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.

Astros hitting coach receives 20-game suspension; A’s Laureano six

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
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OAKLAND, Calif. — Houston Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron received a 20-game suspension and a fine Tuesday for his role in a benches-clearing brawl at Oakland, while Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano was given a six-game suspension and a fine.

Cintron’s suspension is the longest for an on-field transgression in 15 years, since Texas pitcher Kenny Rogers received 20 games for his altercation with two cameramen in 2005.

“I accept MLB’s suspension and will learn from this,” Cintron said in a statement. “Although I never referenced Ramon’s mother, my actions were inappropriate. I apologize for my part in Sunday’s unfortunate incident. As coaches, we are held to a higher standard and should be an example to the players. Hopefully, other coaches will learn from my mistake so that this never happens again in the future.”

Laureano appealed, so his discipline didn’t begin Tuesday night in Oakland’s game against the Angels. He was in the lineup batting second and playing center field at Angel Stadium.

Laureano was hit by a pitch from Humberto Castellanos with one out in the seventh inning of Oakland’s 7-2 victory Sunday. He began exchanging words with a gesturing Cintron then left first base, threw down his batting helmet and began sprinting toward the 41-year-old Cintron.

Astros catcher Dustin Garneau tackled Laureano before the A’s outfielder got to the hitting coach. Laureano is a former Astros player and the rival clubs have been the top two in the AL West the past two years. A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, another former Houston player, revealed the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in November to The Athletic.

Laureano was hit for the third time in the weekend series swept by Oakland – the fifth time the A’s were hit in all while the Astros didn’t get plunked once – and he pointed at Castellanos.

Players rushed out of both dugouts. Laureano was ejected by plate umpire Ted Barrett, and the umpiring crew could easily be heard yelling at the players to “get back to the dugout!” through a ballpark with no fans.

“I just thought that, whew, boy they threw the book at us big time. But what can you do?” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who had already been ejected by the time the brawl occurred and didn’t see it on TV. “The ruling is the ruling. I talked to the powers that be in the commissioner’s office this afternoon and we had a good conversation. So … we have to deal with it and hopefully this brings our guys even closer together. He was a big part of our team.”

The A’s lost the AL wild-card game each of the past two seasons after winning 97 games both years to place second in the AL West behind three-time reigning division champion Houston, which won a World Series in 2017 and an AL pennant last season.

Laureano began Tuesday batting .259 with three homers and 10 RBIs as the A’s regular center fielder and No. 2 hitter.

“It’s just something we have to deal with,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said of the suspension. “I don’t make those decisions, and whatever I think about them doesn’t really matter anyway, so I think the best thing to do is try to get it behind us as quickly as we can.”

Melvin wasn’t sure how he would potentially structure his outfield and lineup without Laureano for several games.

“You can’t replace him,” Melvin said. “You just have to play short.”

The Dodgers and Astros had their own dustup when Los Angeles visited Houston last month. LA lost the ’17 World Series to the Astros when the sign-stealing scam was happening.

In announcing the punishments, MLB said Cintron’s discipline was “for his role in inciting and escalating the conflict between the two clubs.” Given the coronavirus pandemic, baseball has established strict guidelines about avoiding brawls.

“The explanation was that he’s a coach and especially with the COVID situation out here … in essence they’re not going to stand for it,” Baker said. “Basically, somebody had to be the example. Especially in these times that we’re going through.”

A former infielder from Puerto Rico, Cintron played parts of nine major league seasons with Arizona, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore and Washington. He won’t be eligible to coach again until Sept. 2, when the Astros are scheduled to host Texas.

“Cintron said what he did was wrong, and he apologized for it,” Baker said. “It still doesn’t take the fact away that it happened.”