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.

Bryce Harper will not be discussing his impending free agency with the media

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Bryce Harper is entering his walk year and it is widely expected that the Scott Boras client will, indeed, test out free agency next fall rather than engage in any substantial way with the Washington Nationals about a contract extension. There were some “casual conversations” between the parties in the early fall of 2017, but the Nats came away from that, quite reasonably, believing that Harper, who stands to land the largest contract in baseball history, will shop around.

For his part, Harper met the media on his first day of spring training workouts and let everyone know that, no, he does not plan to answer questions about his potential free agency every day between now and November. From MASN:

“Just want to let you guys know I will not be discussing anything relative to 2019, at all,” said Harper. “I’m focused on this year. I’m focused on winning and playing hard, like every single year. So if you guys have any questions about anything after 2018, you can call Scott and he can answer you guys.”

Makes sense. The alternative would be for Harper to give the same canned “I’m only focused on our next game” responses in front of his locker 150 times this summer, and that doesn’t serve anyone.

Thinking back to any other impending free agent’s comments about his free agency, I can’t remember a story along those lines which was worth much of anything. The genre generally consists of headlines which oversell an innocuous or offhand comment from a player as a means of guessing where his head is at with respect to his current team. I can’t think of any story in which a player, during his walk year, said something that concretely and definitively signaled his intensions in free agency one way or the other.

Reporters covering the Nationals who are curious as to how Harper feels about his current team at any given time would be better served just observing and inferring, with particular attention paid to how Harper and his teammates view the Nats’ competitive position as the season goes on, how they react to trades and stuff like that. There’s a lot of guesswork in all of that, but it sure beats trying to get a media savvy player like Harper to admit, after going 1-for-4 against the Phillies, where he plans to spend the next seven to ten years of his professional life.