NL West Preview: San Diego Padres

Let me introduce you to the new middle of the order of the Padres lineup. All three men were in different unis a year ago.

The Padres were almost universally pegged as the last-place team in the division a year ago.  We all know how that worked out.  Behind an incredible bullpen, just enough offense, and some impressive pitching in the rotation, the Padres spent a whopping 131 days in first place.  Only a 10 game losing streak at the end of the season cost San Diego a spot in the playoffs.

After that incredible season, fans and pundits alike still are not giving the Friars much respect heading into 2011.  After all, they waved the white flag on the season already and traded Adrian Gonzalez for three lower level minor leaguers, right?  Their 2010 season was a fluke anyway.

Contrary to the easy conclusion, the Padres have not waved the white flag on the season.  Not hardly.  GM Jed Hoyer was in fact busier than any other GM in the division this offseason.  Hoyer took the $6.3mil Gonzalez would have earned (yes really, that is all), and paired it with relief depth to it to partially overhaul the offense.  Hoyer brought in Orlando Hudson on a two year $11.5million deal, traded for Jason Bartlett ($4mil this year) and Cameron Maybin (league min) and signed Brad Hawpe ($3mil) to man first base.

Armed with a still strong bullpen, a new look to the offense and young studs in the rotation, the Padres have every inclination to compete in the NL West yet again.


Additions

OF/1B Brad Hawpe (FA), 2B Orlando Hudson (FA), SS Jason Bartlett (trade), OF Cameron Maybin (trade), IF Jorge Cantu (FA), SP Aaron Harang, RP Samuel Deduno (waivers), SP/RP Dustin Moseley (FA), RP Chad Qualls (FA), C Rob Johnson (trade), RP Pat Neshek (FA), OF Eric Patterson (trade), IF Kevin Frandsen (FA), RP Randy Flores (FA).


Subtractions

1B Adrian Gonzalez (trade), C Yorvit Torrealba (FA), 2B David Eckstein (FA), SP Jon Garland (FA), IF Jerry Hairston Jr (FA), SS Miguel Tejada (FA), SP Kevin Correia (FA), OF Scott Hairston (FA), OF Tony Gwynn Jr (FA), RP Ryan Webb (trade), RP Edward Mujica (trade), RP Adam Russell (trade), SP/RP Cesar Ramos (trade), PH Matt Stairs (FA), SP Chris Young (FA).

Projected 25-Man

Lineup Bench Rotation Bullpen
1) Will Venable - RF OF - Chris Denorfia 1) Mat Latos Closer - Heath Bell
2) Jason Bartlett - SS OF - Aaron Cunningham 2) Clayton Richard Set-up - Mike Adams
3) Orlando Hudson - 2B IF - Everth Cabrera 3) Tim Stauffer MR - Luke Gregerson
4) Ryan Ludwick - LF IF - Jorge Cantu 4) Aaron Harang MR - Chad Qualls
5) Brad Hawpe - 1B C - Rob Johnson 5) Wade LeBlanc MR - Joe Thatcher
6) Chase Headley - 3B

MR - Ernesto Frieri
7) Cameron Maybin - CF LR - Dustin Moseley
8) Nick Hundley - C
Lineup

Offense was a weakness for San Diego last season, as the bats created 665 runs, 22nd in MLB.  The picture wasn't much rosier when adjusting for Petco Park, as they ranked 20th in team wRC+ at 93.  Remove an All-Star and perennial MVP contender from the mix and the outlook is bleak.  But Jed Hoyer quietly overhauled the lineup, acquiring four new faces for the mix.  Three figure to be reliable upgrades, three are veterans coming off down years (read cheap) and one (Maybin) is a former superprospect.  We don't know this offense very well at all.  It figures to still be poor and most likely less productive than 2010's offense, but don't be shocked if the cumulative marginal gains end up outweighing the rather large loss of A-Gone.


Bench

Gregg Zaun was supposed to be the back-up catcher, but Z-Game retired.  They reached out to Bengie Molina, but he wants to retire too.  So they'll stick with Rob Johnson, whom they acquired earlier in the offseason.  The bench figures to change names and faces often, with Jorge Cantu really the only guaranteed player.  Aaron Cunningham played himself into a role with a solid 2010 campaign, Everth Cabrera is a decent choice as the backup middle infielder, and Chris Denorfia was the name I pulled out of a hat for the last spot.  Kyle Blanks will come up at some point this season, but Tommy John surgery has him on the disabled list to start the year.  Nothing to scary there.   At least there's no Matt Stairs.


Rotation

The fivesome is pretty clearly the fourth best in the NL West.  Considering it's mostly the same group that was 5th in rotation ERA (13th in FIP), that's saying something about the NL West.  Mat Latos has ace potential, and with the training wheels off, he could take off.  Clayton Richard has been hit around this spring for 18 hits and 10 runs in 11 innings, but he should shake that off and be a solid number 2.  Tim Stauffer is as underrated as a former first rounder could be, as he looks to build off a 1.85 ERA / 3.02 FIP season in 2010.  Aaron Harang signed as a free agent to essentially replace the departed Jon Garland, and the former Cincy ace is a decent #4.  The fifth spot is a race between Cory Luebke, Dustin Moseley and Wade LeBlanc.  I'm projecting Moseley to the pen and LeBlanc to the rotation for now.   


Bullpen

The key to San Diego's success was the bullpen, easily.  They pitched the 4th most innings in MLB and surrendered the second least runs for a total of 7.8 WAR, more than a win better than any other pen.  SIX separate relievers had ERAs under 2.00, The personnel is mostly the same, with Qualls and Moseley the newcomers.  Pat Neshek and Luis Perdomo could figure in eventually, among others.  While it would be easy to suggest that Petco Park is to blame, or that all great seasons from relievers precede a poor regression year, I can't make that claim.  All five relievers that return from 2010's team posted FIPs under 3.00 - their success was legitimate.  The very good Rockies pen only had two reach that milestone.  Heath Bell, Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson are a fearsome trio at the end.  They likely won't have the season they had a year ago, but they will remain one of the best units in the game.

 

Why They Could Be Just as Good

The additions to the line-up seem uninspiring, but Hawpe, Bartlett and Hudson are each dependable veterans coming off poor years that figure to have something left in the tank.  That trio could appease the loss of Adrian Gonzalez more than most think considering who they are replacing.  Of the three that took the most playing time in the middle infield, none had a wOBA above .300 - (David Eckstein - .296, Jerry Hairston .287, Everth Cabrera - .248).  There is potential for improvement from Chase Headley and Will Venable (who I could see having a breakout year).  Cameron Maybin's stock is down, but he is still unbelievably just 23 years of age.  While playing in Petco Park would hurt many players, forgetting about home runs and trying to hit line drives somewhere (a required approach at Petco) might unlock the young centerfielder's seemingly long-lost promise.

On the pitching side, the bullpen will remain elite.  Regression is bound to happen, but even with a 20% regression to the mean, they would still be #1 in MLB in fWAR, if last year is an indication.  Mat Latos will be around for a full year.

 

Why They Could Be Bad

The easy answer - Adrian Gonzalez.  As just one guy, he was responsible for over 20% of the team's offense by himself.  Instead, the Padres' new middle of the order reads: Orlando Hudson (98 wRC+ in 2010), Ryan Ludwick (80 wRC+ in 2010 as a Padre) and Brad Hawpe (100 wRC+ in 2010).  That is far from a murderer's row in a division that will boast MLB's best pitching staffs.  While the veterans could and probably will rebound, and some of the young guys could breakout, there are no good bets that San Diego's offense will be good at all.

Spring Training statistics don't mean much, but Padres fans have to be sweating a bit at the ERAs their most important pitchers have put up in Arizona:  Mat Latos (9.00), Clayton Richard (8.18), Heath Bell (11.57), Mike Adams (6.75), and Luke Gregerson (6.43).  Perhaps none of these pitchers are suffering from an underlying problem; with that many struggling, it is probable at least one of them is.  Richard and Tim Stauffer have dealt with injuries.  This team needs a very strong pitching staff to survive in a very competitive division, not just a strong one.  Trading away four relievers has sapped the depth of that bullpen.


Prospect to Watch - Simon Castro

While Jed Hoyer received a strong package in return for one year of Adrian Gonzalez, none of the three prospects figure to make it to the big leagues in 2011.  Their #2 prospect (or #1 depending on who you ask)  - starting pitcher Simon Castro - is almost assured of doing just that.  

The Dominican right-hander, who will turn 23 in two weeks, spent most of 2010 in AA San Antonio, compiling a 2.85 ERA and striking out about 7.50 batters per 9.  He possesses a power fastball that can sit consistently in the mid-90s, and unlike most young flame-throwers, he throws it consistently for strikes.  In fact, he walked less than 2.5 per 9 last season in AA.  

Castro has a decent slider and a very undeveloped change-up, neither of which are plus pitches.  So while his fastball is explosive, his secondary stuff isn't up to par yet as he lives and dies mostly on the heater.  Unless that improves, he's destined to be a middle rotation starter at best, but there is plenty of time for that bar to move.  Castro will start the season in AAA Tucson, but with a seemingly open spot at the end of the rotation, he probably will get promoted to the rotation at some point in 2011.


Conclusion

The ingredients are there for a competitive team at Petco Park.  There is no doubt about that.  The offense could potentially be better even after losing Gonzalez, simply because so many other positions in the lineup struggled in 2010.  The rotation is solid.  I would not be a bit surprised to see San Diego competing in 2011.

But this figures to be a difficult division.  The World Series Champs are here.  The Rockies, a popular division favorite, remain.  The Dodgers figure to be much better with a strong and deep rotation and improved offense.  The roadmap to the top exists but is just more convoluted than the Dodgers, Rockies and Giants, especially if the bullpen doesn't hold up.  I'm placing San Diego at a competitive fourth, hovering right around .500.

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