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2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The San Diego Padres

The Big Question: Can the Padres stay healthy enough to surprise?

The last two years with the Padres have followed somewhat of a similar theme. Along with a bunch of injuries, we have seen disappointment in the first half followed by a surge to finish the year. The result? Back-to-back 76-win seasons. Is there any reason to think they’ll buck the trend this year? If the events of this spring are any indication, the odds are against it.

The rotation, a potential strength, has taken a hit in recent weeks with Cory Luebke headed for a second Tommy John surgery, offseason acquisition Josh Johnson expected to miss five weeks with a strained flexor muscle, and Joe Wieland likely out until midseason following an elbow cleanup procedure. After being limited to just 14 games last season due to injury, Cameron Maybin suffered a ruptured biceps tendon this spring and is expected to miss the first couple of weeks of the regular season. Tough breaks for a team which could really use some luck on their side for once.

Injuries aside, there are interesting elements to this team. While Luebke is done for the year and the Johnson signing looks like a dud early on, Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and Tyson Ross are intriguing and Eric Stults has been quietly effective since arriving in San Diego. The loss of Maybin hurts from a defensive perspective, but the lineup should be respectable, especially if Chase Headley can return to form in his walk year, Everth Cabrera can pick up from where he left off last season, and Jedd Gyorko can build off his solid rookie campaign.

I’m being optimistic here, but there’s no question that this team is built on a shaky foundation. Cashner, who has frontline starter potential, has dealt with injuries early on in his career, and we can probably count on a disabled list stint for Carlos Quentin and Huston Street. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where a lot goes wrong and they finish under .500 again, but you can also squint and see a team in the mix for a Wild Card spot in September. A wide range of outcomes are possible here. The only thing is that you can say the same thing about a lot of (non-Dodgers) teams in the NL West.

What else is going on?

  • Make no mistake, PETCO Park is still a pitcher-friendly ballpark after the dimension changes, but last year it played as a better park for left-handed batters. Will Venable’s breakthrough season makes more sense through this prism. This should provide some hope that a progression for Yonder Alonso is still possible, perhaps as soon as this year.
  • Everth Cabrera batted .283/.355/.381 with four home runs, 31 RBI, and 37 stolen bases over 95 games last season prior to being handed a 50-game PED suspension for his connection to Biogenesis. There will naturally be some skepticism about his production-level going into 2014, but the speed, patience, and defensive ability have always been there. Don’t be surprised if the 27-year-old is still an impact player for San Diego.
  • As I mentioned earlier, Huston Street isn’t exactly a model of health. With that in mind, Padres general manager Josh Byrnes secured some expensive insurance for the ninth inning over the winter by signing veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit to a two-year, $15.5 million contract. If Street stays healthy, the Padres will have a potent one-two punch in the late innings. If not, manager Bud Black should have no issue trusting Benoit to close games. Still, it’s a bit surprising that Byrnes felt compelled to trade Luke Gregerson, who could have filled a similar role for slightly less money. It’s not like he got much in return in the deal, as Seth Smith will be an fourth/platoon outfielder if all goes according to plan this season. But hey, you can’t count on a full season from Carlos Quentin, either.
  • Yasmani Grandal looked like one of the best young catchers in the game just two years ago, but he served a 50-game PED suspension as the start of last season and hit just .216 with one home run and a .693 OPS in 28 games prior to undergoing surgery in August to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. It looks like he’ll be on the Opening Day roster, but the Padres could carry three catchers early on in order to ease him into things. Still just 25 years old, Grandal shouldn’t be forgotten.
  • We’ve heard Chase Headley’s name mentioned in countless trade rumors in recent years and things could ramp up again if the Padres are out of contention by midseason. A contract extension is unlikely, so he’s almost certainly testing the free agent waters this winter. Assuming they make a qualifying offer, the Padres would receive a draft pick if he signs elsewhere, but a trade could be more appealing for them if they get a big offer from a team desperate for production at third base. July could be dominated by Headley trade rumors, so be prepared.

Prediction: I really think this team could surprise some folks, but there are too many injury questions to put them above the Giants right now. Third place, NL West.

Russell Martin is not a fan of the automatic intentional walk

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 15:  Russell Martin #55 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts after being struck out in the fourth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game two of the American League Championship Series at Progressive Field on October 15, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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On Tuesday, it was announced that Major League Baseball instituted a new rule allowing for a dugout signal in order to issue an intentional walk rather than having the pitcher throw four pitches wide of the strike zone. It’s commissioner Rob Manfred’s attempt to help improve the game’s pace of play.

As Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi reports, Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin is certainly not a fan of the change.

My thing is, if they really want to speed up the game, then when a guy hits a home run, to speed up the game should a guy, just like in softball, when he hits it, should he just walk to the dugout? It’d be quicker. I’m just wondering, at what point do we just keep the game, the game? Or, how about this calculation: take all the intentional walks that were made in the last couple years and calculate – or maybe just ask to see if they have that information, to see if they really did their homework. Is it really that important to speed up the game (with this rule)? Because how many games did we play last year where we didn’t have one intentional walk? That’s something I’d like to know.

Martin also expressed concern that eliminating the four-pitch intentional walk will hurt teams’ ability to buy time for their relievers to warm up.

It’s called getting your bullpen ready so the guy doesn’t blow out his arm on the mound. Speed up the game, speed up the game.’ How about we just give guys – the human being – time to warm up on the mound after maybe something’s happened in the game? I’m not a manager, but I’m just trying to put myself in the position of a manager. OK, we’re up by one run or two runs and our bullpen’s been taxed and we’re trying to save their arms, and then the other team walks, ball gets away, guy gets to second base. When the coach visits the mound to talk to his player, it’s not like the player necessarily needs somebody to talk to him.

It’s because the guy (in the bullpen) needs time to warm up, man. It’s the same thing when you throw over to first base, like, eight times in a row. It’s not like we’re trying to keep the guy close. The guy maybe has two stolen bases in 18 years. It’s because the guy needs time to warm up. At what point does that become a problem with guys warming up in the bullpen? Sometimes it’s just strategy to give guys a little bit of time to warm up.

The Jays’ backstop then said he’d prefer if Manfred were honest about the intent behind this rule change and others which have been proposed. Martin said, “Save it. I’m tired of hearing that same lame excuse all the time. Just be honest. If they’re honest about it, we’ll get over it. But don’t hide behind the fans.”

We should be hearing from a handful of players about the new intentional walk rule in the coming days. I can’t imagine the rule is very popular among the players.

Leonys Martin feared for his life from alleged human traffickers

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 30: Leonys Martin #12 of the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on September 30, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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Leonys Martin, outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, testified yesterday that he feared for his life after he was smuggled from Cuba by a group of men prosecutors say worked for a sports agent and a baseball trainer currently on trial for human trafficking in Miami.

Martin took the stand at the trial of Bartolo Hernandez and Julio Estrada, who face felony charges. He said that, after getting to Mexico from Cuba, men threatened to take him away. There was a kidnapping attempt against one of the men who had taken him from Cuba as well. Martin said that, eventually, he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas without any valid papers because his life was in danger and his safety was at risk.

Players like Martin who fled Cuba often hole up in Mexico while waiting to be declared free agents by Major League Baseball. There is pitched competition to sign agreements with the players in question, seeking to obtain promises of a cut of future baseball earnings for their services. Those promises can come under the threat of violence. Eventually, Martin promised to pay Hernandez and Estrada, but ceased paying them later, fomenting a lawsuit from them. In the wake of the suit, the allegations of threats and smuggling arose, leading to this trial.

Martin has been late to Mariners camp as a result of having to testify. He’ll likely report in the next day or so. The trial continues.