2008 San Diego Padres Preview

Thursday, March 27 2008 @ 09:44 AM EDT

Contributed by: Thomas

San Diego has their own version of the Killer Bís with its (army) bases, beaches and babes. However, the Padres could possibly use a version of Houstonís Killer Bís from the late 1990ís and early 2000ís, as this San Diego team will rely heavily on pitching and may need an unexpected offensive performance or two to make the playoffs. Or at least thatís the common perception, with their outfield considered one of the worst in the majors. If nothing else Padres fans can take comfort in knowing that whatever happens, it will be tough for 2008 to duplicate the heartbreak of 2007 when the team missed the playoffs due to an unlikely triple by Milwaukee Brewer Anthony Gwynn Jr., son of Padres icon Tony Gwynn, and a phantom tag of home plate by Matt Holliday.

To spare the feelings of all Padres sympathizers, like myself, Iím not going to replay the last few days of September. However, itís worth remember back in 2003 there was talk that the Padres were going to draft Gwynn Jr. as a favour/nod to their favourite son, but the team picked fourth in each round and Gwynn didnít merit taking at fourth overall in the 2003 draft. The team selected Tim Stauffer from the University of Richmond at fourth overall, nine picks ahead of Aaron Hill. Iím not sure if the Padres were going to take Gwynn in the second round, but the Brewers made any deliberations moot by taking the San Diego State University product with the second pick of the second round. San Diego would up taking Daniel Moore, a pitcher from the University of North Carolina. The Padres never got a chance to draft Gwynn, so you canít say that their failure to do a favourite for Mr. Padre came back to haunt them four years later. However, itís interesting to contemplate how September 2007 would have played out with Gwynn on the Padres and that after everything Tony Gwynn did to the franchise, his son would cost them a playoff spot years later. Also, Iím a fan of Tim McClelland fan and I think heís a good umpire, but I think he got the call on Holliday wrong on what was a debatable play.

Anyhow, last year I previewed the Padres by looking at 3 things that went right in 2006, 3 that wrong and 3 players or positions to watch in 2007. I concluded that the Padres would be better than people thought (the Dodgers won the preseason poll to win the NL West) and would win the division. I got that wrong, but I actually underestimated their win total by two. So, letís try that approach again in 2008 and see where it leads us.

First of all, what went right in 2007 and will it continue to go right in 2008?

1. Jake Peavy

Last year I pegged Peavy as one of the three players to watch in 2007, saying that his ERA in 2006 was artificially high and I could find no underlying cause for this. I predicated Peavy would rebound and post an ERA in the low 3ís, win 17 games and propel the Padres to the playoffs. You can either argue that I got none of these predictions right or applaud as I take my bow. While I technically got none of those statements correct, I pegged Peavy for a big rebound year and he delivered, going 19-6 with a 2.54 ERA over 34 starts and winning the NL Cy Young Award. He didnít lead the Padres to the postseason, but the team wouldnít have sniffed legitimate contention without Peavy pitching the way he did.

Thereís nowhere for Peavy to go but backwards from his 2007. However, the prediction systems donít have him falling far. PECOTA projects a 3.11 ERA over 31 starts and ZIPS projects a 2.99 ERA over 33 starts. Interestingly, Peavyís never had an ERA in the 3ís, posting an ERA in the 4ís thrice and an ERA in the 2ís three times, as well. The ERAs in the 2ís have come in three of the last four years, which demonstrates what how good a talent Peavy is. Iím going to say that this is the year that this streak ends, as Peavy puts up an ERA in the low 3ís, returns to the All-Star Game and wins about 16 games. Heíll be in the upper echelon of NL starters along with Johan Santana, Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Roy Oswalt and a couple of others. Peavyís only 27 and his peripherals are still very strong. If he regresses, heís not going to fall far. Any health issues or prolonged underperformance by the Alabama native could do serious damage to San Diegoís playoff hopes.

Last year I said the often-hilarious highjinks of Marcus and Brian Giles and their strong clubhouse presence made it their team more than it was Hoffmanís or Peavyís. Well, Marcus is gone and Peavy stepped up after a disappointing 2006. In likely the most important news from the Friars during the offseason, he was signed to an extension through 2012 and with an option for 2013 and thereís no reason he shouldnít continue to be one of the best starters in the NL over the life of that contract. Theyíre Peavyís Padres now, donít make any mistake about it.

2. The January 2006 Swindling of Jon Daniels

Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez were stolen, along with Terrmel Sledge, from Texas in the 2005 offseason in a deal that netted the Rangers Akinori Otsuka, Adam Eaton and minor-league catcher Billy Killian. Eaton made 13 starts for the Rangers before getting hurt and he struggled during his time with the Phillies in 2006. Killianís still only 21, but heís posting OPSí in the 600ís in A-ball and is a non-prospect. Otsukaís been a fantastic reliever with ERA+s of 218 and 180 over the past two years, but thatís not enough to make up for the production the Rangers lost with those three players. In my 2006 Padres preview I heaped praise of Kevin Towers for the deal, saying Young alone would have been a fine return for those players, predicting ERAís in the 3 in his future. That didnít even include Gonzalez and Sledge, both of whom still had the potential to be starters in the big leagues. However, I never predicted things would turn out this well for San Diego as this is the trade has been vital to the Padres chances at contention over the past couple of seasons.

Young is a 6í10Ē Princeton product and the Dallas native, while showing signs of promise with the Rangers, has come into his own since joining the Padres. In 2006 he posted a 3.46 ERA for a 117 ERA+ and I didnít think heíd duplicate this because he only allowed 134 hits in 179.1 innings. Young proved me wrong, gaining his first All-Star appearance in a year when he posted a 3.12 ERA for a 129 ERA+. Young only gave up 118 hits in 173 innings for a .192 opponentís batting average against. For an established player ZIPS and PECOTA differ noticeably on what to expect for Young going forward in 2008. ZIPS projects a 3.32 ERA over 29 starts, but PECOTA predicts a 3.91 ERA over only 23 starts. Like last year Iím going to say Young is due for some regression, but I donít think heíll regress as much as PECOTA does. I think Youngíll have an ERA of about 3.68 over a full season of starts, but will have several more wins than last yearís 9.

Gonzalez, a former first-overall pick by the Marlins who was dealt to the Rangers for Ugeth Urbina, hit .302/.362/.500 with a 127 OPS+ for the Padres in 2006 and the big question going forward was whether he could repeat this performance. I predicted he would and Gonzalez put up a .282/.347/.502 line for a 125 OPS+. Gonzalez, 26, is coming off two great seasons with the bat. Heís clearly below the Pujols-Fielder-Howard trifecta among NL first basemen. However, he compares reasonably well with other prominent NL first basemen, such as Lance Berkman, Derrek Lee, James Loney and Todd Helton, all of whom had OPS+ in the low 130ís. All four of those hitters played in parks that favour hitters or were basically neutral, while PETCO Park had an offensive park factor of 91 last year, according to Baseball Reference. Gonzalez definitely ranks behind the Big Three, Teixeira and Berkman, but heís right there with Lee, Helton and Loney.

Iíve never understood Texasís rationale for the trade (Iíll accept that Gonzalez was blocked to some degree by Teixeira, but that doesnít explain the lopsided nature of the deal or why Texas felt Eaton was worth Young) and itís no exaggeration to say this belongs in the discussion of top 10 most lopsided trades of the decade. I donít mean to pick on Daniels, who has generally done a good job with the Rangers from what I hear, but getting a number 2 starter and a very good first baseman for a below-average pitcher one year away from free agency and a very good reliever is a huge coup. I get the feeling that if (or when) I do the Padres 2009 preview I could copy this segment and say that what went right in 2008 was trading for Young and Gonzalez in 2005.

3. The Eight In-Season Trades of Kevin Towers

With this one Iím not referring to how Towers manages the 25-man roster during the season. A Padres expert (and Iíd recommend Geoff Young of Ducksnorts) could tell you better than I could how well Towers juggles the roster in-season. However, what Towers excelled at during 2007 was his offseason and inseason personnel moves, in terms of additions to the teams and subtractions. I have no idea how well the moves of other teams worked out as they brought in and let go of players during the season, but Iíd be surprised if the collection of moves by the Friars wasnít among the NLís best.

This section would be even longer if we included offseason transactions by the Padres, but Towers did a good job there, particularly in grabbing an underappreciated Heath Bell from the Mets for very little. If we limit ourselves to in-season trades, Towers made eight and the only one that was a clear mistake was the first. In May San Diego sent Jack Cust to Oakland for a PTBNL. Custís minor league track record was well-known at the time and despite his defensive limitations he would have been an improvement in left field over Sledge, who seems like heís never fully recovered from his 2005 injury. Plugging Cust into the outfield every day from the middle of May forward would have given Padres fans some cringe-worthy moments in the field and a lot of good offence to cheer. That was the biggest mistake of the season for Towers, but he made a couple of moves later to address weaknesses in the outfield that worked very well.

In June Towers dealt backup catcher Rob Bowen and a minor leaguer to the Cubs for short-tempered Michael Barrett. To put it plainly, Barrett stunk for the Padres in 2007, but last year also stands out like a sore thumb from his previous three years with the Cubs when he was consistently above average at the plate. Barrett forced his way out of Chicago after a fight with Carlos Zambrano and heís been known for personality clashes before, as well. However, heís also a good hitting catcher and I think heíll rebound with the bat in 2008. Bowen, who later went to the Aís on waivers, is a decent backup catcher, but heís fairly fungible and dealing him for Barrett is a risk worth taking.

Barrett was resigned by the Padres to a very affordable $3.5 million one-year contract and heíll enter the season as Josh Bardís backup. I suspect heíll play more than the average backup catcher does and he gives the Padres some interesting options in-season with an affordable and short-term contract. I enjoy Zaun, but Iíd trade him and Barajas in a heartbeat for Bard and Barrett, who give the Padres perhaps the deepest catching tandem in the majors. Barrettís 2007 struggles were completely unpredictable and while the team assumes some risk theyíll have to deal him for pennies on the dollar, like Chicago did after it became clear he and Zambrano could not co-exist, it was a good move for the Padres that I expect to pay net dividends, whether they keep the tandem intact for the whole season or explore trades for Barrett in the middle of the season if another contender needs a catcher.

Nine days after acquiring Barrett Towers picked up Milton Bradley from the Aís for minor league reliever Andrew Brown. Interestingly, this was the second time in his career Brown had been traded for Bradley, as he and Franklin Guttierez were sent to the Indians by the Dodgers for Bradley in May 2004. Brown could turn into an effective reliever if he continues the improved control he showed at the end of last season, but heís nothing special and is already 27. Bradley put up a very productive .313/.414/.590 line over 144 at-bats for the Padres and was a key part of their playoff drive.

Bradleyís season ended during the last week of the season with a bizarre injury when he tore his ACL and MCL as Bud Black tried to restrain him during a confrontation with an umpire. If you donít remember you may be tempted to dismiss this as another case of Bradleyís short temper, but he accused umpire Mike Winters of baiting him and MLB suspended Winters for the rest of the season. For the MLB to come down on Winters like that I think lends credence to Bradleyís claims that Winters said something inflammatory and possibly racist to Bradley and I think if the allegations are true Winters should have lost his job. It doesnít necessarily excuse Bradleyís reaction, but I have a lot more sympathy for him here than I do in other instances where heís made headlines. I wish Helton, who was playing first base and within earshot at the time, would have spoken about what happened, but I guess he doesnít want to be seen calling out an umpire or contradicting a fellow player. The worse part of Bradleyís injury was that it forced the Padres to play Brady Clark over the rest of the season and made a couple of defensive miscues which really hurt the Padres over the course of the final week.

Over the final week of July the Padres made five trades, which helped the team both in the present and the future. The first move was to deal Scott Linebrink to the Brewers for minor leaguers Joe Thatcher, Steve Garrison and Will Inman. Linebrink was a solidly above average reliever and had put up at a 106 ERA+ thus far in 2007 after posting marks of 181, 210 and 113 over the last three seasons. This was a bit of a strange move for a team in a pennant race, but Towers recognized that the Padres werenít in a position to resign Linebrink at the end of the year and decided to cash in an asset. Inman is now the 5th best prospect in the system according to John Sickels, Garrison is number 12 and Thatcher, who profile as a LOOGY, reached the majors at the end of 2007 and also rates in San Diegoís top 30 prospects. Baseball America also thinks highly of the haul, rating Garrison as the sixth best prospect in the system and Inman as the seventh. Inman and Garrison will likely determine how much of a success this trade is for the Padres, but the minimum they should get is one productive reliever from the three arms and thatíd make the trade worth it by itself.

Two days later the Padres dealt minor league reliever Leo Rosales to the Diamondbacks for Scott Hairston. Hairston had always hit in the minors, but had a tough time breaking into the Diamondbacks lineup given his struggles when reaching the majors and defensive limitations, as he came up a second baseman, but not a particularly good one. After 550 at-bats spread out over four seasons Hairston was dealt to San Diego, where he came to life. Hairston settled into left field and hit .287/.337/.644 over 87 at-bats, with 14 of his 25 hits going for extra bases. Hairston breathed some life into a position where the Padres were struggling to find production and he will be a valuable asset for them going forward. Nobodyís expecting a slugging percentage in the .600ís, but the hope is that heíll become an above average outfielder.

Finally, the Padres made three small deals on July 31, 2007. The team dealt a PTBNL to the Astros for Morgan Ensberg and cash; dealt minor league pitcher Jon Link to the White Sox for Rob Mackowiak and traded former first-round draft pick Royce Ring to the Braves for Wilfredo Ledezma and minor leaguer Will Startup. Given the cost of acquiring him, which seems to have been the willingness to pay most, but not all, of his remaining salary, there was no reason not to grab Ensberg. He served mostly as a pinch-hitter and made a few starts at third for Kouzmanoff. Although he only hit .224 down the stretch Ensberg had a slugging percentage of .483 and was a productive pinch-hitter during his short time in San Diego. Mackowiak struggled at the plate with an OPS+ of 39 over 56 at-bats, but he also gave the Padres was a decent defensive outfield substitute and a player who could play all three outfield positions. While Mackowiak didnít exactly set the world on fire with his bat, Iím still scoring this as a win for Towers, or at least a draw. Mackowiak replaced Jose Cruz, who was released the same day, and Cruz was also below average with at the plate and was weaker defensively, so Mackowiakís versatility was valuable for the Padres, even if he didnít hit in his limited number of at-bats.

Ring, a San Diego State alum, came to the Padres from the Mets along with Heath Bell. Counting his five major league innings for the Braves Ring has a 134 ERA+ in his MLB career. However, his MLB ERAs have been lower than his minor league ERAs and his peripherals indicate this probably isnít sustainable. Ring could turn into a decent LOOGY, but heís going to have to improve his control for it to happen. Startupís a good asset to add to the system, even if he doesnít appear on Top 10 prospect lists. Ledezma is a former Rule 5 pick, so Iím willing to cut him more slack than usual for his early career struggles. He had a 134 ERA+ in 2006 and although it was only 78 last year, he offers flexibility that Ring doesnít, as heís started games 34 times in the big leagues already. Heís perhaps a bit more risky than Ring, but heís also got potential that Ring doesnít. If the Friars are comfortable with Thatcher and others as potential LOOGYs for the future I can understand why theyíd take a chance on Ledezma putting everything together.

Those eight moves may have not made the headlines, but every one of them except for the Cust trade and maybe Mackowiak helped the Padres and were a win for Towers. By calling them a win Iím not saying the other team necessarily lost each and every trade, as some of the moves could be and probably were win-win scenarios. For example, even if their return looks to be fairly little at this point, I donít think the White Sox or Astros are shedding any tears about not having Mackowiak and Ensberg on the team as they played out the end of sub-.500 seasons. As for Towers, he can be proud of the additions and subtractions he made during 2007, and in my books you have to give the GM an A if heís hitting .813 (scoring every one as a win but Cust and scoring the Mackowiak trade as a draw). He showed a real willingness to attempt to address San Diegoís weaknesses during the season and recognized some valuable assets that were being traded for very little cost.

So thatís a rather exhaustive look at what went right. Now, what went wrong in 2007?

1. Marcus Gilesís Bat

As much fun as Marcus may have playing with his brother Brian in their hometown, his lack of production at second base really hurt the Padres last year. The former 53rd round draft looked nothing like the player who posted a 136 OPS+ in 2003 at age 25 and who was one double away from a 50-double, 20-homer season. Instead of continuing on his promising trajectory, Giles regressed over the next couple of season, but was still solidly above average and as late as 2005 he posted a .291/.365/.461 line. However, he struggled in 2006 and was non-tendered by the Braves. Then he struggled even more last season and put up a .229/.304/.317 line for a 68 OPS+. He was the worst regular in the Padres lineup and was one of only two to post an OPS+ under 100. He saw his playing time decrease to Geoff Blumís benefit and I donít think thereís any stronger indication that Hairstonís not a second baseman anymore than the fact that he was never tried at the position.

If thereís one position that the Padres seem bound to get better production at it is second base. They brought in Tadahito Iguchi and ZIPS projects a .274/.351/400 line from the Japan native. That may not seem too impressive in isolation, but that is a huge improvement over .229/.304/.317. You can do exercises like this all day with a team that missed the playoffs by a game, but itís got to be slightly tough to stomach that a 75 or 80 OPS+ at 2B, (i.e. someone along the lines of DíAngelo Jiminez, Mike Fontenot or Kevin Frandsen), could have propelled the Padres to the playoffs. Heck, Geoff Blum may well have pushed the Padres into the playoffs if he had been given a couple hundred more of Gilesí at-bats.

2. The Aging of David Wells

I wasnít a fan of the Padres trade for Wells in September 2006, even though George Kottaras had yet to play in the big leagues. Well he still hasnít played in the majors, but heís got a reasonable chance to carve out a decent career as a backup catcher at least, but it might not be with the Red Sox as Bostonís backup catcher has to be able to handle Wakefieldís knuckler. Wells pitched well over his last five starts, but I didnít think it made sense to trade a ďBĒ prospect at the time for the pitcher.

The Padres resigned Wells for 2007 and it seemed like a good move at the time, but it quickly became clear that the 41-year-old wasnít the same pitcher as old. Part of what made Wells successful was his control, but it abandoned him last year as his K:BB ratio fell to about 2:1. Furthermore, he wasnít fooling batters like he used to and he gave up 156 hits in 118.2 innings with the Padres. He threw those innings over 22 starts, proving that he was basically limited to 6 innings per start. Only 5 exceeded 6 innings and only 2 were longer than 6.2 innings. Wells put up a 5.54 ERA while with the Padres, good for an ERA+ of 73. His difficulties turned what was supposed to be a stable number four spot in the rotation into a rotating door for the rest of the season.

Now, I canít predict what the Padres front office would have done if things were different and Wells got his ERA into the low 4ís in early July, a month before his release. However, while thereís not a huge amount of evidence to prove this, itís possible the Friars would have cut bait on Wells sooner if they had another viable option for the starting rotation, which they were lacking, in part because ofÖ..

3. The Non-Emergence of Tim Stauffer

I know this is unfair. So donít comment and tell me itís wrong to single out Stauffer. However, besides Marcus Giles and David Wells not too much else went horribly wrong for the 2007 Padres. Terrmel Sledge didnít hit much either, but the front office recognized his struggles quickly and that was what led to the acquisition of Bradley and Hairston. Bradley tore his ACL and MCL, but that wasnít his really his fault and he was very productive before the injury. Michael Barrett didnít hit, but Iíve already talked about him. Rob Mackowiak, Oscar Robles and Brian Myrow didnít hit, but címon, itís Mackowiak, Robles and Brian Myrow. Russell Branyan hit .199 and still posted a 100 OPS+. Iím just going to applaud him for accomplishing that and besides, any team should know exactly what to expect with Branyan, a batting average near the Mendoza line and a good slugging percentage. I could have picked on Mad Dog Maddux, who posted an ERA+ of under 100 for the first time since 1987. Yes, thatís right, nineteen straight seasons of an ERA+ over 100. But I canít pick on Maddux. Heís still an average starter, given that relievers post lower ERAs, and thatís probably exactly what the Padres expected out of him. Plus, I like him too much.

Why Stauffer? Because heís a former fourth-overall pick who I was very high on out of college. I do like the kid, even though Iím not sure of his chances of being a productive big leaguer anymore. Stauffer was supposed to be one of the closest pitchers to the majors out of the 2003 draft and Iím sure the Padres thought heíd be an average MLB starter at this point. Instead, he posted a 21.13 ERA over 7.2 innings for the 2007 Padres. Iíll acknowledge that not many teams have reliable options as their seventh and eighth starters, but Stauffer wasnít anything close to reliable. I wonít even focus on his first start, as although he was terrible the Padres actually won the game and this analysis is highly results-based.

However, nearly a month after his first start, on August 26, Stauffer made his second start of the year against the Phillies. And he stunk up the joint something fierce. Stauffer pitched 4 innings, but gave up 11 runs to the Phillies in a game the Padres lost 14-2. Sure, they lost the game 14-2, but if Stauffer had held them in the game it would have been completely different, as Ledezma wouldnít have given up three runs in mop-up duty and so on. Yes, it was one game, but last year was a year where every single game mattered.

The bigger problem with Stauffer was that he didnít develop in time for the 2007 season. The fact Stauffer wasnít seen as a viable option for the rotation meant that the Padres handed the last two rotation spots to Clay Hensley and David Wells. They may have done this anyway, but (and Iím playing another game of ďWhat IfĒ here) if Stauffer was a viable option they might not have put Hensley in the rotation and he lost two very winnable games to the Giants in the first weeks of the season. I spoke about Wells above, but the lack of a viable alternative pmay have forced the Padres to stick with him for longer than theyíd have liked.

Secondly, Staufferís struggles meant the team turned to Jack Cassel and Brett Tomko to start games down the stretch. Cassel did okay in his four starts, including a fine six inning no-run performance against the Pirates on September 17. The problem is that he followed that up by giving up 3 runs in under 3 innings in a very key game against the Colorado Rockies. Tomko made four starts from September 15 onwards and while he won three games against the Pirates and Giants twice, he lost the most important matchup, which was the second-last game of the season against the Brewers. Staufferís problems were not just that he struggled in his two starts for the Padres, but that the his failure to emerge as a reliable alternative probably forced the team to stick with Wells for longer than theyíd have liked and gave Cassel and Tomko key starts down the stretch. Those two pitchers did fine given what San Diego could reasonably expect, but both lost the most important games they were entrusted with.

So, what will three players or positions will prove to be important if the Padres are to have success in 2008?

1. Khalil ďTwo-FaceĒ Greene

I canít claim credit for noticing this, so due credit should be given to the incomparable Geoff Young. However, not many players in baseball have as stark and consistent discrepancy between their home and road production as Khalil Greene. Last year he hit .216/.258/.412 at PETCO and .288/.322/.519 on the road. I know PETCO suppresses offence, but thatís slightly ridiculous. Thatís 70 points of batting average, more than 60 points of OBP and a hundred points of slugging percentage. But, itís a one-year fluke, right? Next year Greene will hit probably hit better on the road, but itíll be a more normal split.

Not so fast. That discrepancy isnít a product of 250 at-bats. If you go back over the last four years you get the following totals:
Home: 1,059 plate appearances: .230, .292, .377
Road: 1,090 plate appearances: .280, .334, .511

For comparison, in 2005 Jermaine Dye posted a .274/.333/.512 line. Heck, Greeneís road line compares to the production of two centre fielders last year. Itís just a bit worse than Carlos Beltranís .276/.353/.525 line and a bit better than Torii Hunterís .287/.334/.505. On the road Greene is a good defensive shortstop who hits like Beltran or Hunter in one of his good years. At home he hits worse than Marco Scutaro and like Jay Paytonís 2007 line of .256/.292/.376. First of all, how bad was Jay Payton last year? Second, can Greene ever hit in PETCO like he does on the road?

Iím not sure. I donít think heíll turn into Beltran at home, as well, but he can certainly improve upon his dreadful home line. However, I canít be too confident that this will happen given that he has consistently hit like a backup infielder for four straight years in his home ballpark. Young said it well when he stated that even if Greene hit like Rich Aurilia at home and kept hitting like Beltran or the good Hunter on the road heíd become one of the elite shortstops in baseball. ZIPS isnít optimistic, projecting a .249/.300/.442 line and PECOTA is only slightly better at .254/.311/.444. Both those projections involve Green approximately maintaining his level of production from 2007, with an increase of 10-20 points of OBP and a loss of about 25 points of slugging. Greeneís posted OPS+s of 95, 97 and 100 over the past three years, so heís a good bet to maintain roughly the same level of production going forward, but if he ever figures out how to hit in PETCO it will be a huge boost to the Padre offence.

2. The No-Name Bullpen

Yeah, who is this Trevor Hoffman guy they have closing? I crack myself up. Iíll be here all night, folks. Seriously, here all the relievers, classified as those who made more relief appearances than starts, that Padres had pitch over 20 innings in 2007 and their ERA+s: Trevor Hoffman (135), Heath Bell (200), Cla Meredith (115), Doug Brocail (132), Kevin Cameron (145), Justin Hampson (150), Scott Linebrink (106) and Joe Thatcher (314). All but Thatcher threw over 40 innings. The Padres accomplished a similar feat in 2006 with Hoffman (189), Alan Embree (124), Linebrink (113), Jon Adkins (102), Meredith (380), Brian Sweeney (127), Scott Cassidy (160) and Brocail (85). Theyíve had one reliever in the past two years throw at least 20 innings and not post an ERA+ over 100. None of those guys save Hoffman is a household name, but the bullpen played an important role in San Diegoís success over the past two seasons and credit should be given to Darrel Akerfelds, the bullpen coach, and Darren Balsley, the pitching coach.

The Padres go into 2008 with their back four set. Hoffman will return as closer, with Heath Bell, perhaps the best pitcher in the bullpen, acting as the setup man. Meredith and Joe Thatcher are the righty-lefty pair that will pitch in the seventh inning or setup Hoffman on days when Bell canít pitch. Thatcher might see some eighth inning work against tough lefties. That leaves three spots left in the bullpen and from the 2007 crew Hampson will begin the season on the DL, Linebrink was traded and Brocail signed as a free agent with the Astros. The only pitcher remaining is Kevin Cameron, who is locked in a four-way battle for the last spots with Ledezma, Glendon Rusch and Enrique Gonzalez. Cameronís got minor league options and has only thrown 4.1 innings this spring because of a broken thumb, so the speculation is he may the odd man out. Gonzalez looks like he might have made the team, as heís pitched the best this spring and is out of options. The Padres have a solid back two in Hoffman and Bell and Meredith and Thatcher show promise as the setup men, but the Padres coaching staff will have to show the skills they have in the past to get above average production out of names like Hampson, Cameron, Ledezma, Rusch and Gonzalez. Base on their track record, I wouldnít bet against it, either. The Padres are going to need a solid bullpen, too, because their offence isnít going to be as good as 2007ís.

3. The Rag Tag Outfield

The Padres figure to have the weakest outfield among any team that is going to realistically contend for the playoffs in baseball. Iíve heaped a lot of praise on Kevin Towers in the preceding sections, but he deserves criticism for not addressing the outfieldís weaknesses with more urgency. He tried, attempting to resign both Cameron and Bradley, for example, but not hard enough, as he lost Bradley when he only offered $4 million compared to the Rangers $5 million. If he could have got Bradley for that extra million it would have been well worth it I think, considering the state of the Padres outfield. Nevertheless, Towers is still trying to find solutions and yesterday traded a PTBNL for Justin Huber. Huberís out of options and going to make the 25-man roster, which means heíll be given time in the corner outfields and this likely leaves Rule 5 draftee and awesomely named Callix Crabbe as the teamís main backup infielder and Luis Rodriguez will go to Triple-A.

The Padres acquired Jim Edmonds to play center field with Cameronís departure and gave up a marginal prospect for Edmonds because they were willing to take on most of his salary. PECOTA projects the aging Edmonds to hit .239/.326/.414 and ZIPS pegs him at .247/.344/.440. If Edmonds can stay healthy this shouldnít be as much of a drop as some people think, as Cameron only hit .242/.328/.431 last year. If he meets his PECOTA projections heíll actually exceed Cameronís production. Edmonds is not a liability in the field, but the Padres will likely lose a step or two in center. However, the team has no real backup centre fielder and with Edmonds beginning the season on the DL, center will be manned by failed second baseman Scott Hairston.

Hairston wonít duplicate his 2007 production with San Diego. Itís hard to maintain a .644 slugging percentage. ZIPS projects a .243/.317/.405 line, while PECOTA likes him much better at .258/.333/.469. Iíve always liked Hairstonís bat and Iím going to go with PECOTA on this one. If Hairston can hit like that (or even if he meets his ZIPS projections) as the teamís everyday left fielder thatíll exceed the production the Padres got in 2007 from Sledge and Cruz during the first four months of the season. Again, the drop in production between the Padres 2007 and 2008 outfield may not be as severe as many people think it will be, and it may well not even be a drop at all.

Brian Giles will get most of the time in right field and unfortunately heís no longer the underrated almost-star he was during his time in Pittsburgh. He had a 109 OPS+ last year to go along with his 107 from the previous year. ZIPS likes Giles for a .268/.375/.398 line and PECOTA projects a .268/.362/.404. Both are roughly comparable to 2007ís .271/.361/.416 and Giles should produce about what he did last year.

Also in the mix at outfield are the aforementioned Huber, as well as reclamation project Jody Gerut and minor leaguer Paul McAnulty. With Edmonds on the DL the season will begin with Gerut and McAnulty splitting time in left, although one of the two or Huber will likely not survive Edmondsí return. PECOTA says Gerut will hit .258/.341/.377 and ZIPS counters that heíll hit .265/.336/.382. For McAnulty ZIPS says .255/.323/.391 and PECOTA projects .239/.314/.384. For Huber PECOTA says .251/.321/.415 and ZIPS says .279/.334/.437. None of these lines are that impressive, but neither was Jose Cruzís .234/.316/.375, Hiram Bocachicaís .238/.294/.349 or Branyanís .197/.322/.426.

While San Diegoís outfield reserves probably wonít be very good for 2008, they didnít have very good backups in 2007, either. And, as we already established, the starters should be comparable and possibly better than they were in 2007. The problem for San Diego, as it is with several other teams, is that they have no real depth. A sustained injury to any of the three starters would be problematic, especially to Edmonds as that injury would have the strongest defensive ramifications by forcing Hairston to center. So, donít expect a lot out of Padres outfield in 2008, but I thought the preceding couple of paragraphs were going to read a lot worse than they actually do and the Padres have put together an outfield that may scream aging, declining veterans and no name players, but it might not be nearly the drop people think it will be.


So, what does all this tell us? One is that the Padres donít have any obvious candidates for a major decline. Peavy and Young might not do as well, but both still have very positive projections and any decline in the front two might be made up by the presence of Randy Wolf, an astute signing that should work out much better than David Wells did, if Wolf can remain healthy. Justin Germano is a serviceable number five and if the reports out of spring training about him adding a new pitch are true, he could even be slightly better. The other obvious candidate is Hoffman, who isnít going to defy age forever. Some have speculated his decline could come sooner rather than later, especially as he relies on his change-up so much and has reportedly lost a couple of miles per hour on his fastball. Hoffmanís a franchise icon and deservedly so and it wonít be easy to remove him mid-season as the closer, if the situation calls for it. However, at least he already possesses the save record so that is not a consideration. If Hoffman falters badly and Bud Black does remove him, the team has a ready-made replacement in Heath Bell, who should become the closer as early as 2009 in any case. As long as Hoffmanís pitching serviceably the Padres may well stick with him as the closer even if he struggles a bit and leave Bell as the setup man, given how the eighth is often just as crucial as the ninth.

If the Padres donít have any major candidates for decline, they donít have many candidates for major improvement, either. Iguchi should be much better at second and Greene holds some promise if he can ever learn to hit at PETCO. Bard, Gonzalez, Giles and Edmonds should be roughly the same and there is hope in left field with some mixture of Hairston, Huber, Gerut and McAnulty. The biggest improvement could come from two players who I have thus far not mentioned in Kevin Kouzamanoff and Chase Headley.

Kouzmanoff hit .275/.329/.457 last year in his first full season in the bigs. However, Kouzmanoff struggled mightily in his first month with the Padres. He hit .121/.178/.209 through May 13, and then went on to hit .310/.364/.514 from May 14 through the end of the season. If Kouzmanoff can post a line similar to the one from the last fourth and a half months heíll improve the production at third base significantly. Iím bullish about Kouzmanoff this year and I donít think heíll reach that level, but a .285/.350/.480 line wouldnít surprise me, at all.

The other major candidate for improvement in minor leaguer Chase Headley. Headley was sent to the minors despite leading the Padres in OPS during spring training and apparently adapting well to the outfield. Headley got a bit of time in the majors at the end of the year, but his line in Double-A over a full season was very impressive with a .330/.437/.580. If any of the three regular outfielders go down for a prolonged period of time, the Padres should call up Headley and give him a starting job. He could provide a similar lift that Milton Bradley did last year. Headley is also the trump card the Padres can play if they are unhappy with the production of the four possible left fielders, or even Giles or Edmonds. Headleyís shown he can already hit in the majors and I wouldnít be surprised if he ends up with 200-300 or so at-bats by the end of the year. If any NL rookie could be Braun-lite this year it might just be Headley. Heís on the short list of those who could make an immediate impact.

In the end, the Padres season will rest significantly on just how good Jake Peavy can be, if Kouzmanoff can avoid repeating his April slump, just how healthy Randy Wolf and Jim Edmonds can remain and the continued ability of Towers to recognize his teamís weaknesses and address them well during the season. Like many teams, the Padres arenít particularly deep and a key injury or two could really hurt their playoff possibilities. However, I feel a lot more confident about Kevin Towersí ability to improve a team on the fly than I do about Ned Collettiís.

88-74. Second place to Arizona and right in the thick of the Wild Card hunt.