MLB March Report: San Diego Padres

Spring training baseball previews continue today with the San Diego Padres. Just as TheSportsNotebook did yesterday with the Houston Astros, we’ll evaluate the Padres based on their ability to get on base, power, starting pitching and relief pitching, and then ask whether they can beat the Las Vegas Over/Under expectations on win totals. Final predictions in the standings will come in the days just before Opening Night on April 4. So without further adieu, let’s take a look at Bud Black’s Padres, as they try and improve on last year’s 71-91 campaign.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: With Petco Park swallowing up any attempts to hit for power, the Padres have to build their offense in this area. It would be a stretch to call them good, but there are some reasons for hope. Third baseman Chase Headley has had decent on-base percentages (OBP) since his career began with Black’s in 2007, and Headley had a career-high number of .374 last season. Nick Hundley can be one of the better offensive catchers in the National League, but he needs to stay healthy for a full season. San Diego made a great move in acquiring Cincinnati Reds’ prospect Yonder Alonso as part of a package for starting pitcher Mat Latos, and very limited duty last year showed Alonso to be a solid line-drive hitter who has the ability to turn into a real star. General manager Josh Byrnes liked Alonzo enough to not just deal one of his top starting pitching prospects, but to then turn around and deal another top 1B prospect Anthony Rizzo—a centerpiece of the trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Boston—to the Cubs. All of which is the long way of saying Alonso better be good, because Byrnes really put all his chips on the table.

It’s the veterans in the middle infield who are liabilities here. No one expects second baseman Orlando Hudson or shortstop Jason Bartlett to turn into power hitters, but they can show plate discipline and put up some decent OBPS. Yet Bartlett hasn’t had a productive season since 2009, while Hudson’s also been in decline for the last two seasons. Byrnes needs to look at some fresh blood up the middle. Fresh blood like Cameron Maybin in centerfielder. The speedy Maybin swiped 40 bases last season, and while he has a lot of work to do on his plate discipline, he is only 24 years old, so there’s plenty of reason to think he can get better. Chris Denorfia doesn’t have the same upside at age 31, but he is a respectable singles hitter and takes his walks, making him a possible candidate in rightfield if the organization tires of waiting for Will Venable to fulfill his promise, and certainly as a fourth outfielder.

San Diego’s ability to get runners on base isn’t going to remind anyone of a five-hour Red Sox-Yankees game anytime soon, but there’s no reason for them to be bereft of opportunities to score. It all depends on whether someone can pick the runners up.

POWER: Which brings us to the muscle side of the offensive equation. Alonso will have to be a factor here. There’s doubt if he’s a home-run hitter and Petco will drag him down further, but he can drive the ball to the alleys, which, if done consistently, can be just as valuable in a big ballpark like this. Carlos Quentin has left the South Side of Chicago and returned to his San Diego roots. The power has always been there for Quentin, hitting 20-plus home runs, even while losing time to injuries every year since 2008. His batting averages are notoriously poor, but his batting eye makes up for a lot of that. The questions are his durability and how many of those home run balls will turn into long outs at Petco.

STARTING PITCHING: Byrnes rolled the dice when he traded Latos to Cincinnati, but I think he got the better end of the deal. Latos had worked an abnormally high number of innings for a 24-year-old. While traditionalists would bemoan the notion that we should hold that against a young pitcher—and I would generally agree—we also can’t be blind to the reality that starting pitchers just aren’t conditioned to throw 200-plus innings like Latos did in 2010 when the Pads contended to the final day of the regular season.  The young starter fell off badly last year, and I think Byrnes was able to get top value on a declining asset when he picked up Alonso and starter Edinson Volquez.

Volquez is hoping the confines of Petco (sorry if I’m a drone on this park effect stuff, but it really can’t be overstated in San Diego) will rejuvenate a career that’s gone badly over the last three seasons. He’s got great stuff, but he hasn’t been healthy and has only made 41 starts from 2009-11. Those starts haven’t been particularly effective, although I think if the health comes around, the quality of the work will follow. Volquez will join a rotation that has Tim Stauffer and Clayton Richard at the top. Each have ERAs in the high 3s, which is too high for a 1-2 combo in a pitchers’ park. They need to improve, or Byrnes and Black have to structure the rotation so they can be 3-4 starters rather than the aces. Cory Luebke did some nice work last year, mostly in relief, with a 3.29 ERA and he’ll get a chance to start. Dustin Moseley got 20 starts last year and responded with a 3.30 ERA, and young Anthony Bass has live stuff, and pitched very well in a brief major-league stint last year. Bass is currently projected to start the season in the bullpen, but the 24-year-old will likely get a chance to start sooner rather than later. Basically this is an army of #3 or #4 starters. It’s not a playoff-contending staff, but it could definitely be worse.

RELIEF PITCHING: Heath Bell may be gone, but Huston Street has been brought in. Street is a closer who’s high save totals and high ERAs make him better for Fantasy Leagues than in the real world, but if nothing else, Black has a guy who will get the last three outs more often than not. Luke Gregorson is a top setup man, and Black has good pieces to work with in young Ernesto Frieri  and veteran Micah Owings. The latter is a very intriguing possibility, because Owings went 8-0 last year with Arizona, time that included four starts. He can swing from the bullpen to the rotation and I can see him having a big year in either spot. A possible X-factor is hard-throwing Andrew Cashner, whose Cubs career was derailed by injury, and I also presume the bad luck that comes with being a Cub.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER: 73.5—I’m thinking that San Diego is a 74-win team which makes this line dead on. But TheSportsNotebook isn’t bailing in these spots, and I’m taking the Over. I like this team enough to think that it’s much easier for me to see them sneaking up to the .500 mark than falling below 70 wins.