Last Season: Padres finished last in the NL West, 23 games back of Arizona. If not for the Houston Astros, San Diego would have tied the Chicago Cubs for worst record in the National League. The club lost 17 of its first 27 games and never recovered.
The Rotation: The 2012 Padre rotation projects to be Tim Stauffer, Corey Luebke, Edison Volquez, Clayton Richard, and Dustin Moseley. On paper it looks like a decent rotation, but there are a lot of question marks with this group. Both Richard and Moseley are returning from season-ending injuries that required surgery. Richard is reported on-track after arthroscopic surgery to his left shoulder; his effectiveness during spring training is something to closely watch. Moseley also had surgery on his left shoulder, but at least it was his non-throwing shoulder. Moseley dislocated it twice last season while swinging the bat, so don’t expect a lot of ferocious hacks from him this year. Edison Volquez, the newcomer obtained in the Mat Latos trade, had Tommy John surgery in 2009. In the three years since, he has not approached his 2008 campaign (138 ERA+). Volquez will benefit from pitching in Petco and should approach his 2008 numbers.
The stalwarts will be Stauffer and Luebke. Stauffer is expected to be the ace of the rotation, and has had flashes of brilliance during the last 2 seasons. He will have learned from the fatigue that plagued him last summer. Luebke gives the Padres 2 lefties in the rotation, and will look to build on a 2011 that saw him be the best starter (by ERA+) in the rotation. This is Luebke’s breakout season; he will be very good.
Starting Pitching in the Organization: The Padres are loaded, having recently been rated the best farm system in baseball by ESPN. Both RHP Casey Kelly and LHP Robbie Erlin are legitimate ML prospects that could be in the majors in less than 2 years. San Diego has developed a habit of keeping their elite prospects in AA San Antonio rather than AAA Tucson, because there is so much offense in the PCL (lots of small ballparks at altitude). The Padres also signed journeyman Jeff Suppan to a minor league contract, giving them a veteran arm should they need a spot start – highly likely given that 40% of the projected rotation had surgery last season.
The Bullpen: San Diego signed free agent Huston Street to be the closer, replacing Heath Bell who signed with Miami. The Padre bullpen has been a strength for years but this is the biggest reconstruction effort they’ve undertaken since the middle of the last decade. Andrew Cashner, acquired in the Anthony Rizzo trade, projects to be the set-up man but could also move into the rotation. He hit 103.3 on the gun during his first spring training appearance. The gun was likely off a couple of MPH, but he’s still throwing high 90s heat. Dependable Luke Gregerson will man the seventh inning and has the chops to pitch in the eighth (or ninth) if needed. San Diego’s LOOGY will be Joe Thatcher, who has fought injuries the past 2 years but seems fully healthy now. The man to watch in this bullpen is Ernesto Frieri. Frieri has the stuff to close, but has yet to pull it all together consistently. If he can do that, the lights-out ‘pen of 2010 will return this season.
The Corners: Chase Headley returns for a fifth season at third, and off the best offensive season of his career. He should reprise that production in 2012. That’s the easy corner. First base is a lot more complicated. Currently San Diego has four men on the 40-man roster who can play first – Yonder Alonso, Jesus Guzman, Mark Kotsay, and Kyle Blanks. Based on his 2011 Guzman has to be the incumbent and favorite, however Alonso projects to be the long-term answer at first and Blanks’ power remains alluring on a team starved for a thumper. Kotsay will spot-start throughout the year.
Up the Middle: Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson return for a second season by the bay. Both can’t help but improve from their 2011 effort. Look for Bartlett to play better defense the first half of the season than he did last year, and Hudson to stay off the DL. Offensively Bartlett is what he is, especially in spacious Petco, but Hudson should see his batting average and on-base percentage rebound closer to his career averages.
The Outfield: The Padres signed budding star Cameron Maybin to a 5 year deal, so he will man center for the foreseeable future. Carlos Quentin, a San Diego native, signed a one-year deal with the club and will patrol LF after he returns from right knee surgery to fix a torn meniscus. Quentin’s power projects well at Petco; 25 HR is not outside the realm of possibility. Will Venable will likely patrol RF this season. Venable is a plus defender athletic enough to cover Petco’s spacious right field, but he is hit and miss at the plate. He seems to have connected with new hitting coach Phil Plantier, so perhaps he will finally tap all his potential.
The Backstop: Nick Hundley finally broke out during the second half of 2011 and should build on that production in 2012. If he falters the Padres are loaded behind the plate. John Baker was acquired from Miami in the off-season and will be the back-up. On the farm, Yasmani Grandal was also acquired in the Latos trade. The Cuban emigre has a major-league ready bat but needs additional seasoning defensively. He should begin the season in AAA. Top prospect Austin Hedges was the best defensive catcher available in last year’s draft; although his offense needs additional seasoning and maturity, he’s ready today to call games at the ML level.
The Bench: The aforementioned Kotsay brings a left-handed bat to the bench and some veteran leadership to the team. Chris Denorfia, the team’s fourth outfielder, will see a lot of playing time in the lineup via the spot start and late inning defensive replacement, and is also a dependable right-handed bat off the bench. Back-up infielders are still being figured out. It is likely from a pool including Andy Parrino, James Darnell, and Everth Cabrera. Logan Forsythe was in the mix until breaking his foot early in spring training.
The Minors: Suppan will make at least 2 starts for the Padres. Third Baseman Jedd Gyorko is a highly touted prospect who is almost ready. Should the projected bench players falter Gyorko could spend a lot of time with the big club. He will eventually replace Headley at third.
Team MVP: Quentin
Team Ace: Luebke
Team’s 2012 record: 75-87
Team’s 2012 finish in the division: fifth.
Quentin is known for his work ethic. That, coupled with his pull-power to left, the most neutral of the fields for hitters at Petco, means he should put up the numbers he is accustomed to. Quentin’s presence in the lineup alone should help the Padres win 4 more games than last season. Tim Stauffer is currently the team’s ace, but Luebke showed flashes of Mat Latos-like brilliance during 2011. He breaks out and becomes a house-hold name this season. Heck even if he just repeats the numbers he put up last year he’s the best pitcher on the staff.
The NL West is an interesting division. San Francisco is a year removed from being World Champs, and Arizona went from worst to first in 2011. The Dodgers, under stable leadership, should compete with those two teams, and Colorado should be better than last year. The Padres will improve but will once again inhabit the basement of this division. Challenging for the division title is still 2 years away.