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Saturday Morning Rockpile:

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With Brian Fuentes' arbitration case being settled yesterday, the Rockies 2008 player payroll settles right around the $67 million mark (very unofficial estimate) which is nearly 25% higher than the 2007 payroll and brings us right in line with where the payroll was in 2003. Let's hope our return on that investment is a little better this time around. The team's estimates heading into the winter were for $70 million in payroll, so I'm sure the beancounters are happy that we wound up on the low side there.

What does this all mean? From a midseason trade perspective, there is some positive potential here. The Rockies certainly seem able to keep Fuentes for the entire season if need be, either he or Atkins would have been at a much higher risk of being shipped out in a salary purge if the total was too far over that seventy figure. That keeps some leverage on our side should a trade happen, however that's something I'm seeing as less of a possibility after yesterday's ruling.

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San Diego's team number-crunchers have decided they're the favorites, and this reporter goes into details why, which amount to solid pitching and a better than they look offense. The second part is mostly true, everybody who's not really paying attention underrates the Padres offensively. The first part is more dubious though

Starting pitchers Jake Peavy and Chris Young, at ages 26 and 27, are entering a pitcher's typical prime years - one season after Peavy won the Cy Young Award in a unanimous vote and Young approached August with a 1.82 ERA. Behind them is a veteran cast of starters led by Greg Maddux, the nutty professor who even at 41 is a solid bet to deliver close to 200 innings and a solid ERA. Behind them is a bullpen that Towers said should be as good or better than last year's, which led the NL in ERA.

That veteran cast at the back of their rotation is where the Padres downfall will lie in 2008. Peavy will be one of baseball's best pitchers again; Young might not be as good as he's been the last two seasons but he'll still be well above average; but then you get to Maddux, who's seen his average IP/start drop from 6.42 in 2005 to 5.8 last season, and every indication suggests the downhill slide will continue this year. Randy Wolf is neither healthy or good and Mark Prior won't be pitching until late May at the earliest and isn't a very safe bet to be effective when he does return. The three of them combined could be lucky to get 300 IP this season, and that's where you start to get into some major issues.

If Peavy and Young can combine for 440 innings, and that's being very generous to Young in making that assumption, the Padres will still be left with a good 250 starter innings or so that they'll need to divvy up between Justin Germano, Clay Hensley, Jack Cassell and Wade LeBlanc. The first three are weak-stuff command specialists that get in trouble once MLB hitters get used to them. Germano hasn't been quite exposed like Cassell and Hensley have, but he will. LeBlanc's a bit different, he's better and a more legit MLB arm, but he might not be ready this year. In short, none of the four are safe bets to be league average in 2008.

Given the track records of Wolf and Prior and the decline of Maddux, I just see a lot of potential here for more than half of San Diego's starts to be below league average in quality, despite the presence of Peavy and Young at the top of their rotation. At that point, they'll have to rely on their offense and bullpen to save them, and unlike the Giants, the Padres offense certainly could, but there are several issues in the batting/fielding department as well, and once injuries start to take a toll, you'll see San Diego fall further off the pace of the other three NL West leaders.

One area where the Padres traditionally do very well, however, is in assessing their needs mid-season and getting the help they need without giving up anything of value. If that trend continues this year, maybe they will find a way to hang around all season, but right now I'm not a believer.