As early as last November, a Jake-Peavy-to-Chicago trade being near completion were reported across the country. Fans and analysts instantly wrote off the Padres as being in one of their infamous rebuilding years and pegged them for triple-digit losses, if not the worst overall record in baseball.
Then a funny thing happened, or rather, did not happen. New ownership took over in San Diego, ownership limbo still stagnates in Chicago, and the Cubs dealt their best Peavy bargaining chips in December. As a result, it is now mid-March, Peavy is still a Padre, and Peavy's name hasn't been mentioned in Chicago for about a month now.
Yet for some odd reason, fans and analysts are still in denial of the fact that Peavy is still a San Diego Padre. One Padres fan on the Scout.com message boards is predicting a 114-loss season for the team. Well, I am here to tell you that the Padres will not finish 2009 with the fewest wins in the NL West, much less all of baseball, and they most certainly will not finish with triple-digit losses.
One thing I had never understood about the San Diego Padres is that they would continue to trot out catchers with glass arms behind the plate while playing in a ballpark where preventing stolen bases is paramount. Well, that's finally changing. Henry Blanco (43% CS) and Nick Hundley (24%) replace the quartet of Hundley, Michael Barrett (10%), Josh Bard (15%), and Luke Carlin (22%). "Wait!" you cry. "Chris Young can't hold base runners, and that's why those catchers have terrible caught stealing numbers." Indeed, Young is one of the worst around at acknowledging the existence of the runner at first, but Hundley caught seven of Young's 18 starts and still had a better percentage than his three colleagues did.
The caveat, of course, is that neither Blanco nor Hundley even has an outside shot at a .250 batting average, .300 OBP, or .400 SLG. Then again, neither did last year's quartet. Not every team can have a Joe Mauer or a Brian McCann, and it makes much more sense for the Padres to go defense-heavy here rather than bring Mike Piazza out of retirement.
Not every team can have an Adrian Gonzalez at first base, but the Padres are blessed to have the 26-year old slugger locked up dirt cheap through 2011. Gonzalez' road OPS the past three seasons have been .905, .894, and .946 last year. He figures to lead the non-Albert Pujols universe in intentional walks this year while carrying the Padres offense with his best year to date. 285-pound Kyle Blanks, easily the Padres' most exciting prospect, is blocked by Adrian and doesn't figure to convert to shortstop...
Padres Fun Fact|
Adrian Gonzalez drove in 18.7% of the Padres' runs last season and was responsible in part for 29.2% of their run production overall
The Padres' middle infield is less exciting. Edgar Gonzalez is Adrian's older brother; he was a 30-year old rookie last year and doesn't figure to build on that yawn of a performance. Luis Rodriguez isn't much younger and owns a minor league OPS of .712. Prospect Matt Antonelli was supposed to secure the second base position last year, but instead hit .215 in Triple-A before dipping to .193 in his September callup. None of these guys play noteworthy defense.
Newly acquired David Eckstein has not had a good enough arm for shortstop in years. Really, the Padres have a half dozen second baseman competing for both of the middle infield spots, which isn't ideal for them. At least Petco will not rob Eckstein of any home runs.
Interestingly enough, Kevin Kouzmanoff manned third base all last year and may not have been robbed of any homers by Petco, either. His home run rate was nearly identical at home versus on the road, even though his overall OPS split was skewed by 145 points. He's an interesting case, since his minor league numbers did nothing to suggest that he would become a runner up for the Dave Kingman Award. He could have a breakout season at age 27, or he could ride the pine in favor of Kevin Kouzmanoff Jr., AKA Chase Headley.
Right now, Headley is penciled in as the starter in left field, but the Padres' surprising outfield depth may cause Headley to see time at third base even if Kouzmanoff fares well. Kouz Jr. has exhibited the same dominance at the higher minor league levels that Kouz Sr. has, but also the same lack of pitch recognition and plate discipline at the major league level.
In right field, Brian Giles is the best-kept secret in baseball. The now-38-year old posted an OPS+ of 136 and a +/- rating of +22 that was second among major league right-fielders. The caveats are that his aging arm cost the Padres about five runs last season and that this was easily Giles' best offensive performance since 2005.
While Giles is a secret, Jody Gerut is an epiphany. He managed an OPS+ of 130 and a +/- rating of +13 despite spending just over 600 innings in centerfield. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Scott Hairston managed to play solid centerfield defense while posting Tony Armasesque offensive numbers in a part-time role. Padres fans might have lamented how well Jim Edmonds played after signing with the Cubs if not for the surprising production of his replacements.
Along with Hairston, Glass Floyd and journeyman Emil Brown provide insurance against Edmonds-like collapses and a shift of Headley back to third base. Cliff Floyd is a fine starter when healthy, which has been exactly once in the past six seasons, and so he could really flourish in this part-time role. Prospects Cedric Hunter and Drew Macias provide additional depth, although Macias is a low-impact player and Hunter looks like he's a year away.
Peavy, still a Padre
At this point, I'd like to reiterate that Jake Peavy is still the ace of the Padres' starting pitching staff. The World Baseball Classic may fatigue him prematurely, but I'm still going to take the over on he and Chris Young surpassing their total of 45 games started between them from last season. Young, by the way, put up a 3.55 ERA after coming back from the disabled list last season. These two pitchers have as good of a chance of finishing 2009 1-2 in ERA as any starting pitching do in baseball.
Now at first glance, the depth behind Peavy and Young does not look good. Subsequent glances do not improve the sight. In fact, Yahoo! Sports has only four starting pitchers listed on their depth chart, with two of them being Cha Seung Baek and Josh Geer. I must have a Korean fetish, because I predicted great things for Hee Seop Choi and Jae Weong Seo, and I'm also predicting great things for Baek. CSB throws a half dozen different pitches, has a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.27, plays in the greatest pitching park of our generation, and turns 29 in May.
The Padres are pretty excited about Geer, who owns a minor league record of 29-17 with a sub-4.00 ERA. He's a control pitcher who should be able to eat innings because of Petco, but if they need him to be anything more than a back-of-the-rotation workhorse, they'll be disappointed. Mark Prior is still in the organization, and I don't think I need to go into his risk/reward status, so I'll just mention that he would be better penciled in as your #6 or #7 starter than your #5.
They do have Kevin Correia, a solid starter for the Giants before last season, Wade LeBlanc, who has a 3.5:1 career K/BB ratio in the minors before failing in Petco worse than anyone thought was possible, and Jae Kuk Ryu, the talented bird-murdering Korean that even I can't bring myself to like as candidates for that fifth starter's spot. In Petco with a solid defense behind them, it isn't out of the question that one of these guys could step up and give some solid outings.
The bullpen obviously reels with the loss of all-time saves leader and Mr. Padre, Trevor Hoffman. Heath Bell, Cla Meredith, and Mike Adams actually form a very productive trio of right-handers. The problem here is lack of left-handers and lack of depth. The lack of left-handers doesn't figure to be an issue, as the Padres' Killer Gees (Gonzalez, Giles, and Gerut) are arguably the best left-handed hitters in the division. The lack of depth could mean several relievers with an ERA of six or above like it did last year. The Padres are taking a bit of a gamble that almost any pitcher can succeed in their ballpark.
The old baseball adage dictates that teams must be strong up the middle to succeed. The Padres have upgraded their catcher defense and got surprising production out of centerfield last year, but their middle infield situation has gone from unacceptable to worse. That, combined with a lack of pitching depth, will prevent the Padres from making a run at a winning season. It will not, however, prevent them from avoiding the NL West cellar, and a bit of luck could even propel them into third place.
So if the Padres won't finish last in the west, who will? Look no further than the San Francisco Giants, whose much-lauded pitching staff will struggle through serious injuries this season and whose much-maligned offense has been neglected in the offseason.