Thursday, March 24, 2011

Warmups: Succeeding in a Post-Gon Padre World

When the Padres executed the tough but inevitable decision to trade hometown hero and superstar Adrian Gonzalez over the winter, I objectively praised the bountiful return Jed Hoyer brought back but also subjectively whined about the system that allowed this to happen. At the time I wrote that post I was sitting in an apartment less than 4 miles north of the Padres' home stadium. Now I'm in Austin, Texas with a new view on things and the Padres have retooled their roster through shrewd moves and are set to begin the season next week.

Many analysts and baseball blabbers have been writing them off for 2011, not giving them any chance this year, arguing that their offense will be putrid without the anchor of Adrian entrenched in the heart of their lineup. I've been thinking about the Padres a lot lately and today I'd like to take a look at how Jed Hoyer reconstructed the team in the wake of A-Gon's departure and what we can expect to see from the Friars this season.

The Elite Pitching Staff Remains

The Padres shocked the world by winning 90 games last year and just barely missing out on the playoffs, falling to the eventual World Series-champion San Francisco Giants on the final weekend of the season. The success of the San Diego squad was not an illusion as their run differential was that of a 91-win team and, while their hitting was pretty unspectacular, their pitching staff was absolutely superb.

That's the first thing to keep in mind when evaluating the 2011 Padres: the elite pitching staff is still relatively intact. In fact, they might be a little bit better. The team traded away some relievers but they were arguably the worst relievers in the pen (except for maybe Adam Russell, a solid righty sent to Tampa Bay in the Jason Bartlett trade, though Russell didn't see much time in the majors) and will be replaced by highly capable arms like 25-year-old Ernesto Frieri.

In the rotation, starting pitcher Jon Garland was let go and he did have a nice season last year but he's been replaced by Aaron Harang, another veteran right-hander who has a higher ceiling than Garland and who will inevitably benefit from leaving Cincinnati's tiny park for San Diego's vast pitcher-friendly expanses. As good as the Padre pitching was last year, they did have problems with finding any consistency from the back of the rotation as both Wade LeBlanc and Kevin Correia struggled for the most part (4.83 ERA between them). Correia is gone and LeBlanc might get another shot as a 5th starter if he can stop giving up so many homers but he'll most likely start the season in the minors.

Tim Stauffer, a former #4 overall pick, has been strong out of the pen the last two seasons and will finally get a chance to step into the rotation this year as the #4 starter. It looks like young lefty Cory Luebke will start the season as the team's 5th starter and, while he's a soft-tossing lefty like LeBlanc, he's not nearly as prone to giving up bombs.

Where will the runs come from?

So, the pitching staff that made this team so good last year will be back. But the guy they lost is a hitter, so how will they replace him?

Brad Hawpe will step into the vacated first baseman's role and, while his name certainly doesn't strike fear into the hearts of pitchers, he's actually put up some pretty damn good numbers (.279/.373/.490 AVG/OBP/SLG for his career). While they don't have much money to spend, Jed Hoyer and the think tank he's assembled know what they're doing, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that they scooped up an under-the-radar slugger. While Hawpe had been playing most of his games in the elevated Colorado environment, his hitting is no illusion: he's hit .273/.369/.470 away from Coors Field and he even hit well in his appearances at Petco Park thus far (.281/.371/.451 in 175 plate appearances). That kind of production doesn't match up with what Adrian regularly produced but it's a start.

Hoyer did a nice job making up for the loss by strengthening the Padres up the middle. For all the team's success last year, their middle infield was pretty crappy. Shortstop Everth Cabrera was allowed to bat 241 times even though he hit a puny .208/.279/.278; Jerry Hairston spent lots of time at shortstop and second base and did bop 13 homeruns but overall hit pretty poorly (83 OPS+ where 100 is average) even for Petco's standards; David Eckstein had some exciting hits but matched Hairston's 83 OPS+ on the year. The team did bring in Miguel Tejada and he managed to hit pretty well but he's 37 years old and they had to let him go (to the rival Giants, actually).

That group has been replaced by a solid keystone combo of Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett. Both are strong defensively (probably a few runs better than the men they're replacing) and have been at least average hitters throughout their careers. That represents a major step up from what the Pads had last year. In terms of runs, we can use Baseball Prospectus' VORP statistic (Value Over Replacement Player---expressed in runs) to quantify the difference offensively: the Tejada/Eckstein/Hairston/Cabrera combo put up 17.2 VORP last year while extremely conservative preseason projections peg Hudson/Bartlett at 30.3 VORP.

Manning centerfield will be 23-year-old Cameron Maybin, formerly a future superstar. That sounds kinda silly but Maybin's been traded twice and been written off because of struggles in the major leagues even though he doesn't turn 24 until next week and has barely enough at-bats to qualify for a full season in the bigs. His minor league batting numbers have been superb (.871 OPS) and he has excellent range in the outfield. Last year's centerfielder Tony Gwynn, Jr. had great range too but he was a deplorable hitter. Maybin is, at the very least, a big step up and he just might still blossom into a star.

Does all of that make up for the loss of Adrian? No. But it's a big step in the right direction. The Padres won 90 games last year and, according to WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) Adrian was worth about 6 or 7 wins. The up-the-middle upgrades will make up for a huge chunk of that plus Hawpe should be worth at least 2 wins (Baseball Prospectus has his projection at 1.8), then you have to remember that the Padres have a hulking slugger in their system who should be ready to return and play some first base as well: Kyle Blanks. Blanks struggled last year with an injured elbow and then actually had Tommy John surgery to fix it but he should be back at full strength this year. A full strength Blanks should be expected to mash. In 2009 when he was just 22 years old, he came up and had a 137 OPS+ in 172 plate appearances. Not too shabby.

Don't underestimate the Padres this year.

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