Bud Black

2013 Preview: San Diego Padres

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The San Diego Padres.

The Big Question: Can the Padres build on their strong second half from last year?

While the Padres had their second straight losing season last year with a 76-86 record, they very quietly went 42-33 after the All-Star break. And that’s with losing 10 out of their last 15 games. The major reason for the turnaround was the offense, as they were fifth in the National League in runs scored during the second half. We’re not used to seeing that from a team which calls PETCO Park home.

Cameron Maybin, Yonder Alonso and the right field platoon of Will Venable and Chris Denorfia all finished strong and Carlos Quentin provided pop when his knee wasn’t hurting, but the big key for the offense was Chase Headley. The 28-year-old unexpectedly broke out by hitting .286/.376/.498 with 31 home runs and an NL-leading 115 RBI. He finished fifth in the National League MVP balloting and also took home his first Gold Glove Award for his defense at third base. Unfortunately, Headley recently suffered a small fracture at the tip of his left thumb and is expected to miss the entire month of April. So much for the momentum narrative.

While the Padres will try to stay afloat until Headley is ready to return, they are also waiting on two other important pieces. 24-year-old catcher Yasmani Grandal, who hit .297/.394/.469 with eight homers and an .863 OPS in 60 games as a rookie last year, was suspended 50-games for testing positive for synthetic testosterone and isn’t eligible to return until late May. Cory Luebke, who signed a four-year, $12 million extension with the Padres last year, is currently working his way back from Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected to rejoin the starting rotation until around June or July. By the way, there’s even a chance that Quentin could begin the season on the disabled list due to continued soreness in his surgically-repaired knee.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Padres get off to a slow start, as a rotation led by Edinson Volquez, Clayton Richard and Jason Marquis isn’t good enough to make up for a mediocre offense, but Bud Black’s squad certainly has the pieces to get better as the year goes along. I don’t think they are strong enough to challenge the Dodgers or the Giants, but they could surprise some folks in the NL West.

What else is going on?

• Rotation hopeful Tyson Ross might be the biggest addition the Padres made over the winter, but things will still look a little bit different at PETCO Park this season. That’s because the team has made some alterations to the dimensions of the stadium. The most dramatic change is in right field, where the fence was moved in 11 feet and lowered to eight feet. The left-center field wall was also moved in from 402 feet to 390 feet. With the thick marine air, PETCO Park will never be a hitters’ paradise, but perhaps it will play something closer to neutral. That’s the goal, anyway.

• Top prospect Jedd Gyorko is poised to make the Opening Day roster, though it hasn’t been decided whether he’ll play exclusively at second base or help fill in for Headley at third base, which is his natural position. The 24-year-old has done nothing but hit in the minors, compiling a .319/.385/.529 batting line over his first three professional seasons. It will be interesting to see how he responds to the pressures of playing a big role in the lineup early in the season. If he produces, the Padres may be more open to moving Headley in a trade at some point down the road.

• The Padres continue to have some pretty rotten luck with pitching elbows. After Luebke and Joe Wieland both needed Tommy John surgery last year, now it’s Casey Kelly’s turn. As we learned yesterday, he’s scheduled to have surgery on April 1 and will miss the entire 2013 season. Kelly was acquired from the Red Sox in the big Adrian Gonzalez trade and has been a highly regarded prospect for quite a long time now, but his condition of his elbow has slowed his progress over the past year. He’ll hope to get back on track in his age-24 season.

• While the starting rotation is questionable, the back-end of the bullpen is one of the team’s biggest strengths. Closer Huston Street is quietly coming off a brilliant season. While the 29-year-old right-hander served two stints on the disabled list, he posted a 1.95 ERA to go along with 23 saves in 24 chances and finished with his highest strikeout rate since 2007. Meanwhile, Luke Gregerson continues to fly under the radar as one of the best set-up men in the game.

• One potential difference maker for the rotation is Andrew Cashner. Acquired from the Cubs in the Anthony Rizzo deal, the 26-year-old right-hander began last season in the bullpen before being moving to the rotation around midseason. There are questions about his health, as he missed time with rotator cuff and lat injuries over the past two seasons and is coming off December surgery to repair a torn tendon in his thumb, but his electric arm carries plenty of upside.

Prediction: Fourth place, NL West. I like what they have going here, but I’m just not sure the starting pitching will be there.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.