Team Preview: San Diego Padres

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.




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15 Responses to “Team Preview: San Diego Padres”

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  1. Chops says:

    Any chance Luebke breaks into the rotation out of camp over LeBlanc?

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    • James says:

      I would have to think there’s a decent chance, considering he started games down the stretch in place of LeBlanc.

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  2. Drakos says:

    The plan is actually for Venable to play right and Ludwick to play left where hopefully he’ll look less terrible than he did in right last year. I’m a big Venable fan and hope that he does improve. I think it may also be important to note that he primarily played basketball until he was in college (and even then he played both sports) so his development is behind where you’d expect for his age.

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  3. Paul says:

    I really like Venable, but he’s basically Mark Reynolds without the power. In the month of May last year he struck out in 44% of his plate appearances. I’d like to have him on my real team, because he’s sort of like Chris Young (OF) before he got back on track last year. In fantasy, if you need anything besides SB’s, he’s not rosterable. For me he’s at least as big of a risk as Maybin, but if both of those guys put it together they’re in great shape.

    I have an issue with saying the staff is the same. Garland was huge for them last year. You can’t just slide Harang in there and call it good, because the fact is that he has sucked for a few years now. Jon Garland consistently beating projections actually happened, as did Harang’s suckitude.

    Stauffer is the real key. Besides having great stuff, feel, and command, he might be one of those exceptions to the shoulder surgery rule. For a guy without a plus-plus FB, not projectable physically, and pitching at a small school, he was the top pitcher in his draft year and was taken early despite being hurt. He then pitched through the pain for three years before finally deciding on surgery (labrum, rotator cuff, and 2 screws). Then he came back, really had no setbacks in his rehab, and his stuff is pretty much all the way back. Clearly he is a guy who has the ability to ignore the pain and let it go 100%. I love this guy and I think he can have a big year, recognized as their clear number 2 by September.

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    • Travis L says:

      Disagree entirely. Garland’s year last year was a product of great luck and Petco. I expect the Petco effect to help Harang a lot (FB pitcher with above avg K rates).

      Harang is the better pitcher. I’ll take him over Garland this year.

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    • Drakos says:

      Wasn’t Stauffer’s injury not discovered (or maybe disclosed) until after the draft? That was why the Padres reduced his signing bonus. I think his high draft position was made under the assumption that he was healthy and very close to MLB ready.

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      • Paul says:

        You’re right. He was injured before the draft, but thought it was just soreness and didn’t have an MRI until July. Gave them a discount on the signing bonus even though he wasn’t hiding the injury, just didn’t know. During his last start before the draft his stuff was as good as ever. Still, he was the fourth overall pick, not as a signability pick, but because he was comped to Greg Maddux. If he’s even half that this year they’ll be quite happy.

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  4. Kimbal says:

    This team and park are reminiscent of the 1960′s Dodger teams in their Chavez Ravine location. Pitchers like Koufax, Drysdale and Osteen were helped by a park factor of around 92 or so while the offense was depressed, so that 7 or the remaining nine teams outscored them in 1965, for instance, but they allowed by far the fewest runs in the league. Same formula in 1966. The Dodgers had a deep bullpen

    So Latos has the star power to be a modern ace and, if one of the other starters can also step up then the Pads could make some noise. It is possible to have an awful offense and yet win a lot of one-run games with a deep bullpen and two or three really good starters.

    The problem for San Diego is that the Giants have a similar team with better players in a more neutral ball park. SFG will do what SDP does, only better.

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  5. Scout Finch says:

    I was looking for the middle of the order above and couldn’t find it.

    ???

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  6. Kick me in the GO NATS says:

    Provided they lose against the NATS, I for one would love to see the Padres win 90 again. I also feel losing Gonzalez is a bit overrated. Sure Hawpe is a big fall off, but it looks likely they will get better offense at SS, 2B, CF, and LF than 2010. So, I do not see their total runs scored likely declining that much. Granted is was not good last year and it is certainly not better.

    As for harang vs garland. I feel harang could easilt outproduce what Garland did last year. Harang has been a durable flyball pitcher pitching in a flyball hitters park. Moving to PETCo has to help a lot.

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  7. jackson bennett says:

    David Extein isn’t on the starting line-up .Hope they haven’t traded him…..what gives ?

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  8. PaulR says:

    @Jackson: Eck remains the scrappiest free agent on the market. Hudson will be, I suspect, a substantial upgrade.

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