Five questions: San Diego Padres

In the wake of one of the most successful and surprising (most analysts picked the Padres to finish last in the NL West, and I took a few good-natured jabs for picking them to finish ahead of Arizona) seasons in Padres history, the club finds itself in a state of flux. On the bright side, the Padres usually are in a state of flux and seem to be comfortable operating within that reality. As the song says, “Changes aren’t permanent, but change is.”

How do the Padres replace Adrian Gonzalez?

They don’t.

In last year’s preview, I advised fans to “enjoy him while you can and hope he brings something good in return when the time comes.” Gonzalez is an elite talent. When you remove him from the equation, you can’t plug someone else in and expect similar results. Not when you’re operating with one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, anyway.

Short-term, the Padres have brought in Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu to duct tape the void. Both are coming off poor seasons, and neither cost much. The hope is that they’ll party like it’s 2009. Oliver pegs Hawpe at .253/.349/.442 and Cantu at .273/.322/.439, both of which fall well short of the .298/.396/.561 projected for Gonzalez. But then, there’s a reason he is (or soon will be) much more expensive than Hawpe and Cantu.

The Padres also will rely on a more balanced attack, as opposed to the “superstar and scrubs” approach that netted them 90 wins in 2010. Intuitively, it seems that such diversification would help mitigate risk, but studies don’t support that notion—at least not to the degree Padres fans might like.

Long-term, Anthony Rizzo, who came from Boston as part of the package for Gonzalez, is one option. Optimists point to their similar seasons at the same age while playing for Double-A Portland:

                  Yr Age Lg  PA   BA  OBP  SLG BB  SO
Anthony Rizzo   2010  20 EL 467 .263 .334 .481 45 100
Adrian Gonzalez 2002  20 EL 573 .266 .344 .437 54 112

We’re cherry picking to illustrate a point, but naysayers could advance, say, Edgard Clemente as a counterexample (different home park, but same league):

                  Yr Age Lg  PA   BA  OBP  SLG BB  SO
Anthony Rizzo   2010  20 EL 467 .263 .334 .481 45 100
Edgard Clemente 1996  20 EL 543 .290 .365 .484 53 114

This speaks as much to the folly of relying solely on statistical comps as a basis for evaluation as it does anything, so let’s see what the experts have to say. John Sickels calls Rizzo a Grade B prospect, Keith Law ranks him No. 38 overall among current MLB prospects, Kevin Goldstein rates him No. 3 in the Padres system, and Baseball America puts him at No. 2 (and No. 75 in all of baseball), citing him as the organization’s best power hitter.

The best guess has Rizzo landing somewhere between the extremes of Gonzalez and Clemente. Maybe Adam LaRoche? Not to get too hung up on reading tea leaves, but that’s about what Oliver expects. Of course, Rizzo is much younger now than LaRoche was when the latter got his shot, but the point is that Rizzo isn’t Gonzalez. Few people are.

The other option is Kyle Blanks. Recovering from Tommy John surgery and still just 24, the mammoth right-handed hitter remains very much in the picture. Blanks isn’t expected to be ready by Opening Day, but if he can regain his power stroke of 2009, the battle between him and Rizzo should be a fun one for the Padres and their fans to watch in 2012.

Will Cameron Maybin finally fulfill his potential?

Cameron Maybin
Cameron Maybin and the Padres hope for greater things in San Diego. (Icon/SMI)

Maybin joins the Padres, his third organization, at age 24. The same once could be said of Gonzalez. They are completely different players, but as with Gonzalez, despite a few false starts, it’s too early to give up on Maybin.

The former first-round draft pick owns a career .246/.313/.380 line in about a season’s worth of big-league games. He’s had trouble controlling the strike zone, which wasn’t his strong suit in the minors either, where he hit a much more robust .306/.393/.478 in nearly 1,800 plate appearances.

Baseball America ranked Maybin among its top 10 prospects in baseball every year from 2007 through 2009. Oliver likes his chances this season, setting the bar at .271/.339/.422, which looks suspiciously like what Mike Cameron (to whom Maybin has been compared) did for the Padres in 2007.

The flip side of Cameron is Ruben Rivera, who peaked at age 20 in the Florida State League and then flopped. Padres fans have seen young center fielders come to San Diego and fail to deliver on their promise, so if there is skepticism on their part, Maybin can thank the likes of Rivera and Ray McDavid for that.

The good news for Maybin is that he’s being asked to replace the ironically named Tony Gwynn Jr. Expectations are low, certainly lower than they were when Maybin went to Florida in the Miguel Cabrera deal. Being traded for Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica presumably brings with it less pressure than being traded for Cabrera.

Maybin probably won’t turn into Cameron (and hopefully won’t turn into Rivera), but he might become another David DeJesus or Shane Victorino. A team that suffered through Gwynn last year could use someone like that.

Beyond Mat Latos and Clayton Richard, who is in the rotation?

Local product Aaron Harang, who fell victim to Dusty Baker‘s meat grinder in Cincinnati, returns home in the hope of resurrecting his career a la fellow San Diegan Kevin Correia (who parlayed his stint there into a multi-year contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates this past winter). If healthy, Harang could help fill the void left by innings eater Jon Garland. The trouble is, Harang hasn’t worked more than 185 innings since 2007. His average line over the past three seasons is 6-13, 4.71 ERA (90 ERA+), which hardly looks like that of a No. 3 starter.

Harang has been particularly susceptible to the long ball during the post-effective phase of his career. The good news for him and the Padres is that PETCO Park is where fly balls go to die. It’s hard to imagine a better place for the 33-year-old right-hander to try and rebuild value.

Tim Stauffer, the former first-round pick who appeared to be a bust before blossoming into a legitimate big-league pitcher upon his return from shoulder surgery in 2009, figures to break camp as a member of the rotation for the first time in his career. Stauffer is 10-12 with a 2.66 ERA (140 ERA+) over the past two seasons. Questions remain about his ability to stay healthy (he hasn’t worked as many as 160 innings since 2004, his first professional season), but if he can keep those issues behind him, the 29-year-old right-hander could be one of baseball’s more pleasant surprises in 2011.

After Harang and Stauffer, the battle for No. 5 is wide open. The leading candidates are holdovers Wade LeBlanc and Cory Luebke (both left-handers) and newcomer Dustin Moseley (a right-hander).

LeBlanc pitched well at times last year but faded badly down the stretch, going 4-5 with a 5.91 ERA in the second half and ultimately losing his spot in the rotation. A finesse pitcher who gets in trouble when he leaves pitches up in the zone, LeBlanc had a terrible time away from PETCO Park, posting a 6.11 ERA on the road (versus 2.71 at home) and allowing opponents to hit .302/.358/.556 against him (think 2010 Adrian Beltre).

Luebke impressed in a September audition but has relatively little experience (26 games started, 155.1 IP) above A-ball. Given the fragility of those ahead of Luebke in the queue, he should see time in the big-league rotation this year but may start out back in the minors while the Padres take more time to evaluate LeBlanc.

As for Moseley, he served under Bud Black when the latter was pitching coach of the Angels. Moseley also is the only one among the three candidates to have significant bullpen experience. In fact, 60 percent of his 80 big-league appearances have come as a reliever. If he doesn’t crack the rotation, he stands a good chance to stick as a long reliever/swingman. The same cannot be said of LeBlanc or Luebke.

The guess here is that LeBlanc will win the no. 5 spot, with Moseley working out of the bullpen and Luebke starting at Triple-A Tucson. But again, with Harang and Stauffer hardly the paradigms of health, there’s a good chance that whoever “loses” this battle will see plenty of action with the big club this summer.

Can the bullpen repeat its stellar 2010 performance?

The Padres owned MLB’s best bullpen ERA (2.81) last year. Opponents hit .220/.284/.336 (think poor man’s Mike Matheny) against the San Diego relief corps. Will this happen again?

Probably not. Here’s a look at how each of the key cogs did in terms of ERA in 2010 and what Oliver projects for them in the coming season:

Pitcher        2010 2011   Dif
Heath Bell     2.10 3.43 -1.33
Mike Adams     1.76 3.17 -1.41
Luke Gregerson 3.26 3.42 -0.16
Joe Thatcher   1.29 3.84 -2.55
Chad Qualls    7.32 3.95 +3.37
Ernesto Frieri 1.57 4.91 -2.34

Qualls should be better than last year, but that’s damning with faint praise. As for the others, Oliver expects serious regression out of most. Gregerson figures to hold his ground, but everyone else is due to slip by at least 1.33 runs.

The numbers for Bell, Adams, and Frieri seem overly pessimistic to me. That said, even if you disagree with Oliver’s exact conclusions, it’s hard to dispute the philosophy that drives them, which is that many of these pitchers achieved better results than might reasonably be expected given their track records.

It is unlikely that any of Bell, Adams, Thatcher, and Frieri will exceed last year’s performance, although one or two might come close to duplicating it. Still, individually and as a group, they probably will be less effective than they were in 2010.

The Padres leaned heavily on a talented bullpen last year and just missed the playoffs. With a thin rotation, the Padres need a strong encore from their relievers to have any shot at returning to the top of the NL West. Unfortunately, regression stacks the odds against this happening.

As the Padres demonstrated up until the final day of the 2010 season, just because the odds are against you doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. As most other teams with long odds will attest, though, there’s usually a good reason for the long odds. Don’t expect the bullpen to do what it did last year and nearly push the Padres into the playoffs.

Will people keep coming to games?

The Padres in 2010 reversed a downward trend in attendance. Here’s an updated version of the table that ran in this space last year:

Year Attendance  Att/G
2004  3,016,752 37,244
2005  2,869,787 35,429
2006  2,659,757 32,837
2007  2,790,074 34,445
2008  2,427,535 29,970
2009  1,919,603 23,699
2010  2,131,774 26,318

On the one hand, this is encouraging. On the other, as with Qualls’ ERA, our enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that there really isn’t any other direction to head at this point.

The Padres enjoyed the fourth 90-win season in their 42 years of existence. In the process, they posted the 13th-best attendance-per-game figure in club history. It ranked behind, among other forgettable seasons, 2002 (96 losses, 10th-best attendance in team history) and 2008 (99 losses, 7th-best). If you’re running the Padres, you’re hoping for a little better showing, but minimal turnaround is better than none.

Meanwhile, the team spent this past offseason unloading its one true superstar—one of the best players in club history and a hometown kid—which couldn’t have made the marketing department real happy. But in the process, GM Jed Hoyer did something unexpected—he went out and took steps to improve his club in the short term.

Does Hoyer believe the Padres can compete now? Or is he just trying to appease a restless fan base? In many respects, it doesn’t matter. Hoyer spent precious little (having precious little to spend) and did what he could. And in so doing, he seems to have engendered a trust that eluded previous ownership/management regimes.

We won’t know for sure until we see actual attendance figures, but here’s an encouraging sign: Despite jettisoning their lone superstar, the Padres welcomed a “record crowd of over 21,000″ to their February FanFest at PETCO Park. Granted, this was a free event, but the club did sell items at a “garage sale” that generated an unwieldy queue.

People are more excited about the Padres than might be expected given the circumstances. If any lingering bitterness from the inevitable Gonzalez trade remains, fans are hiding it well. How long they continue to do so, when they are being asked to subsidize a team that doesn’t spend money on players and that probably won’t enjoy another unexpected run (that’s why it’s unexpected, right?), is an open question that only time can answer.

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Comments

  1. Geoff Young said...

    This is a gross oversimplification, but here are the basic issues:

    1. Although SD is not a small city, it is a comparatively small media market
    2. Geography, i.e., LA to the north, Pacific Ocean to the west, desert to the east, Mexico to the south
    3. Many expats from other places live here and have allegiances to other teams

    It will be difficult to fix any of these, let alone all three of them.

  2. JoeC said...

    I still don’t understand why the Padres “have no money”? It’s not like San Diego is a small city. And drawing 2 million fans is no small potatos, I would think. There’s obviously room for further growth in attendence if they can put a competitive product on the field. So I don’t get why they’re lumped in with, for example, my A’s.

    The Padres have a new, downtown ballpark in an area with possibly the best weather IN THE COUNTRY (not counting Hawaii, natch)… attendence problems should be the last of their problems.

    Maybe this team just isn’t very well-run?

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