Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. The latest: 2010’s biggest surprise, the San Diego Padres.
The Big Question: Is there life after Adrian Gonzalez?: My brother lives in San Diego and, over the past 15 years there, he has come to generally like the Padres. He’s an extremely casual fan of the game these days, however, so when he was in town visiting me last week it was no surprise that the biggest question he had for me was whether the Padres will continue to exist without Adrian Gonzalez. I think he asked me the same thing about Ken Caminiti in 1999 too. Extremely casual fans in San Diego tend to really identify with a big slugging superstar, probably because such beasts are rare in the 619.
Not that it’s a bad question. My brother will understandably look at a league leaders page in the Union-Tribune once or twice this spring and see that Brad Hawpe isn’t setting the world afire, and he will ask whether the Padres did the right thing in trading away their best player since Tony Gwynn walked the Earth. The casual fans like him won’t be given much comfort by the addition of competent role players like Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson. They’re certainly not going to buy into the notion that the haul the Padres got for Gonzalez — Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Reymond Fuentes — was worth it, because they won’t appear before their eyes in 2011. The astute Padres fan knows that some things in life are necessary when your club doesn’t have an unlimited payroll, and one of those things is parting ways with a superstar a year away from free agency.
Yes, there’s life in San Diego after Adrian Gonzalez. I believe that Jed Hoyer made the best trade he could under the circumstances and that his approach to rebuilding the Padres is the right one. I believe, however, that 2010’s unexpectedly good year — which won’t be repeated — and the loss of their best player will kind of crush the mood of Padres fans who have to be cajoled into showing up to that beautiful ballpark even when the team is winning. The mood, in other words, won’t line up with the team’s competitive trajectory, with the former taking a sharp dive and the latter leveling out compared to last year, but still trending upward.
So what else is going on?
- For all of the fretting about Gonzalez, the Padres did not contend on the power of their offense last season. Indeed, they were near the bottom of the NL in runs scored. Their 90 wins came by virtue of allowing the fewest runs in the league. Their pitching staff is back mostly intact this year and how it goes is how the Padres will go. I’m a Mat Latos fan, but I fear that the other guys — Richard, Stauffer, LeBlanc — are Petco creations. Sure, they’re still pitching in Petco, but I could see them backsliding.
- That said, the Padres have a nice little starting pitcher juvenation machine going. Jon Garland came in last year to the friendly (for pitchers) confines of Petco Park, regained some confidence and took his show up to L.A. This year Aaron Harang is in town to, presumably, do the same thing. If Harang is effective for the Padres it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see this pattern repeated over and over again, with the Padres benefiting from down-on-their-luck pitchers treating them like a Hollywood starlet treats the Betty Ford Clinic, and doing so on the cheap.
- Heath Bell may be the biggest name on the team and, like Gonzalez was, he’s poised for free agency after this year. Do the Padres keep him? On the one hand, Bell is an excellent closer who wants to stay in San Diego and said he’d take a hometown discount to do it. On the other hand, an excellent closer on a multi-year deal is one luxury a rebuilding team with the Padres’ payroll constraints does not need. Frankly I’d be shocked if Bell was wearing Padres colors in 2012. If the Padres stink this year, they trade him. If they compete, they let him walk.
- Is there anyone here to lead these guys? In addition to Gonzalez, the Padres lost David Eckstein, Chris Young, Yorvit Torrealba and Matt Stairs. Your mileage on the value of “veteran presence” may vary, but is there anyone on this club who can tell someone else to cut it out when they’re being a jackwagon? Is there anyone who — on a really bad night — can stand in front of reporters and let the other players skulk out of the clubhouse? Put differently: can Ryan Ludwick truly lead this team? [dramatic music swells].
So how are they gonna do?
I picked the Padres last in 2010 and they fought for the division until the last day of the season, so what the hell do I know? Still, I don’t see them pulling that trick a second time. It’s a team that had trouble scoring runs with Adrian Gonzalez in the lineup, so they may be downright horrific without him. The staff is still good, but I have a hunch that they’ll experience some growing pains and, in some cases, will be exposed. I also think they’ll be playing to a lot of empty houses this year, and that kind of saps a guy after a while.
Fourth place is really the best I can see for the Padres this year. And if they surprise? Well, I have a whole other year to explain why I was wrong. Again.