Five questions: San Diego Padres

You could say that the Padres’ 2008 season didn’t turn out as planned, but that would be a terrific understatement. Teams typically don’t fall 25 and a half games in the standings from one year to the next. The good news is that all else being equal, it’s hard to do worse in the third year. The bad news is that all else is never equal, and in the Padres’ case, they are dealing with a dramatic reduction in payroll, a change in ownership, and a fan base that largely has stopped caring.

Benjamin Disraeli once noted that “there is no education like adversity.” Lord Byron claimed that “adversity is the first path to truth.” I don’t know what two dead English guys have to do with this year’s Padres, but let’s see what we can learn…

How much longer will Jake Peavy remain with the Padres?

As long as he is worth more to them than whatever they might receive in return. One of the misperceptions over the off-season was that the Padres would move Peavy no matter what.

Although clearing his salary would help in terms of payroll flexibility, the gains in that area were not enough to offset the talent loss in the rumored trades, which is why those deals didn’t happen. It’s one thing to dump Khalil Greene‘s salary. He is difficult to replace, but his absence is not likely to affect the franchise in any profound way over the next several years. Peavy, on the other hand, would be missed more than words can convey.

Fortunately for the Padres and their fans, with the club’s payroll now hovering just over their $40 million target, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency in shedding Peavy’s salary. More likely, we will see at least one of Brian Giles, Scott Hairston, or Kevin Kouzmanoff dealt during the season, unless, of course, somebody is willing to pay top dollar for the privilege of acquiring Peavy.

What does the ownership change mean for the team?

Short-term, not much. The payroll won’t suddenly expand because someone else is signing the checks. Long-term, it’s hard to tell. The biggest difference is that the names John Moores and Sandy Alderson no longer will be associated with the Padres. In the minds of many fans, this alone is cause for celebration.

Although both men enjoyed a fair measure of success during their respective tenures, ultimately both wore out their welcome. Fans have grown weary of investing emotionally and financially in a team that cannot or will not spend some magical amount of money that in their minds would ensure success. For many, Moores and Alderson represent cheapness, and with their departure comes the hope that someone else will save us and lead us to the promised land. Or at least give us a hug.

The new ownership group is headed by Jeff Moorad, who oversaw some good teams in Arizona and before that worked as a player agent. Moorad has demonstrated that he is comfortable with sabermetrics and generally willing to think “outside the box” in attempting to build a successful franchise. Such flexibility should serve his group and the team well, although they will need to sell their vision to the masses—something the outgoing group could not do.

The fact that Moorad has been involved in the business as an advocate of players presumably gives him additional insight into how they operate. How such insight will translate into success as an owner remains uncertain, but at the very least, he should not be caught off guard by whatever tactics a player’s agent may sling his way. Then again, if the purse strings aren’t loosened at some point, tactics will not matter.

How can the Padres reignite fan interest?

The short answer is, they need to field a winning team. The longer answer is, winning alone won’t be enough. It wasn’t enough from 2004 to 2007, when the Padres enjoyed their first—and only—stretch of four consecutive winning seasons. The previous regime failed to sell a vision that fans could believe in, and without that belief, there is no hope; ultimately, without hope, there are no fans.

The situation isn’t as dire in San Diego as it has been in, say, Kansas City or Pittsburgh, but it also isn’t improving in the same way that those two franchises appear to be. When you lose 99 games and then cut payroll by $30 million, that doesn’t send an inspiring message to fans, who are more interested in watching the team put on a good show than in hearing about the difficulties in assembling said show.

In the many years I played in working bands, never once did an audience member ask me about the logistics of rehearsing, booking a gig, collecting payment, etc. As long as none of those factors kept us from performing our music or, more importantly, showing people a good time, why should anyone care? Hey, that’s entertainment.

What’s the deal with that pitching staff?

Basically it’s a mess. Peavy is a stud. If Chris Young can stay healthy, he should be effective. The rest of the rotation is filled with question marks. When Cha Seung Baek is assured of a rotation spot, something has gone wrong. Kevin Correia and recently signed Shawn Hill appear to have the inside track on the final two spots, but it’s hard to imagine either of them surviving the entire season in a big-league rotation, even one that makes half its starts at Petco Park.

As for the bullpen, Trevor Hoffman is not a part of this team for the first time since 1993. With the face of the franchise now in Milwaukee, Heath Bell takes over as closer. If it’s the Bell we saw in 2007, then no problem. If it’s the guy who sported a 6.18 ERA after the All-Star break last year—well, I suppose the bright side is that save opportunities will be few and far between, but that’s not much of a bright side, is it?

Cla Meredith returns to soak up innings. Beyond Bell and Meredith, the relief corps is far from settled and none of the available options is exciting.

The Padres almost certainly will carry 12 pitchers, but by my count, only four or five (depending on your opinion of Baek) belong in the big leagues. If anyone is equipped to test the limits of Petco Park’s friendliness to pitchers, it’s this year’s staff. Pay attention at the ballpark: the life you save could be your own.

Why should fans be hopeful?

First off, baseball is salvation. That alone should be reason enough for hope. On the off chance that it isn’t, here are a few other points to bear in mind:

  • The front office is filled with smart baseball minds. Kevin Towers’ trading record speaks for itself. Paul DePodesta has been identified as a potential future GM candidate. And although he hasn’t yet enjoyed the same success in San Diego, Grady Fuson’s scouting and development efforts in Oakland helped propel the A’s despite their relatively modest budget.

  • At the big-league level, there aren’t any bad contracts. Peavy is expensive, but he’s a premium talent. Giles is a tad pricey, but he’s in the final year of his contract and he still should provide value and/or make for good trade bait. Adrian Gonzalez is a franchise player who is signed through 2010. Heck, the club holds an option for 2011 that will cost the Padres less than what the Giants are paying Dave Roberts not to play for them in 2009.

  • The farm system isn’t as thin as some experts claim. There is a lack of impact talent at higher levels — Kyle Blanks, maybe Matt Antonelli — but the last few drafts look promising. The team also has been aggressive on the international front, thanks in part to a new facility in the Dominican Republic.

    One problem is that the Padres are heavy with corner guys and finesse pitchers. As I’ve noted in the Ducksnorts 2009 Baseball Annual, they appear to be following Minnesota’s blueprint for developing pitchers. The emphasis on controlling the strike zone over lighting up radar guns comes with risk — strikeout rates typically decline as a player moves up through the ranks, and if they aren’t strong to begin with, that can be a problem. The Padres would do well to diversify their portfolio and add more power arms.

    Getting more prospects at premium positions to complement the corner guys — Blanks, Jaff Decker, Allan Dykstra, Kellen Kulbacki, etc. — would be good as well, although that is easier said than done. There is a reason those positions are considered premium. Drew Cumberland, Jonathan Galvez, Cedric Hunter, and Jorge Minyeti could help, but all are a long way from the big leagues — a lot can happen between there and here.

    The system isn’t in great shape, but there is at least a foundation on which to build, which is more than could be claimed a few years ago. Remember, we’re looking for solid reasons to have hope, not some pie-in-the-sky miracle cure.

All that being said, we need to balance hope with a healthy dose of reality. If everything—and I do mean everything—breaks right for the Padres, they could win 85 games in 2009. With their complete lack of pitching, though, the more reasonable expectation is 70-75 wins.

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