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.

Agent: Nick Senzel’s reassigment “egregious case of service time manipulation”

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Reds prospect Nick Senzel is ready for the majors. Although he battled injuries, the 23-year-old performed well with Triple-A Louisville last season, batting .310/.378/.509 with 20 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, 23 runs scored, and eight stolen bases in 193 plate appearances. Senzel has also performed well this spring, batting .308 across 39 at-bats.

The Reds, however, announced on Friday that Senzel was among a handful of players reassigned to minor league camp. Senzel was drafted as a third baseman, began playing second base last year, and had been playing in center field during spring training. The common thought is that the Reds, who have built a competitive roster, will keep Senzel at Triple-A to begin the season and call him up right after the club secures an extra year of contractual control.

Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Senzel’s agent Joel Wolfe calls Senzel’s reassignment an “egregious case of service time manipulation.” The full quote:

I don’t believe I’ve ever made public statements on this issue in my career, but I feel compelled to do so in this case where it feels like a simply egregious case of service time manipulation.

We are well aware of the mandate from ownership for the Reds to win this year — and this seems to fly in the face of it. The NL Central was decided by one game last year. Every game matters. This is a shortsighted move that may be frugal now but could cost them dearly later.

Nick Senzel is not a young prospect. He’s a major league-ready impact-type player. He has done everything they’ve asked this spring, including working hard to become a major league center fielder.

Nick takes pride in wearing the Reds uniform. He appreciates how much support he’s received from Reds fans. He’s going to go to Triple-A and prove every day he belongs in MLB.

We have covered the service time manipulation issue pretty extensively here, so Wolfe’s statement doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Prior to an injury, the Blue Jays were going to undeservingly stuff Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. — baseball’s No. 1 prospect — at Triple-A for the first two weeks or so of the season. The White Sox were going to do the same with Eloy Jiménez before using their leverage to nudge him into inking an extension. The Braves toyed with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s playing time last year. Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco filed respective grievances against the Cubs and Phillies for service time manipulation several years ago.

Team executives don’t outright admit to gaming a prospect’s service time to gain that extra year of control because that’s how one loses a grievance. They dance around the topic by making a nebulous claim, typically about the player’s defense needing to be worked on at Triple-A. That’s what the Cubs said about Bryant, and it’s what the Jays said about Guerrero. It’s a subjective enough evaluation that it can’t be falsified. It’s why the grievances that have been filed over this have fizzled out and it’s why more and more teams have brazenly joined the service time manipulation bandwagon.

Senzel’s case is, admittedly, a bit more murky. Though he performed well this spring, Scott Schebler has outperformed him, batting .379 with five extra-base hits and 11 walks in roughly 40 trips to the plate. The starting spot in right field is taken by Yasiel Puig and left field is taken by Jesse Winker. Schebler has ostensibly earned the starting job in center. I can’t imagine Wolfe having a compelling case if he were to file a grievance on Senzel’s behalf.

That being said, it is important that agents (and the MLBPA) speak out about this when they can. Senzel’s case may not be open-and-shut, but bringing service time manipulation into the public consciousness will have a lasting impact ahead of the December 2021 expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. Holding team executives publicly accountable may make them less willing to manipulate their players’ service time going forward, as it may sour what could otherwise be a terrific relationship between team and player. Service time manipulation is an important piece of the labor puzzle and those on the players’ side have to seize whatever they can to potentially gain leverage. Awareness leads to solidarity.