Losing Adrian Gonzalez would be painful to any team. But for a Padres squad whose second-best 2010 regular (or quasi-regular) was Will Venable (.324 wOBA), it was a monumental loss. Still, the haul from the Gonzalez trade boosts the team’s farm system ranking significantly, and there are some reasons for optimism on a team with limited resources and little chance of contending in 2011.
Present Talent – 75.00 (T-20th)
Future Talent – 85.00 (T-5th)
Financial Resources – 68.08 (29th)
Baseball Operations – 81.67 (11th)
Overall Rating – 76.09 (20th)
I have a theory about park effect adjustments that goes like this: They’re not telling us enough. A left-handed hitter with power to right-center is likely to suffer more offensively than a simply Petco Park adjustment would suggest (think Brian Giles before he fell off a cliff and ultimately retired). On the flip side, a pitcher whose biggest weakness is, say, home runs by left-handed hitters, is likely to benefit more from Petco’s deep dimensions and moist marine air than a simply park adjustment might suggest (if Pat Neshek‘s healthy, that’s a perfect pickup for a Padres team that already has an outrageously deep bullpen).
The point is this: The Padres’ first priority, like any team’s first priority is to scout, draft, sign, develop and if possible, trade for star players. But for the rest of the major league roster, they’ll need to (continue to) think about ways to exploit one of the most extreme ballparks in the majors.
Jed Hoyer and company hope to achieve both of those goals with the acquisition of Cameron Maybin. Still a couple weeks shy of his 24th birthday, Maybin can still be considered a prospect — despite breaking in as a talented player with an abysmal batting eye way back in 2007. The batting eye hasn’t improved much with age, as Maybin’s career strikeout rate is four times higher than his walk rate. But there’s speed, above-average defense, and even flashes of power sprinkled into his skill set, meaning we probably shouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that Maybin becomes a star. We’ve seen too many Brandon Phillips-like cases of players struggling for several years, then finding a new ballclub and flourishing, to rule out Maybin’s upside. He’s also a player who could benefit more from Petco than most. Maybin’s range in center field should play well in Petco’s vast outfield pasture, and right-handed hitters with power potential are generally better off than comparable lefties. The Padres did give up two solid relief pitchers, Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb, to get Maybin. But given the team’s strong track record of grooming and acquiring good relievers, and the need for potential high-level everyday players, it was a move that made all kinds of sense.
The other position player with star upside is Chase Headley. We have to take one-year UZR samples with a gigantic grain of salt. Still, the huge jump in Headley’s defensive value (-6.7 as a left fielder in 2009 to +16.5 as a third baseman in 2010) has to excite his employers, even if future regression toward the mean might be expected. The question now becomes, when or if Headley’s offense will blossom. There are subtle signs of improvement, including a strikeout rate that dropped from 31.4% in 2008 to 22.8% in 2010. But Headley’s power has also ebbed during that span, from a .151 ISO in ’08 down to .111 last season. He’s got a history of solid power production in the minors, albeit generally in hitter-friendly parks. Entering his age-27 season, is this the year that Headley establishes himself as an elite player, someone with enough sock to overcome even Petco’s supernatural offense-squashing powers? The Padres really need that to happen.
There is that potential down on the farm, though, and the Padres will be patient in letting that talent develop at its own speed. Slugging minor league first baseman Anthony Rizzo is the known commodity among the two position players acquired for Gonzalez, and the 42 doubles and 25 homers he socked last year between high-A and Double-A bode well for his chances of growing into, if things break right, a poor man’s Gonzalez. The real prize among the two position players, say scouts who like to dream big, could be Reymond Fuentes, the 20-year-old skinny Puerto Rican with exciting speed and the potential to become an impressive two-way outfielder. Fuentes remains raw, though, so much so that even if Maybin does buck the odds and become a star, he might be playing for someone else by the time Fuentes becomes a legitimate big league outfielder.
The pitching side of the ledger looks more encouraging, and not just Petco can make non-adjusted numbers look Nintendo-ish. Mat Latos is the real deal as the staff ace, fanning more than a batter per inning last year and emerging as a top-flight starter before age 23, in just his second year in the majors. Other, less-talented hurlers figure to put up numbers thanks to Petco, with Clayton Richard back for year two in SoCal after coming over from the White Sox, and Aaron Harang replacing Jon Garland as mediocre pitcher you now want in your fantasy league because of Petco (there could be some legitimacy to Harang’s numbers too; he’s flashed strong K/BB rates throughout most of his career, with his home run tendencies often being his biggest weakness).
The bullpen remains overloaded even with Mujica and Webb dealt for Maybin, and Adam Russell and Brandon Gomes thinning out the prospect stock a bit in San Diego’s deal for shortstop Jason Bartlett. Heath Bell is one of just 15 MLN pitchers with FIPs of 3.50 or lower in each of the past three seasons (in Bell’s case, the last four). Luke Gregerson‘s Slider of Death would make him scary in any park, and Mike Adams has followed Bell as a buy-low guy who’s turned into an elite option in Whale’s Vagina.
Hoyer enters his second season as Padres GM with a big comedown likely in store. No one expected anything close to 90 wins last season, yet that’s what the Padres managed; acknowledging the flaws with using Pythagorean record to peg a team’s won-lost record, it’s still interesting to note that the Pads by that measure were a 91-win club, buoyed by run prevention results that looked damn good even after accounting for Petco. There are more quality pitchers nearing the big leagues, with Red Sox transplant Casey Kelly and homegrown right-hander Simon Castro the best of a promising bunch. There’s athleticism in the pipeline in Donovan Tate, a potential power bat they sorely need in Jaff Dacker, and other goodies on the farm. Some of the key personnel who helped build the team’s minor league depth left along with former GM Kevin Towers. How new(ish) Scouting Director Jaron Madison and other new-regime hires fare will tell us a lot about the sustainability and upside of the Padres’ youth movement.
More than losing Gonzalez or a likely building-and-waiting process for at least the next couple years, that 29th ranking in Financial Resources should worry Padres fans the most. In 2009, Jeff Moorad became the lead partner in a group that stepped in to grab majority control of the team from financially-strapped owner John Moores. But the takeover is expected to occur gradually over a five-year span, with Moorad still owning 12% of the Diamondbacks (am I the only one who thinks that’s completely crazy?) and the team unlikely to start spending heavily during that time of transition. It’s tough to say what Moorad’s financials might look like in 2014, or if the Padres will be at the appropriate phase of their building cycle to go on a spending spree at that time.
For now, we wait. We wait to see if Maybin and Headley can become front-line players, if Venable has room for improvement entering his late-20s, if Latos can turn into a perennial Cy Young candidate, if the trend of building killer bullpens and flipping relievers for real talent can continue, if the next wave of pitchers can form a formidable future Padres rotation, if the Padres can figure out a way to fully harness Petco’s unique Petco-ness, and if Hoyer and his lieutenants can offer more surprises, even if a step back from last season’s 90 wins is a mortal lock.