Team Preview: San Diego Padres by Eno Sarris March 1, 2011 Of the 41 seasons the Padres have enjoyed, last season may have been the most painful. Finding new ways to show the standings would only serve to find new ways to visually represent the excruciatingly painful time that was last September in San Diego. But if you’re a sucker for punishment, Chris Spurlock at Beyond the Box Score obliges. Now that the team has finally traded away their slugging first baseman and lost their (only?) big bat, they are in rebuild mode, right? Maybe, except that we’ve had that thought before. The Starting Nine RF Will Venable* / Aaron Cunningham 2B Orlando Hudson 3B Chase Headley^ LF Ryan Ludwick 1B Brad Hawpe* / Jorge Cantu CF Cameron Maybin SS Jason Bartlett C Nick Hundley *lefty batter, ^switch-hitter San Diego scored the fewest runs in the division (fourth-worst in the National League) with Adrian Gonzalez, so perhaps the hand-wringing can continue. Two things, though. One: offense hasn’t really been their stalwart, as they allowed the fewest runs ins baseball last year, and their pitching staff remains largely unaffected. Two: there’s some youth in this current lineup, and a few players that might just improve this year. We’ll talk some more about Venable later, but he’s being considered for the leadoff spot and has virtual buckets full of tools. Also toolsy but flawed is newcomer Maybin. If he could ever make headway cutting the strikeouts in the major leagues – he has been able to make progress in the minor leagues – he could combine plus outfield defense with league-average power and elite speed on the basepaths. At the very least, he’d be useful while cost-controlled. Really, though, much of the onus is on system jewel Chase Headley to take another step forward. That is not to say that he hasn’t shown improvement – he’s struck out less and stolen more bases every year – but it is to say that another step is needed if he is to anchor this lineup. After showing great power in the minor leagues, Headley has perhaps been stymied by his home park (.139 away ISO, .112 home). Scratch that, he’s definitely not as happy in PetCo (.226/.311/.338 at home, .275/.350/.408 on the road). He’s also had trouble with lefties (.290 wOBA vs .336 against righties), but we’re only talking about some 500 PAs against lefties so far. Headley still has time to push the power and iron out the platoon splits. If he does, a successful year for the Padres will also include a little bounce-back from the veterans. Ryan Ludwick (.251/.325/.418) and Brad Hawpe (.245/.338/.419) both showed the worst batting lines since they’d become major league regulars. It might be tempting to blame PetCo for Ludwick’s struggles, but the park had a 95 park factor for home runs by right-handed hitters (59 for lefties), and only suppressed righty wOBAs by 8%. Just a little regression in his power (.167 ISO last year, .210 career) would ensure that he’ll be an above-average hitter in a lineup that needs more above-average hitters (93 wRC+ last year as a whole). Where Ludwick came from a pitcher-friendly park and is used to producing despite the obstacle, Hawpe may have benefited from his park in the past (.286/.378/.513 in Coors, .273/.369/.470 away from home). At least his 175 PAs in PetCo have been okay (.281/.371/.451), and if he could continue that sort of work he would help mitigate the loss of Gonzo. His move to first base will also keep him from giving back most of his value with the glove, and Cantu will keep him from facing lefties (.380 career wOBA vs righties, .332 vs lefties). If it doesn’t work out with Hawpe, big power, big whiffer Kyle Blanks should be recovered from Tommy John surgery early in the season – and he can get it out of any stadium. Of course, Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett both qualify as veteran bats in need of bounce-backs as well. It’s just that their possible contributions with the bat are more muted, and they can produce even without the bounce-back if they show good glove. The Pitching Staff RHP Mat Latos LHP Clayton Richard RHP Aaron Harang RHP Tim Stauffer LHP Wade LeBlanc CL RHP Heath Bell RHP Mike Adams RHP Luke Gregerson LHP Joe Thatcher RHP Ernesto Frieri LHP Aaron Poreda RHP Chad Qualls This is the staff that gave up the fewest runs in baseball last year. Though there’s been some changes, the backbone of the staff remains, and yet if you knew nothing about their home park, you might think some sort of record-keeping mistake had been made. Yes – Mat Latos is a stud. He has velocity, bite, and control and no innings restrictions this year, so the rotation is nice at the top. But look at the rest of the dudes, and it there are just so many reasons to consider them overrated and products of their home park. Somehow Clayton Richard parlayed a below-average strikeout rate and walk rate into a sub-four ERA. Though he had a slightly above-average groundball rate, he only gave up home runs on 7.7% of his fly balls. You can see it in his ERA/xFIP split (3.75 / 4.19) as well as his home-road splits (3.15 ERA, 1.22 WHIP at home, 4.41 ERA, 1.61 WHIP on the road). Ditto for LeBlanc (4.25 ERA, 4.60 xFIP; 2.71 ERA, 1.32 WHIP at home, 6.11 ERA, 1.55 WHIP on the road). These are a couple of lefties that love home-cooking, but even the righty Harang should benefit from PetCo. The best non-Latos upside comes from Stauffer, who shook off two injury-ridden years to show plus control (2.61 BB/9 last year) and induce groundballs by the bucketfull (54.5%). It’s tough to come back from labrum surgery, but Stauffer’s high use of his slider – his best pitch by pitch type values – seems to suggest he’s feeling good. He represents a sort of double jeopardy, since he’s been injury-riddled and also was a bit lucky last year, but he’s also an interesting pitcher. Even once his BABIP (.263) and strand rate (84.1%) have been removed from the equation, he had a strong season (3.02 FIP, 3.74 xFIP). Let’s see if he can “Watson” the season and overcome the double jeopardy. The pen? Well, it should be excellent once again despite trading away assets in the category. Bell, Adams, and Gregerson are all elite relievers by any measure, and if Frieri and Thatcher can do what they did once again, they might join the long line of excellent Padre relievers. The Guy Who Matters Since the pen will be fine, and the rotation about the same, it’s really on the offense to improve in order to cover the loss of their superstar first base man. We’ve talked about the importance of Headley, but the best other young piece the team has developed so far is Will Venable. The twenty-eight year old has shown power (.166 career ISO) and speed (29 steals at an 81% clip last year), but has had trouble with the contact (29.9% career strikeout rate). He can also take a walk (9.3% career, 10.1% last year), and according to his manager is in line to lead off this year. Even without a better strikeout rate, he’s a valuable player. With his positive efforts with the glove at all three outfield positions, his developing power and ability to take a walk, he put up the second-best WAR of the Padres position players that remain on the roster. But can he better the strikeout rate? I remain unreasonably optimistic despite the following graph. That looks like it’s going the wrong way. And he’s 28, so he seems like a fully-formed human being, with fully-formed flaws. But Venable only struck out 20% of the time in the minor leagues, so it’s possible that we can regress his strikeout rate to something other than his career major league strikeout rate. Even using his Triple-A strikeout rate (23%) would seem to suggest that he could improve his contact percentage in the coming year. And though he’s 28, he ‘only’ owns 893 career plate appearances. If he was halfway through his second season, would we counting out the possibility that he could better his strikeout rate? Watching him play produces mixed prognoses. He is obviously athletic, but he also finds himself swinging at the outside slider. He can hit the ball out of PetCo, and steal his way around he bases, but he lunges and looks awkward at the plate sometimes. Here’s the thing, though. He knows. Check this quote from last week: Venable believes his problems in 2010 were more mechanical than mental. “At times, I got my base too spread out at the plate,” Venable said. “I wasn’t able to get on top of the ball. That led to a lot of strikeouts and bad at-bats. And I was hurt by the inability to make adjustments. So now he’s working on a new stance. There’s a chance that we can judge him against a different baseline than his career strikeout rate. And we know he has the tools. Now’s his chance.