The San Diego Padres have had a busy winter, and while there is optimism surrounding the team heading into the 2012 season, most analysts (and projection systems) see them coming up a bit short in the always unpredictable National League West. The good news is that the Padres have one of the best minor league systems in the game, so it shouldn’t be long until they return as perennial contenders. Here are five questions to ponder as the 2012 season nears.
Will the starting rotation hold up?
Over the last few years, thanks in no small part to Petco Park, the Padres have been able to masquerade below-average starting rotations as a team strength. While the effect of Petco Park on offense is generally accepted, even in mainstream outlets, it’s still sometimes hard to grasp its impact. Considering that replacement level ERA for a Padres starting pitcher is somewhere around 4.50, depending on how you define it, might add some perspective. While 3.80-4.20 ERAs generally look pretty good in today’s high-offense era, those numbers usually check in below average in Petco, depending on yearly offensive totals. Since 2009, the Padres have had only one starting pitcher (Mat Latos, v. 2010) put up an ERA+ over 110.
Heading into 2012, the Padres have five pitchers penciled into the starting rotation: Tim Stauffer, Cory Luebke, Edinson Volquez, Clayton Richard and Dustin Moseley. In the offseason, San Diego lost its best starting pitcher, Mat Latos, to the Cincinnati Reds in a blockbuster trade that brought four players to San Diego.
In 2011 left-hander Luebke had a breakout year for the Padres, striking out nearly 10 batters per nine and posting a rotation-leading 3.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. While he’s not pegged as the Opening Day starter, Luebke currently stands as the best arm in the rotation. His strikeout numbers kind of came out of nowhere in 2011, as he struck out only 7.5 per nine in the minors. Perhaps he was able to relax a bit in San Diego, after logging a lot of innings in hitter-friendly minor league stops such as Lake Elsinore in the California League.
Volquez, coming over from Cincinnati in the aforementioned Latos trade, might be the most intriguing Padres starter. He’s struggled with injuries and performance over the past three seasons, but in 2008 Volquez posted a 3.21 ERA in 196 innings for Cincinnati, including 9.5 K/9. Still, 2008 was a long time ago and Volquez’s career numbers (4.65 ERA, 92 ERA+) are much less impressive. It would probably be foolish to expect a return to prime form, but the hope is that a move to Petco may help him recapture some of his past dominance. Volquez has struggled with home runs over the past three seasons, especially in 2011, and Petco should help remedy those struggles. With his solid mid-90s velocity still in tact, the Padres are hoping Volquez is a solid contributor in 2012.
Stauffer, the fourth overall pick in 2004, has finally begun to establish himself as a reliable major leaguer. In 2011, he pretty much defined league-average, posting a 3.73 ERA in 185 and two-thirds innings (6.2 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9). While he’s probably miscast as staff ace, Stauffer should offer solid mid-rotation performance this year. Lefty Richard pitched only 99,2 innings in 2012, due to season-ending shoulder surgery in late-July. Like Stauffer, Richard provides decent enough performance for a back-of-the-rotation arm. The final spot in the rotation will likely belong to Moseley, who posted a 3.30 ERA last season in 120 innings. He can’t be expected to repeat that performance, however, as he struck out just under 13 percent and put up a 1.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
If you look at this rotation with rose-colored glasses and squint just hard enough, maybe you can see a solid big league starting five. If Luebke puts it all together, he could be one of the best left-handers in the game. If Volquez regains some of his 2008 form, he could be well above average. If Moseley continues to post a 3.30 ERA with 4.8 K/9, he’ll be better than adequate.
Often times, however, looking through those rose-colored glasses we forget to consider the opposite side of the spectrum. What if Luebke goes through a sophomore slump? What if Volquez pitches like he has for the past three seasons? What if Moseley doesn’t get so lucky and posts a 4.50 ERA.
As it stands now, the rotation might be somewhere in the vicinity of league-average, but it’s not hard to see it being quite a bit worse than that. The good news comes in minor league reinforcements and the Padres have that in spades. Prospects such as Casey Kelly, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland could be ready by midseason if needed, though the Padres would probably prefer not to rush things.
How good is Yonder Alonso?
The current Padres brass has put a lot of faith into the smooth left-handed swing of newly acquired Yonder Alonso. First, they picked him up as a centerpiece in the Mat Latos-to-Cincinnati deal. Secondly, they dealt first baseman (and previous top prospect) Anthony Rizzo (acquired in the Adrian Gonzalez trade) to the Chicago Cubs for reliever Andrew Cashner after Alonso’s arrival. It’s not too difficult to read between the lines and see the Padres preference for Alonso over Rizzo, and they’ve essentially cleared out his prime competition for the first base job (apologies to Jesus Guzman).
Interestingly enough, if you look around at prospect lists, Alonso and Rizzo are generally interchangeable. Kevin Goldstein, for instance, has Rizzo ranked 75th overall and Alonso 86th. Either way, Rizzo is gone and our focus shifts towards Alonso’s expected production.
If you read a scouting report on Alonso’s bat, you’re most likely to encounter one or more of the following descriptions: “polished hitter,” “professional hitter,” “line-drive hitter,” “opposite field hitter.” Alonso’s minor league numbers generally back up the scouting reports. In 1,340 plate appearances he’s popped just 36 home runs, a bit worrisome for a first baseman. That said, he’s a career .293 hitter and owns a solid .370 on-base percentage. It should also be noted that he’s done most of his minor league work in pitcher-friendly environments. Last year with Cincinnati, Alonso triple-slashed .330/.398/.545 in just 98 plate appearances.
Despite the glowing scouting reports, most projections systems are relatively conservative:
System BA/OBP/SLG THT .253/.321/.403 ZiPS .256/.329/.401 PECOTA .253/.322/.399
While those projections aren’t terrible, by any means, they’re still a far way off from what most are anticipating out of Alonso in 2012. If you project off of Alonso’s scouting reports, you’re looking at a .300 hitter with a high on-base percentage and moderate power. Many are expecting Sean Casey-like production out of Alonso—think .300/.370/.470.
That isn’t unreasonable, but it appears that Alonso hasn’t accomplished enough in the minors to merit those expectations, at least not by the numbers. Remember, Casey hit .348 with a .955 OPS in the minor leagues, while being younger for his leagues than Alonso. It’s not a particularly insightful thing to say about a 25-year-old entering his first starting gig, but the jury is still out on Alonso.
Will the Padres extend Cameron Maybin?
One of San Diego’s bright spots last season, 24-year-old Cameron Maybin, emerged into an above-average center fielder, hitting .264/.323/.393 in 568 plate appearances. The bat by itself wasn’t overly impressive, but once you consider Maybin’s 40 steals (career 82 percent success rate) and above-average defense in center, the future looks promising.
Always considered a top prospect coming up through the Detroit Tigers system, Maybin conquered his strikeout problems last season, lowering his K-rate to 22 percent. Previously, in his 610 plate appearances with Detroit and Florida in the major leagues, Maybin struck out 28.2 percent of the time. While Maybin may never develop into an elite hitter, with strikeout concerns potentially behind him, he projects as an above-average contributor in the short-term.
Maybin won’t become arbitration eligible until 2013 and he’ll be under Padres control through 2015. The question, then, is should the Padres extend him into his free agent years? It’s been a hot topic all offseason in San Diego, but the Padres have kind of skirted the issue. Further, Maybin recently switched agents, halting any progress. Maybin certainly is the type of player the Padres are trying to develop and obtain, getting much of his value out of his speed and defensive value. While no hitter is Petco-proof, athletes like Maybin are probably more likely to flourish in San Diego than one-dimensional sluggers.
Over the years, however, the Padres have been stingy in handing out long-term deals. In fact, San Diego currently has no players signed to multi-year deals, excluding option years. There are positives and negatives to such a philosophy. On one hand, the Padres have no long-term burdens, no albatross contracts. On the other hand, they’re generally riding out contracts year-by-year in arbitration and as free agency nears, players are usually dealt or simply allowed to sign elsewhere. It’s not a particularly popular model among fans.
Adrian Gonzalez is a good example. While the Padres did sign Gonzalez to a four-year, $9.5 million deal (plus option), they didn’t buy out any of his free agent years. As Gonzalez’s free agency neared, the Padres started shopping him and ended up dealing him to the Red Sox (with one year left under his contract) for a package of prospects. While they likely saved a bundle of money bypassing the arbitration process, it would have been nice to have Gonzalez around for a few extra seasons.
When will the kids get the call?
Kevin Goldstein’s aforementioned Top 101 prospect list includes 10 San Diego Padres, far more than any other organization. While the Padres may lack elite talent, many of the team’s prospects could potentially contribute to the 2012 team.
Three pitchers, Robbie Erlin, Joe Wieland and Casey Kelley could all be ready at some point in 2012 should the major league starting rotation falter. All three have already spent time in Double-A and appear to be on the fast-track to the majors. Wieland and Erlin were acquired at the trade deadline last season from Texas in exchange for reliever Mike Adams. Kelly was part of the package received last offseason from Boston for Adrian Gonzalez.
The Padres also have depth among position players. Alonso, as we discussed earlier, will likely be the starter at first base. 23-year-old Yasmani Grandal, acquired with Alonso in the Latos trade, hit .305/.401/.500 last season, spending much of the year in Double-A. Nick Hundley‘s presence will allow the Padres to be patient with Grandal, but he isn’t far away.
At third base, Jedd Gyorko is already knocking on the door, having hit .323/.392/.518 in his first two professional seasons. While Gyorko probably won’t be a regular contributor until 2013, if something happens to Chase Headley, third base is Gyorko’s for the taking.
In the outfield, there are a number of potential call-ups for the 2012 season, including James Darnell, Jaff Decker and Blake Tekotte. Darnell, who has played a lot of third base but projects as an outfielder, doesn’t have much left to accomplish in the minors, having hit .302/.401/.508 in his professional career. At this point, the 25-year-old will wait for a call-up in Triple-A Tucson.
Decker owns a career .411 on-base percentage and has power, but there are concerns about his glove work in the outfield. He posted a career-worst .790 OPS in Double-A San Antonio in 2011. Tekotte doesn’t project as a big league starter, but he could make a solid fourth outfielder. He does a little bit of everything and is known for his hard-nosed style.
The Padres have a well-stocked farm system, especially when you consider that we’ve only touched on the near-ready guys (and left a few well-deserved ones out of the discussion). There are a number of other prospects, like outfielders Rymer Liriano and Donavan Tate, who offer plenty of upside for 2013 and beyond.
As far as call-ups, it comes down to a balancing act: When are these guys ready, when are they needed at the major league level, and when do the Padres want to start their respective clocks? Consider a scenario where the Padres are contending through mid-June but are getting little production out of the back-end of the rotation or right field. Do they make the call for an Erlin/Wieland/Kelly or for Jaff Decker or James Darnell in the outfield, or do they stick with the major league production and let the prospects continue to develop in the minors? What if the Padres are out of it? Do they opt to get a long look at a prospect or two, or do they keep them in the minors in fear of starting their service-time clock too early?
Who is next to be traded?
The Padres have made a flurry of moves this offseason and they might not slow down as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. While the Padres are holding onto hope they can compete in 2012, the consensus is that they’ll be relegated toward the bottom of the National League West in 2012, but will be major players in the middle part of the decade. Let’s just assume they drop out of it by July, who is most likely to be dealt?
Huston Street: Street’s an excellent reliever, but he’s a year away from free agency and doesn’t fit in the long-term plans. Further, the Padres have plenty of bullpen depth and a future closer candidate in Cashner. After the returns the Padres have gotten for relievers in the recent past (namely Mike Adams, Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb), it wouldn’t be surprising to see them shop Street at the deadline, especially if he’s having a good season. Closers seem to be perpetually overrated and there’s bound to be a contender in need of relief pitching that will be willing to overpay for a half season of Street (he does have a ’13 player option).
Carlos Quentin: Acquired in the offseason for a couple of minor league pitchers (Simon Castro and Pedro Hernandez), like Street, Quentin may also have an abbreviated stay in San Diego. While he’s the only Padre likely to make a run at 20 home runs, Quentin will become a free agent after the season.
While there are some rumblings of a possible extension, you would have to think the Padres, reluctant to extend anyone, would be scared off by a lumbering corner outfielder who gets much of his value out of home runs and hit-by-pitches. If Quentin performs well in San Diego he could return more than the Castro/Hernandez combination that the Padres gave up for him come July (though I’m still cautiously optimistic about Castro).
Kyle Blanks: The Free Kyle Blanks campaign has officially begun, much to the delight of the Russell Branyans, Ken Phelps and Jack Custs of baseball yesteryear. After hitting .250/.355/.514 (148 PAs) as a 22-year-old rookie in 2009, Blanks has kind of been marginalized by the organization. He hasn’t done much to help his cause, striking out in a staggering 31.2 percent of his major league plate appearances since 2009. He also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 on his right elbow.
Far from a sure thing, Blanks still deserves a shot to prove himself somewhere. He owns a career .305/.392/.513 minor league line, runs well for a 6-foot-6, 250-plus-pounder, and offers plenty of raw power. Plus, he’s still just 25. Somebody will be interested.