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.

Tyler Moore: the ballplayer everyone is talking about

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For those who don’t know, Alexa is Amazon’s digital assistant product. It’s Amazon’s version of Siri or Google Home, but you can use it for a lot more stuff if you have a device such as the Amazon Echo. With simple voice commands it can turn on your lights, turn up your air conditioner, play your music, order stuff you’re running out of, answer questions you have and a bunch of other things. It may also snitch on you to the CIA, but that’s a topic left for another day.

Anyway, Amazon is pretty proud of its product and today sent me a press release touting how fans use Alexa to “get player stats, team records, starting lineups and more!” Amazon also gave me a list telling me how baseball fans have used Alexa in the past year:

“As we enter the MLB playoffs this year, we wanted to share a snapshot of the most asked about MLB players and teams among fans throughout this season, according to Alexa.”

Cool! I love lists. Let’s see who Alexa users are searching for!

Top 10 Asked About Players this MLB Season:

1. Tyler Moore
2. Albert Pujols
3. Aaron Judge
4. Mike Trout
5. Bryce Harper
6. David Ortiz
7. Alex Rodriguez
8. Anthony Rizzo
9. Clayton Kershaw
10. Chris Young

I don’t have any problem with 2-9 on this list, but I gotta tell ya friends, I’m not sure that America’s most searched-for ballplayer is a guy who Baseball-Reference.com lists first as a “pinch hitter” who is sporting a line of .206/.247/.377 for a team ranking 28th out of 30 in attendance this year. I’m also skeptical of Chris Young at number ten, and that’s even if you put the search totals for BOTH Chris Youngs together and count them as one.

It’s possible that there is far greater national curiosity for Moore and Young than I realized.  It’s also possible that Moore and Young’s parents are just heavy duty Alexa users.

I suspect though, quite strongly, that Alexa — or the P.R. staff touting its abilities — is having trouble distinguishing between Tyler Moore and Mary Tyler Moore, who passed away back in January and was likely the subject of many more people’s curiosity than the Nationals’ 2008 16th round draft pick. Though, I’m sure, if given the chance, Tyler could turn the world on with his smile too.

All of which might be a bit distressing for Amazon, given that it’s their business to make sure customers get what they’re looking for. It’s good for us as human beings, however, because it suggests that, perhaps, we are much farther away from the Rise of the Machines than we sometimes suspect.

Brad Ausmus seems to know he’s a dead man walking

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The Tigers have been terrible and the embarked on a rebuild this summer, shipping off Justin Verlander and multiple other players. Miguel Cabrera is hurt and may never be his old MVP-level self. It is, without a doubt, that the Tigers and their fans are about to begin a new chapter in the franchise’s history.

Such new chapters usually involve new managers. Fourth-year manager Brad Ausmus is still at the helm and the Tigers have made no public statement about his future. Ausmus, however, is a lame duck, with his contract ending a week from Sunday. He is also no fool. He seems to know very well that he’s not going to be around next year. From Katie Strang of The Athletic:

Ausmus, of course, has been on the hot seat several times. When Detroit exercised his option for this year, their refusal to extend it sent a pretty clear signal.

If this is the end of the road in Detroit for Baseball’s Most Handsome Manager, it will end with him having missed the playoffs in three of his four seasons at the helm of a star-studded team that was expected to Win Now, as they say. Yes, there were a lot of issues with the Tigers — their bullpen has always been a problem and the brass made a lot of questionable choices in signings and trades over the past few years — but there is no escaping the fact that Ausmus’ Tigers under achieved.