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.

Ken Giles: ‘I’m actually enjoying the game more than I did for my entire tenure in Houston’

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Blue Jays closer Ken Giles hasn’t exactly turned things around since joining the Blue Jays on July 31, when the club sent embattled closer Roberto Osuna to the Astros. Giles posted a 4.99 ERA in 30 2/3 innings with the Astros, then put up a slightly less miserable 4.58 ERA in 17 2/3 innings with the Jays. Still, he’s much happier with the Jays than he was with the Astros, even after winning the World Series with them last year. He said to Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star, “I’m actually enjoying the game more than I did for my entire tenure in Houston. It’s kind of weird to say that because I won a World Series with that team. But it’s like, I just felt trapped there. I didn’t feel like myself there. Overall, I felt out of place.”

Giles also said “the communication was lost” with the Astros and it was something that came easy with the Jays. He said, “When I came here, they stayed patient with me. I said hey, I want to work on this thing till I’m comfortable. All right. OK, I’m comfortable, let’s move on to this next thing. Pitching, you can’t just try to fix everything at once. For me, I had to take baby steps to get my groove back. The Jays allowed me to do that. Yeah, the team was out of contention, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still my career. I still have to prove myself. Them being so patient with me, understanding what I want to do, was very, very big.”

Giles, 28, has two more years of arbitration eligibility remaining. He has shown promise despite his overall mediocre numbers. In non-save situations this season (with both the Astros and Jays), he has a 9.12 ERA. But in save situations, his ERA is a pristine 0.38. Giles could be a closer the Jays find themselves leaning on as they attempt to get back into competitive shape. Since it sounds like Giles is quite enamored with Toronto and with the Blue Jays, a discussion about a contract extension certainly could be had.