Monday, March 4, 2013

30 Teams in 30 Days: San Diego Padres

San Diego Padres

2012 Record - 76-86 (4th in NL West)

Padres and the Quest for Contention

(or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Teams With Depth)

As you’ll find if you scroll to the bottom of the page, the consensus from the BlueJaysPlus staff is that the Padres face an uphill battle this season, and seem destined for their 13th playoff-less season out of the last 15.  However, I’m very much an outlier on how I see the Padres season going.  To me they are one of the clubs poised to make one of the biggest jumps up in the standings, which is interesting considering they were one of the clubs who made the least changes in the offseason. This faith I have in the Padres (hah! puns) is largely based on them having one of the deepest rosters in all the MLB.  While they lack obvious superstar talent (though Chase Headley is in fact a superstar, just no one knows it), they more than make up for it, by not only having depth at critical positions, also at all levels of the minor leagues.  Their farm system is quite similar to the major league team, what it lacks elite A+ level talent, it more than makes up for it in future major leaguers who can contribute.
This depth means that they can both suffer attrition during the season allowing them to withstand injuries better than the teams they are competing with.  In addition it allows them to deal from a position of strength in-season if they find themselves in the heart of contention come trade deadline time.  

RP - Jason Marquis - Re-signed 1/3
OF - Chris Denorfia - Re-signed 2/4.5
RP - Freddy Garcia - Signed MiLB (1.5 if in the majors)
RP - Tyson Ross - Trade w Oak
RP - AJ Kirby Jones - Trade w Oak

LP - Andrew Werner - Trade to Oak
IF - Andy Parino - Trade to Oak

Player to Watch - Chase Headley - 3B

Normally while previewing teams I’ll try to go a bit more under the radar for my Player to Watch, but in the Padres case its their best player that leads to the most interesting roster construction questions.  
Headley is the most underrated player in baseball.  Not only is a lot of his value hidden in his plus defense at the hot corner, but even his very impressive offensive statistics are massively suppressed by playing half his games in cavernous PETCO.  Headley’s slash line of .286/.376/.498 looks good by itself, but you dont get the full picture until you park adjust the numbers, and you get a resulting 145 wRC+ (good for 9th, just a tick behind Robinson Cano).  
For a team that has struggled to find hitters of any kind, let alone one who can hit 30+ home runs, you’d think keeping Headley would be a priority, but with him eligible for free agency after the 2014 season, the Padres have many options open to them.
The first and most obvious of those options is to sign him long term, but that would require a financial commitment that the team has been reluctant to make over the recent history.  You’d also have to wonder that rather than getting the hometown discount that many free agents offer their current clubs, if the Padres might have the reverse problem trying to keep a power hitter from suppressing his numbers for his entire career, or whether that short porch in Yankee Stadium is even more appealing to a player who can barely see the stands in his home ballpark with a telescope.  
The second would be to let him go into his final year of arbitration unsigned, hoping you can make a run with him in his final year in Padres brown (I know the Padres don't wear brown anymore, but a man can dream can’t he?), before allowing him to leave via free agency, only to recoup the compensatory draft picks when he leaves.  Having this option on the table means that in any trade scenario involving Headley, the Padres will still be dealing from a position of strength, and they can ensure they get full value for their underrated superstar.
The last option, and the one I think they should avoid, would be to trade Headley during the 2013 season to any of the number of teams that could use help at the hot corner (Yankees pop to mind, but so would a number of other teams).  To me, a trade of Headley in season would mean that not only do Josh Byrnes and his staff view the 2013 team as a lost cause, but likely would mean 2014 would be viewed as a reloading season as well.  Since I personally have this team 2 or 3 games, away from a playoff spot this season, I clearly think writing off next year would be insane to do.  
A lot of the decision making about Headley, will be tied to the level of success the next player I’ll discuss has.  If Jedd Gyorko hits at the MLB level, but cant play 2nd defensively, I could see the team shifting him to third, and then flip Headley to bolster other parts of the roster//farm system.  Whereas if Gyorko proves himself to be capable at 2nd, the team could dream on a duo who could combine for 60 HRs from premium defensive positions, something I doubt the Padres have ever been able to say in the PETCO era.

Key Prospect - Jedd Gyorko - 2B/3B

While the Padres farm system is known for its depth, rather than its individual quality, its quite easy to pinpoint the key youngster on the hot seat this season and that's infielder Jedd Gyorko.  He isn’t the best prospect in their system, that likely goes to one of their two 19 year olds in pitcher Max Fried, or catcher Austin Hedges, but he is the most ready, after jacking 30 home runs between AA San Antonio & AAA Tucson.  In addition to his readiness, he fills by far the biggest need that the Padres have had since the turn of the century, which is power hitting.  There don’t seem to be many questions about Gyorko’s bat, he’s hit everywhere he’s gone in the minors.  He’s not a one dimensional slugger either.  He’s shown the ability to take a walk throughout the minors, and his .319 career minor league batting average shows that making contact isn’t a problem either.  
The issue comes when trying to find a place for Gyorko to play.  Coming up he was seen as a natural 3rd baseman, but with Chase Headley entrenched at the hot corner, he’s been shifted off to the keystone, where his bat would play even better if he’s able to handle it defensively.  There have been questions however about whether he can stick there, but even if his glove does prove deficient, the Padres need to find a way to get his bat in the lineup (assuming that does make the transition).  Whether that’s trading away Headley (which I wouldn’t recommend), shifting Gyorko to a corner outfield spot (which are capably held by a Venable//Denorfia platoon & Carlos Quentin, but both those seem like placeholders to me), or possibly shifting him to first base if his bat shows more than Yonder Alonso has.
With nearly a full year at AAA last year, the consensus seems to be that Gyorko is major league ready, and given his hot Grapefruit league start (3 HRs & a .770 Slg), he would be a candidate to break camp with the big club. However, don't be shocked if he is still ticketed back to Tucson to start the year, so the team can delay his service & arbitration clocks.
Spring Training Questions

- How will they replace Yasmani Grandal for 50 games?

There wasn’t a better story in San Diego last season than the breakout of catcher Yasmani Grandal, who had been acquired in the Mat Latos trade the previous winter.  Grandal was called up at the start of July, and despite playing just 60 games he was essentially the Padres 2nd most valuable hitter (effectively in a 3 way tie with Cameron Maybin & Will Venable).  For a team that lacks consistent offensive players (especially ones with power), Grandal’s .297/.394/.469 line was a significant shot in the arm(Hah! more puns), especially when that package comes with at least adequate defense behind the plate.
Now for the bad news.  It was announced in November that Grandal had tested positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone, and he will be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2013 season.  This means the Padres will need to find a way to deal without not only their starting catcher, but one of their key offensive cogs for almost a ⅓ of the season.  That being said, I actually feel the Padres are fairly well set up to whether the storm, having 2 former starting catchers on their roster in Nick Hundley, and ex-Marlin John Baker.
Hundley, last year’s incumbent starter will likely see the lions share of the playing time, and his true talent level is somewhere between his 2011 (where he hit .288/.347/.477, powered by a .362 BABIP), and his abysmal 2012 (hitting .157/.219/.245, thanks to a comically low .196 BABIP).  If you just normalize those wildly divergent BABIPs, you come out with a catcher who at least over a 50 game stretch could easily add league average production.
Baker, on the other hand, fits perfectly into the mould of player that is my absolute favourite.  
Backup catcher; check
Left Handed; check
Takes a walk; 10% career walk rate
Decent pop; .110 career ISO
Basically he’s a poor man’s George Kottaras, and being left handed, I think that Bud Black can mix and match him with Hundley enough to get into June when Grandal will be available.  For an issue that has the potential to derail a promising season, I think the Padres are in about as good a position as they could expect to be.

- Who fills out the rotation?
This question illustrates exactly why I’m higher on the Padres, than everyone I’ve talked to, but also is why its very difficult to set a projected roster for this team, and that’s because of their depth in starting pitching.  By my count, the Padres have 12 pitchers who I view as either MLB quality, or will be by the end of the season.  This includes 3 coming back from injury in Cory Luebke, Tim Stauffer, and Andrew Cashner, all who should be healthy by mid-season at the latest and prospects Robbie Erlin & Casey Kelly, who I expect to both see at the major league level at some point.
If we assume that Edinson Volquez, and Clayton Richard are locked into spots, that leaves 3 slots for the remaining 10 pitchers to fight over (4 spots if you consider the bullpen longman as well).  Really quickly lets go over the options they have for these spots, ordered by age.

Freddy Garcia - The 37 year old, has very quietly put together a spectacular career, and reached his 150th win last year, in a very poor season in pinstripes.  While he did take a step back last year from his surprising 2011 (ERA going from 3.62 to 5.20), but almost all that change can be ascribed to an abnormal uptick in his HR/FB%.  Almost everything else he did was the same, including a spike in his strikeout rate up to 7.46 (his highest since 2007).  If your problem is giving up too many home runs, then moving to PETCO could be just the salve for all that ails him.  Garcia gives the Padres a fallback option for almost no risk (given his minor league contract), if none of their prospects pan out, he’s a proven major league starter you have in your back pocket.

Jason Marquis - If you want to see the starkest example of the effect of PETCO park, look no further than Jason Marquis.  To start 2012 Marquis was in Minnesota (hardly Coors Field), after signing a $3 million, and was so awful that they cut ties with him 7 starts into the season, when his ERA was hovering above 8.  Cut to the end of the season, where after 15 rehab starts in cavernous PETCO, where his BABIP fell by almost 60 points, and his HR/FB rate was cut nearly in half, he was able to sign the exact same contract.  Marquis, like Garcia, offers nothing in the way of upside, but he’s a nice security blanket to turn to rather than the chattel most MLB teams need to.  

Eric Stults - For the first 5 years of his major league career, the 34 year old Stults was the definition of a journeyman.  With the Dodgers, & Rockies he was an up and down pitcher bouncing back and forth between AAA & the majors, but again, PETCO worked a miracle and 14 starts, and a 2.91 ERA later he goes into 2012 with probably the most direct path to a rotation spot.  Due to his underwhelming stuff (as evidenced by his 5.0 K/9), he might not have the longest leash, when some of the injured pitchers get healthy, or the prospects emerge, but as of right now he’s penciled into the #3 spot to start the year.

Tim Stauffer - The first of the two major injury reclamations the Padres are attempting, Stauffer doesnt have the stuff, or upside that Luebke does, but he is already throwing in Spring Training, and could be ready to start the season.  In 2010 & 2011 Stauffer was a capable rotation filler, who’s numbers were boosted by the PETCO monster.  I’d expect since he’d recovering from an injury, that he’ll likely start the season in the minors, both for him to prove his effectiveness, but also to manage his workload.  On another team his recovery would be of vital importance for depth, but its going to be tough for him to work his way in, but if he’s number 9 or 10 on the depth chart, that’s excellent news.

Cory Luebke - Like Stauffer above him Luebke is recovering from an arm injury that essentially wrote off 2012.  Unlike Stauffer, his surgery was the more serious Tommy John, and his time table will likely push him well into June before he’s able to pitch effectively.  Also unlike Stauffer, who was more a command//control artist, Luebke has the stuff, and therefore upside Stauffer lacks.  When Luebke was at his best in 2011, he showed flashes of having top of the rotation potential, with a combination of a very high strikeout rate (north of 27%), excellent control (7% BBs).  Unlike Stauffer who will likely have an uphill battle to get the rotation spot he had before the injury, I’d expect that the minute Luebke is 100%, the friars will trot him out to see what he has.  However, since the Padres have Luebke signed to a long term contract (through 2015 with an additional 2 option years after that), they will likely err on the side of caution.

Anthony Bass - Bass seems like quite a safe bet to pencil onto the opening day roster, but that will likely be in the role of a swingman in the bullpen.  When forced into action last year, he certainly didn't embarrass himself, but given the abundance of options the Padres have Bass is well down on the depth chart.  Bass’ lack of potential, also means that the Padres won’t feel they are missing out by “wasting” him out of the pen.  

Andrew Cashner - After being the primary piece acquired in the Anthony Rizzo trade has everything you would look for in a pitching prospect.  An electric fastball (98 MPH avg in 2012), sky high strikeout rates (north of 25%), and more than acceptable walk rates (less than 10%) is a wonderful combination.  However when its coupled with a groundball rate above 50% makes it drool worthy. Last year Cashner was largely used out of the bullpen, and key cog in the Padres perennially excellent relief corp, and was more effective than his 4.50 ERA would suggest, so its possible they could look to utilize him out of the bullpen, but he still has the potential to start, and if he can harness the stuff he has to the fullest extent, they need to pursue that opportunity.  He is coming off thumb surgery in the offseason, so he has yet to throw in spring training, so that leaves his role up in air entirely.  I doubt he’d have enough time to win a starting job, but he could start in the pen, in AAA, or on the DL.  Anything is possible.

Tyson Ross - Acquired in an offseason trade with the Athletics, the older brother of Padres prospect Joe Ross is in an interesting situation.  By moving to PETCO, that clearly is something that will aid any pitcher, especially one without overwhelming stuff, but at the same time he’s gone to a team where his path to a starting role seems nearly impossible.  He has talent, but given his poor performance last season, I’d think he’s as safe a lock to start in the minors, but is a name to keep your eye on.

Casey Kelly - With Anthony Rizzo plying his trade on the Southside, if the Adrian Gonzalez trade is going to look even halfway respectable, Casey Kelly is going to have to come through, and despite the hiccup in his first MLB chance, I think he’s going to get another long look at some point this season.  The former shortstop is one of the most athletic pitchers throwing today, and off the abundance of options the Padres have, the only one aside from Kelly with true top of the rotation ability is 18 year old Max Freid.  Thus far in spring training Kelly has gotten off to a bit of rocky start, and I think he would’ve had to blow the doors down to break camp with the team, but I think he’ll likely be the first call if he’s pitching well in the PCL when issues crop up with Garcia or Marquis.

Robbie Erlin - The member of the “Padres 12” the farthest from the majors, having never pitched above AA, but I’m listing him here, because I’m fairly confident, at least by September he’ll have done enough to earn a sniff during the stretch run.  Acquired from Texas in the Mike Adams trade, Erlin’s style is tailor made for PETCO park, with his well above average command, and flyball tendencies, he must’ve been doing backflips learning he was traded, knowing he was avoiding The Ballpark in Arlington, because his brand of baseball just wouldn’t translate well to the Texas heat.  As a lefty in the Mark Buerhle mould he has the upside of a #3 starter, and I think he has the potential to get to that level fairly quickly.

- Will the dimension changes make a difference in PETCO?
You may have caught some talk during the offseason about the two most extreme pitchers ballparks in baseball (PETCO in San Diego, & SAFECO in Seattle) bringing the fences closer, in an attempt to try to kick start both franchises moribund offences.  While an extreme shift in the fences might have made a large impact, that simply isnt the case in either park.  The 10 foot shift that the Padres are making still leaves it as one of the biggest parks in the majors, and no matter how far you move the fences in, wont change the elevation, and wind conditions that all add up to make PETCO Alcatraz for baseballs.  While this might lead to a couple more home runs jerked down the line by the likes of Carlos Quentin, or cause fly ball pitchers like Jason Marquis to sweat a bit more, in the long run I dont feel this will have much of an impact on the team, and the run environment.

- 2nd Base BattleVery few prospects actually come up as second baseman, rather they are moved there once their range has proven too limited for shortstop, or until their arm gets exposed at third.  The Padres however are in a very unique position at the keystone, by having three viable young natural second basemen in their system, and relatively close to the major leagues, in Logan Forsythe, Jedd Gyorko (who was covered extensively earlier), and AA prospect Cory Spangenberg.  Both Forsythe, and Spangenberg have a much lower ceilings than Gyorko, but fit the classic profile of the slap hitting style second baseman.  It seemed that coming into spring training the plan was to give Forsythe (who did have a very respectable rookie season in 2012) the job to start the year, and allow the team to hold Gyorko down in AAA til the Super 2 deadline.  However with Gyorko off to the scorching start he is in Arizona, he might be forcing their hand.  A think a key deciding factor is whether GM Josh Byrnes sees the team the way I do, as being a fringe contender this year, or like the rest of the BlueJaysPlus staff does, and views 2013 as still a rebuilding year.  By June I’m confident that Gyorko will be getting most of the reps at 2nd (or at possibly elsewhere if injuries were to strike), but its still very possible Forsythe is manning the keystone on opening day.

Projected Opening Day Roster

- SS - Evereth Cabrera -
- 2B - Logan Forsythe -
- 3B - Chase Headley -
- LF - Carlos Quentin -
- 1B - Yonder Alonso -
- RF - Will Venable -
- CF - Cameron Maybin -
- C - Nick Hundley -

- C - John Baker -
- IF - Alexi Amarista -
- 1B - Jesus Guzman -
- 1B - Mark Kotsay -
- OF - Chris Denorfia -

- RP - Edinson Volquez -
- LP - Clayton Richard -
- RP - Jason Marquis -
- LP - Eric Stults -
- RP - Freddy Garcia -

- RP - Huston Street -
- RP - Luke Gregerson -
- RP - Dale Thayer -
- LP - Joe Thatcher -
- RP - Brad Brach -
- RP - Nick Vincent -
- LP - Joe Thatcher -
- RP - Anthony Bass -

Projected Record - 75 Wins - 87 Losses (4th in the NL West)

Final Thoughts - While I was largely in line with the consensus records we here at BlueJaysPlus came up with, the Padres were the one of the two teams that I diverged with the rest of the staff on (the White Sox were the other one).  This isnt meant as a criticism of the other writers on the staff, because I think that’s largely the perception that most of the baseball establishment has for the Friars this upcoming season.
 On the other hand, I’ll admit that I’m probably more bullish on them than most are.  I have them slotted in at 83 wins, and right in the midst of the 4 team dogfight I see taking place in the NL West.  In case I haven’t driven in the point enough, this is because of the depth on their roster.  While its all good to analyze the teams on paper that we see today, but as we know, injuries are going to strike every team in the league, and the Padres are as well positioned as any to weather that storm.  That’s because not only do they have many players who can step in, but also because their lack of star power, means that any one player going down is doubtful to cripple the club (with the possible exception of Headley).
Usually when a team has a near 90 loss season, you can point to minor league talent, being forced to play in the majors, especially on the mound.  A prime example of this would be the Twins last year, being forced to use the likes of Cole DeVries, or Sam Deduno in their rotation.  The only scenario in which the Padres are forced into that situation is if their plane crashes on a road trip, and even then their AAA rotation would still likely be of higher quality.  Quite simply, the replacement level that they would be reaching down to, is just of a higher quality than the teams they are competing with.  It certainly isn’t the sexiest way to build a team, but I think it could be quite an effective one.
I’ve got my fingers crossed things go as I hope they will, because I’ve always personally had a soft spot for the Padres, and I always like teams that play in extreme run environments.  Now if only they’d stop wearing the most boring uniforms in all of sports, and go back to their brown UPS look from the 80s, I’d be be much happier.

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