybody on the roster. For instance, Bochy played Deivi Cruz over Vazquez in 2002 not because he was particularly enamored with Cruz or down on Vazquez, but because he wanted to get playing time for both of them. On the one hand, it is frustrating to watch him with young talent, because it appears that he will not give young players a full-time shot.

But with a deeper bench, this management style keeps all of his players fresh and happy. Deserved or not, Bochy has earned a reputation of being a very good leader of veteran teams, but he has not had success with the young teams of recent years. This year’s roster is a real example of a general manager putting together a team that fits the manager’s style.

This is the pivotal year for Towers and Bochy. This whole organization has spent the last five years biding time, waiting for this year. While those years were long and frustrating, it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss Towers or Bochy on the performance of those years, as their mandate was to build a winner for the opening of Petco. 2004 is judgment day; if the results don’t come this year, the public outcry will reach heights unforeseen in San Diego since Ryan Leaf last started at quarterback.

5) What’s the deal with Ramon Vazquez?

Vazquez provides a good case study in the idea of focusing on a player’s strengths and maximizing his value vs. focusing on his weaknesses. Vazquez is a capable shortstop and is superlative at 2B and 3B. However, the organization feels he is not a good enough defender to handle SS regularly. He has hit .285/.363/.378 career against right-handed pitching, but his ineptitude vs. southpaws drags down his overall numbers.

While it appears that Bochy has little confidence in Vazquez, Towers understands his value. Towers reportedly turned down a deal for Orlando Cabrera, who would have likely been the greatest shortstop in franchise history. Admittedly, that probably says more about his confidence in Greene and unwillingness to pay Cabrera’s $6M salary, but Towers rejected other overtures as well.

If Vazquez were to start at shortstop everyday, he would be an average regular at best, due to his platoon splits and defensive limitations. But in a super-sub role, he provides a competitive advantage; there are few bench players in the league who provide the defense and on-base ability that he does. If any of Greene, Sean Burroughs or Mark Loretta get hurt, Vazquez will be able to step in, and the lineup won’t miss a beat. With the way that Bochy uses his bench, Vazquez should still get 400+ PA.

More importantly, Vazquez will remain much cheaper through his arbitration years as a super-sub than as a regular. The Padres can probably get just as much baseball value from Vazquez in this role as they would making him a regular, but he will likely cost a total of $5M less this way. And Towers still maintains the option to trade him at any time to fill other needs.

In Closing…

The NL West is wide open this year. The Giants are quickly regressing into a two-man team, and an injury to either Barry Bonds or Jason Schmidt could plunge them below .500. Arizona, LA and Colorado all have significant holes. The Padres have a lot of question marks and “ifs.”

If the big three hitters and Payton stay healthy and productive, if Burroughs continues to progress, if Loretta and Hernandez can repeat their 2003 seasons, if Brian Lawrence can bounce back from a disappointing and injury-filled campaign, if either Adam Eaton or Peavy takes a step forward, if Trevor Hoffman is healthy, if Ohtsuka is anywhere near as good against major-league hitters as he was in Japan – if most of these things work out, the Padres should win 85 or so games and take the division title.

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