Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Looking Ahead: San Diego Padres

2006 W-L Record: 88-74
2006 pW-pL Record: 86-76
Runs Scored: 731 (13th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 679 (1st in NL)
Free Agents: Mark Bellhorn, Geoff Blum, Doug Brocail, Alan Embree, Ryan Klesko, Chan Ho Park, Mike Piazza, Dave Roberts, Rudy Seanez, Todd Walker, Woody Williams, Scott Williamson

2007 Proj. Lineup:
1B -- Adrian Gonzalez
2B -- Josh Barfield
SS -- Khalil Greene
3B -- Russell Branyan?
LF -- Ben Johnson
CF -- Mike Cameron
RF -- Brian Giles
C -- Josh Bard

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Jake Peavy
Chris Young
Clay Hensley
Mike Thompson

2007 Proj. Closer: Trevor Hoffman

The Good News:
The Padres have won the NL West two years in a row now with a less than stellar roster. But they've got a solid group in the lineup, an ace starter, and a good bullpen. They don't have much young talent on the way, so it shouldn't be long before they're passed up by Los Angeles and Arizona. But for the next couple years -- provided they nab some good free agents -- they should be competitive.
The Padre lineup is filled with a lot of good guys, but there isn't a star in sight. Granted, part of this is just an illusion created by pitcher-friendly Petco Park. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez, wisely nabbed in a lopsided deal from Texas, hit 304/362/500, very good indeed considering his environment. But the best player on the team was probably center fielder Mike Cameron, who hit 268/355/482 with fine defense. Cameron's 2007 was an option year, which the Padres quite wisely decided to pick up.
There are a half-dozen quality guys in the lineup, but nobody who's going to win an MVP or even come close. Brian Giles used to be an MVP-level hitter, but he's coming off a 263/374/397 and turns 36 in January. First Petco Park robbed Giles of his power. After hitting 35+ HR for four straight years, Giles hit only 20 in a season split between Pittsburgh and San Diego, and only managed 23, 15, and 14 in the three years since. Last year, his batting average inexplicably bit the dust, dropping from .301 in 2005 to .263. Giles is a career .295 hitter, so this is hard to explain. This is partly the park effects at work, but since Giles is more of a line driver hitter, the distant fences shouldn't hurt him quite as much. The Padres need him to bounce back to the 301/423/483 form he showed in 2005, but unfortunately that's not likely.
In the middle infield, the Padres have two guys -- Josh Barfield and Khalil Greene --who represent their recent luck in prospects: good but not great. Greene hits well for a shortstop, but has had a hell of a time staying in the lineup. In 2004, he hit 273/349/446 in 139 games to finish 2nd in Rookie of the Year balloting. Since then, injuries have severely limited him. Not in terms of playing time -- he's gotten in 120 games in both years since -- but effectiveness. Greene was a liability at the plate in 2005 (250/296/431) and only marginally better in 2006 (245/320/427). He's not bad for a shortstop, as I said -- but he may not be the All-Star the Padres were hoping for.
Barfield is the son of former major leaguer Jesse Barfield. Son Josh has shown hitting promise similar to his father's: good strike zone judgement, some power, and lots of strikeouts. It's not clear if young Josh will be quite as powerful as the old man (who hit 241 career homers), nor does he have his father's legendary arm. But young Josh had a good year defensively, and while his hitting isn't there yet (280/318/423), he's still fairly young (25 next year) and has the potential to be one of the best second basemen in the league. He's a much brighter star at this point than Greene.
Behind the plate, the Padres got a resurgent year from Mike Piazza (283/342/501). But more importantly, they got Red Sox backup catcher Josh Bard in a hilariously lopsided trade for Doug Mirabelli. Not only is Bard a far better defensive backstop than Piazza, but he's also shown good hitting promise; he hit 338/406/537 in 93 games last season. While it's highly unlikely that he'll be doing that again, he's shown enough promise that the Padres will go with Bard as their starter; the team declined Piazza's option for 2007 and made him a free agent, freeing up some cash to spend in the offseason.
They'll need the cash to handle Jake Peavy's arbitration money. Because even though Peavy had an off-year in 2006 (4.09 ERA), he still struck out 215 batters in 202.1 innings and will be just 26 next year. He's the best young pitcher in the NL and is one of the biggest reasons that the Padres have been (and will be) contenders.
Behind Peavy, the Padres have two solid options. One, Chris Young, they took from Texas in the same trade that got them Gonzalez (have they blamed that one on Showalter yet?). Young is a volatile pitcher, but he's playing in the perfect ballpark for his talents. He did allow 28 HR in just 179.1 IP, but he also put up a strong 69:164 BB:K ratio. His 3.46 ERA was the best on the team, and while he may not be an All-Star, he's a value-priced mid-rotation keeper.
Behind Young is the even more improbable Clay Hensley. The Padres had Hensley slated for the bullpen, but after a breakout 2004 at Double-A Mobile, he began forcing his way into the major league rotation. He made a strong 47.2-inning debut in 2005, then came back with an impressive 2006 (3.71 ERA) that gave San Diego another young, cheap, above-average arm in the middle of their rotation. Peavy-Young-Hensley won't set the world on fire, but they'll keep you in ballgames and won't stop you from winning 90 games.
San Diego had one of the best bullpens in all of baseball in 2006. It wasn't all park effects, either; Trevor Hoffman was one of the best closers in the league (2.14 ERA in 63 IP), Scott Linebrink was one of the best setup men once again (3.57 ERA in 75.2 IP), Cla Meredith (1.07 ERA) embarassed Theo Epstein, who sent him off in the Mirabelli deal, and the club even got good work from retreads Jon Adkins and Alan Embree. Part of this is a testament to pitching in the Grand Canyon, but it's also proof that you can build a good bullpen without giving $10 million to Steve Karsay or Steve Kline.

The Bad News:
So the Padres have a group of solid guys in the lineup, with a few possible stars (Gonzalez, Barfield). They also have two big holes that need to be filled if the team wants to keep up with the Joneses (and the Dodgers): left field and third base. Third base was a hole that plagued the team all throughout 2006, as they tried everybody in sight at the position. With some money to spend, the Padres will likely be in on the Aramis Ramirez sweepstakes, or possibly bid on Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura, a 27-year-old power hitter who was recently "posted" by the Yakult Swallows. The club does still have Russell Branyan, and if nothing else, he would at least keep the Rob Deer Fan Club in business for another year (and yes, such a thing exists).
Left field is a dicier proposition. The club used Dave Roberts in 2006, and while Roberts did well (293/360/393), it's not like the club needs yet another solid-yet-unspectacular starter, especially in an impact position like left field. The club tried out Ben Johnson for a while, and he did relatively well (250/333/425). But other than an inexplicably monstrous 2005 season in Triple-A (312/394/558), there's no reason to think that Johnson will be much more productive than Roberts.
I should also add to the discussion a young fellow named Paul McAnulty. McAnulty has shown great power and patience in the minors, and while some people think he might have a hole in his swing, that wouldn't stop him from having a Ron Kittle-ish career. The problem is that McAnulty is built more like Cecil Fielder than Kittle -- he's listed at 5'10" and 220 pounds. He can't play DH, and Adrian Gonzalez has got a lock on the first base job, so that leaves the outfield. McAnulty actually got a cup of coffee with the Padres -- as an outfielder -- and hit well enough (231/333/538). But I can't blame the Padres if they'd rather not task a Cecil Fielder look-alike to roam their spacious outfield. But with his bat, he may force the issue (or a trade to an AL team).

Pitching-wise the back end of the rotation is a mystery. It took me a long time to realize that Mike Thompson (4.99 ERA in 16 starts) and Sean Thompson (3.86 ERA in 154 Double-A innings) were two different people. One of them should remove the "p" and go by "Thomson." Then they could grow moustaches, put on bowler hats, and help Tintin solve crime. At any rate, neither one appears to be the answer to the Padres' woes; Mike isn't very good (as the ERA will attest) and Sean probably isn't ready for the majors just yet.
The Padres are really feeling the bite of free agency; they're losing Chan Ho Park and Woody Williams to free agency. Neither man would be mistaken for Greg Maddux (or Mike Maddux, for that matter), but they were good for the occasional quality start and were at least fairly durable. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the team went after a free agent to supplement this bunch. Barry Zito's name has been mentioned, and with all of his walks and homers, this would be a good park for him to settle in.
The only worry about the bullpen is that it's difficult to strike gold every year. You can sign guys like Alan Embree and Jon Adkins, but you're really rolling the dice. The good news is that both Hoffman and Linebrink have proven their legitimacy, although you have to wonder if age will catch up to Hoffman, or if hitters will ever catch up to his batting-practice fastballs.
This is a team that has a short shelf life, and they're not built to last like the Dodgers, D-Backs, or Rockies. I admit that they do look good in the short run, and that it's easy to be optimistic when you see who they're running out there. But being "just good enough" isn't going to cut it in the NL West any longer. The Padres are going to have to find somebody in their lineup who's better than "above-average" and find somebody to replace all the role-players. There's nothing wrong with having a lineup of temporary place-fillers, so long as you've got somebody to eventually replace them with. The Padres may have some money to spend, but I don't think they have that much money.

Offseason Game Plan:
The Padres are losing a lot of salary, with Ryan Klesko and Chan Ho Park becoming free agents. They can afford to be aggressive and target guys like Barry Zito to contend in 2007. Since they don't have the young players to match their divisional counterparts, they can afford to spend a little more money now, when the division is still open. Nobody thought they could do it again last year, and they proved them wrong. Maybe they can scrape together enough to make another run at it in 2007. And as the Cardinals have shown, the hardest part is just getting to the postseason.
And hey, they'll always have the Giants to make them feel good about themselves.

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