Five Questions: San Diego Padres

I have no witty introduction. I have only questions. Here are five of them.

1. Can Bud Black manage?

I’m sure the Padres hope so, but I don’t know. None of us does, because he’s never done it at any level. Black is a former pitcher, and the recent track record of managers who were pitchers isn’t stellar—Roger Craig is the last of that lot to lead his club to a playoff series win, with the San Francisco Giants in 1989. Hard to say what bearing this has on anything, but it’s worth at least noting. Incidentally, Black played for Craig’s Giants in 1991 and 1992.

Since his playing days, Black has enjoyed success as the Angels’ pitching coach over the past several years, including in 2002, when the club that plays its home games in Anaheim won the World Series. How well this experience translates to managerial success remains to be seen. One hopes he’ll fare better than, say, Ray Miller did.

We’re not getting any closer to a satisfying answer, are we? Nope, I don’t believe we are. Magic 8-ball says, “Cannot predict now,” and it’ll get no argument from me.

2. Can Josh Bard handle the everyday catching duties?

Yes, as long as Tim Wakefield isn’t in the Padres rotation. The less snarky answer is still a qualified “yes.” Josh Bard, you will recall, fell into the Padres’ lap in May 2006 when the Red Sox decided they needed to reacquire Doug “One Tool, and Not a Particularly Useful One” Mirabelli at any cost because nobody else apparently could catch Wakefield’s knuckleball.

Once with the Padres, Bard played well behind the plate and swung a surprisingly potent bat. Backing up veteran Mike Piazza, the switch-hitting Bard enjoyed unprecedented success in a limited role.

The trouble is that Bard hasn’t done anything close to what he did last year at any level. He’s young enough that his improvement in 2006 could be legitimate, but until he does it again as a full-time starter, we just don’t know. Is it reasonable to expect a repeat of last year’s .333/.404/.522 line? Um, no. But something in the vicinity of .280/.350/.440 seems plausible to me. Last I checked, there’s nothing wrong with that from a big-league catcher.

3. Can Kevin Kouzmanoff play third base?

Depending on whom you ask and when you ask them, the responses run somewhere between “not really” and “he should be adequate.” Most of the concerns center around a lack of range and a back injury sustained in the Arizona Fall League in 2004.

Assuming Kevin Kouzmanoff‘s bat is strong enough, the range issue can be forgiven—Phil Nevin manned third base for years in San Diego. As for the back, all indications are that the Mashin’ Macedonian is healthy. The Nintendo-like numbers he posted in the minors last season would appear to support that notion.

Kouzmanoff won’t be a great or even very good defender at the hot corner, but if he continues to hit the way he has at every stop in the minor leagues, nobody will care. Imagine a better version of Todd Zeile and you’re on the right track.

4. Who will replace Dave Roberts in left field?

The three leading candidates are Terrmel Sledge, Jose Cruz Jr., and Paul McAnulty, with Sledge ahead of the others. Cruz most likely will make the club as a fourth outfielder because he can play all three spots and provides a strong right-handed bat off the bench. McAnulty is limited defensively and probably will start the year at Triple-A Portland. American League teams looking for a designated hitter should talk to the Padres about McAnulty because the kid can hit right now.

A healthy Sledge, meanwhile, could be useful. Due to hamstring injuries, he’s mostly been MIA the past two years. Sledge posted some nice numbers at Triple-A in 2006, but by his own admission, he didn’t start feeling good until August. This spring he came to camp 15 pounds lighter and he’s gotten off to a terrific start in the Cactus League. Assuming he remains healthy, Sledge should see most of the action in left field. Expect a return to his 2004 levels—he hit .269/.336/.462 as a rookie for the Expos that year. If he provides similar production in 2007, Sledge actually will represent a slight offensive upgrade from the popular Dave Roberts.

5. How much do David Wells and Greg Maddux have left in the tank, and what impact will their presence have on the young pitchers at the front of the rotation?

Let’s be honest. David Wells has got to be one of the least likely guys ever to be pitching in the big leagues at age 44. That said, although his 2006 campaign was marred by injuries, he pitched reasonably well down the stretch for the Padres after being re-acquired from Boston. Prior to last season, Wells had made 30 or more starts in four straight seasons—not bad for a guy as old and, um, three-dimensional as he is.

Greg Maddux is three years younger and hasn’t missed more than a handful of starts in a single season since he first reached the big leagues back in the Reagan administration. Maddux no longer is the force that he was throughout the ’90s, but he throws strikes and racks up innings. Neither he nor Wells is being asked to carry the rotation. Both are slotted for the back end, where hopefully they can go six innings more often than not and keep games close.

How the presence of these two veterans will affect kids like Jake Peavy, Chris Young, and Clay Hensley is anyone’s guess, but presumably the hope is that the latter will learn a little something about working more efficiently and, by extension, deeper into games. Young has led the big leagues in pitches per plate appearance in each of his first two full seasons. If he and Peavy can resolve at-bats more quickly, then they will be able to work longer and help reduce the bullpen’s load. The presence of Wells and Maddux may or may not help in that regard, but it certainly can’t hurt.

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