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Monday, January 18, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #21: The San Diego Padres

At the All-Star Break last season, I preemptively declared the Padres the worst team in baseball.  At the time the Padres were in the midst of a seven game losing streak and a particularly rough stretch in which they went 13-37.  However, San Diego really turned things around down in the final two months, going 37-25, despite the fact that they shipped away Jake Peavy, Scott Hairston, Chad Gaudin, and Jody Gerut and got zero production out of injured veterans Brian Giles, Cliff Floyd, and Chris Young.

The secret of San Diego's success, besides a monster season from Adrian Gonzalez, was the emergence of a quartet of young hitters.  A 22-year-old first-baseman turned outfielder named Kyle Blanks posted a .514 slugging percentage in a third of a season.  Right around the time I was making my ill-fated prediction, the Padres installed Wil Venable in right field full time, after which hit a dozen homers and managed a respectable 814 OPS.  They also installed a 22-year-old Rule 5 pick at shortstop, Everth Cabrera, and although he was clearly in a bit over his head at first, he also had his share of hot streaks, playing well enough to become the Padres full-time starter going into 2010.  And, they gave Tony Gwynn Jr. his first shot at a starting job (after three years riding the pine in Milwaukee).  Gwynn also ran a little hot and cold, but he's disciplined (48 BB/65 K), speedy, and plays great defense in the spacious centerfield of Petco Park.

Things went so well down the stretch in 2009 that San Diego fans have every reason to be optimistic this spring.  However, I'm going to stick to my guns.  Although I like some of the Padres talent, Blanks and Cabrera particularly, I still don't think there's enough of it, and the youngsters are going to suffer the usual growing pains in their first full season as regulars.  Moreover, the Padres ownership appears to be in desperate financial straits, eager to unload anybody who's making more than the minimum.  First it was Peavy.  Most recently it was Kevin Kouzmanoff, who was due for a somewhat sizable arbitration award and got shipped to Oakland last week.  And rumors continue to circle that A-Gonz and Heath Bell may soon follow.  If that happens (and maybe even if it doesn't), San Diego's payroll will sink below the level that the Marlins recently got chastised for.  It's hard to compete that way (although Florida does a decent job of it) and the NL West is pretty tough.  Although Petco will alway be a great place to see a ballgame, I expect it to be a very long season for the Padres faithful.

Free Agents:

Eliezer Alfonzo (31) C [Signed w/ Mariners]
Henry Blanco (38) C [Signed w/ Mets]
Cliff Floyd (37) LF
Brian Giles (39) RF
Edgar Gonzalez (32) 2B
Luis Rodriguez (30) SS [Signed w/ Indians]
Duaner Sanchez (30) RHRP

Arbitration Eligible:

Mike Adams (31) RHRP
Heath Bell (32) RHCL
Kevin Correia (29) RHSP

ETA 2010?:

Matt Antonelli (25) 2B
Aaron Cunningham (24) OF
Mike Ekstrom (26) RHRP
Ernesto Frieri (24) RHSP
Sean Gallagher (24) RHP
Chad Huffman (25) LF/1B
Radhames Liz (26) RHSP
Aaron Poreda (23) LHSP
Dusty Ryan (24) C

The good news is that Petco Park is very forgiving.  The bad news is that Padres have to play 81 games elsewhere.  The rotation was a bit disheveled in 2009, as fifteen different pitchers got at least an audition and nine players made at least ten starts.  Kevin Correia had a solid season, pitching 198 innings and racking up twelve wins with a 3.91 ERA.  He and Chris Young, who's coming off two straight injury-plagued seasons, are the only certainties heading into Spring Training.  The Padres will take a long look at Clayton Richard (9-5, 4.41), Mat Latos (4-5, 4.62), Wade LeBlanc (3-1, 3.69), Aaron Poreda (5-7, 3.95 @ AA/AAA), and Sean Gallagher, among others.  All offer youth and upside, but they are all, obviously, far from sure things.

San Diego has a nice selection of options in the outfield (Banks, Venable, Hairston, Gwynn Jr., Cunningham, and Huffman) and obviously Gonzalez is locked in at first, at least until he's traded, but the rest of the infield is a bit of a mystery.  Cabrera will have the opportunity to prove his long-term viability at shortstop, with David Eckstein providing veteran insurance.  At third, Kouzmanoff will likely be replaced by Chase Headley, who was once considered a top prospect, but was pretty awful in his first full year in the bigs (734 OPS).  The Padres need him to be a powerful, disciplined presence behind A-Gonz.  At second, the Padres hope that Matt Antonelli will look more like the guy who posted an 894 OPS in AA in '07, as a 22-year-old, than the guy who managed only a 652 OPS in two seasons at AAA.  But, today the Padres also announced the addition of Jerry Hairston Jr., who will probably get a fair amount of time and second, third, short, and perhaps even in the outfield, depending on how the youngsters fare.  Finally, at catcher San Diego will also rely on unproven youth, with Nick Hundley and Dusty Ryan sharing time.

Padres fans will need to change their expectations a bit this year.  For much of the last decade the Friars were on the verge of contention.  The failed to win 75 games only three times during the noughties.  They won their division twice and came within a hair's breadth of the playoffs two other times (most famously when they lost to Colorado in the 13th inning of Game 163 in 2007).  That's a pretty strong showing for a team that is consistently among the bottom-feeders in terms of payroll and has to compete with big market behemoths like the Dodgers and Giants.

This year the Pads will look to re-tool and they have enough young talent that the rebuilding process, with a little good luck and good management, could only last a couple seasons.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Tony Gwynn Jr. (L)
SS Everth Cabrera (S)
1B Adrian Gonzalez (L)
LF Kyle Blanks (R)
3B Chase Headley (S)
RF Will Venable (L)
2B Jerry Hairston Jr. (R)
C Nick Hundley (R)
SP Chris Young (R)

SP Kevin Correia (R)
SP Clayton Richard (L)
SP Mat Latos (R)
SP Wade LeBlanc (L)

CL Heath Bell (R)
SU Mike Adams (R)
SU Luke Gregerson (R)
MR Edward Mujica (R)
MR Greg Burke (R)
LOOGY Joe Thatcher (L)
SWING Sean Gallagher (R)

C Dusty Ryan (R)
2B Matt Antonelli (R)
2B/SS David Eckstein (R)
1B/OF Chad Huffman (R)
OF Scott Hairston (R)

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