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May 15, 2012

Western Front

La Casa Sucia

by Geoff Young

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The San Diego Padres, perhaps predictably, have gotten off to a miserable start in 2012. Although expectations were not high coming into the season, almost nothing has gone right for the club. Between injuries and ineffectiveness, not to mention ongoing ownership/television deal issues (I live 15 minutes from Petco Park and cannot watch the team on TV in my home, which might qualify as “charmingly retro” if it weren't so annoying), the Padres are staring at their worst-case scenario only a month into the campaign.

Last week, Kevin Goldstein suggested that a “housecleaning in San Diego could be coming.” Reader pobothecat wondered what such a housecleaning might look like, and so did I.

In a sense, it has already started with the trade of right-handed reliever Ernesto Frieri to the Angels for utility infielder Alexi Amarista. Although Amarista begins his Padres career in Tucson, his stay there could be short. But we'll hold that thought for now as we take inventory.

Staying
On the active roster, I count six guys who probably aren't going anywhere:

  • Anthony Bass, RHP (age 24): Never regarded as a top prospect, Bass is quietly effective (2.37 ERA, 4.47 FRA in 87 1/3 career innings through Sunday) and could be part of the medium-term plans at the back of the rotation, at least until the higher upside arms are ready.
  • Andrew Cashner, RHP (25): He features a fastball that reaches triple digits and an epic beard. Plus, the Padres traded wunderkind Anthony Rizzo to get him. Even though Cashner hasn't learned how to throw strikes yet (14 BB in 15 2/3 IP this year), he'll get plenty of chances with that arm.
  • Nick Hundley, C (28): Signed to a long-term deal before the season, Hundley has started slowly (.178/.241/.297), but his track record alleviates concerns. At some point, the club may have to choose between Hundley—whose favorable contract could make him a trade target—and Yasmani Grandal (23), acquired in the Mat Latos deal. Or maybe they don’t have to choose; as Marc Normandin pointed out to me on Twitter, keeping both gives you a fresh catcher who can hit every game. But Grandal has fewer than 70 games to his credit above A-ball and is rough defensively, so there is no hurry. The other big catching prospect, Austin Hedges (19), is just getting his professional feet wet and won't be a factor before Hundley's contract runs out in 2014.
  • Yonder Alonso, 1B (25): He is slow and has poor footwork around the bag, but he is cheap and can hit (.296/.360/.446 in his brief big-league career). His swing appears to be well-suited to Petco Park. And besides, the Padres didn't unload Rizzo because they thought Alonso couldn't handle the job.
  • Chase Headley, 3B (28): The Padres haven't locked Headley up long-term yet, presumably because third base is an organizational position of strength. With James Darnell seeing considerable action in left field and Jedd Gyorko shifting to second base, this may no longer be an issue. Plus, Headley has been the club's best hitter since Adrian Gonzalez left town and is a solid defender. Petco Park hurts his game (.230/.324/.334 at home for his career, vs. .301/.364/.446 on the road), but as long as he keeps reaching base (.374 OBP since the beginning of 2011), he provides value.
  • Cameron Maybin, CF (25): He's signed to a club-friendly long-term deal and is a stud. Even when he's hitting .217 (which he is as of this writing), he gets on base, runs wild, and plays a stellar center field. Maybin will remain in San Diego for the foreseeable future.

We can add two more pitchers currently on the disabled list:

  • Cory Luebke, LHP (27): The Padres signed Luebke, who is likely headed for Tommy John surgery, to a long-term contract this spring. Before his injury, he was the club's best starting pitcher. Assuming a full recovery, he remains a big part of the Padres' plans.
  • Joe Wieland, RHP (22): Recalled to the big club sooner than anticipated, Wieland is going through some growing pains (as well as elbow pains) and coughing up home runs but figures to stick around a while. One of the young pitchers acquired from Texas in last summer's Mike Adams trade, he has fewer than 500 professional innings under his belt. Once Wieland is healthy again, the Padres will let him continue to develop into a rotation mainstay.

Uncertain
Technically, this would include the other 19 players on the roster. However, given how unlikely it is that what the club decides to do with, say, Josh Spence or John Baker will be relevant to anything, we'll focus on a few key players.

  • Clayton Richard, LHP (28): The last remaining piece of the Jake Peavy trade, Richard is what he is (aren't we all?)—a guy who absorbs innings until more talented pitchers are ready. How much value he has to a team that doesn't play half its games at Petco Park is debatable. Richard's career numbers:

Venue

IP

ERA

K/9

BA

OBP

SLG

Petco Park

209.0

2.67

7.3

.214

.289

.321

Elsewhere

337.0

5.29

5.4

.305

.370

.461

Using a player's home/road splits can be a copout for real analysis, but when the numbers are this overwhelming over an appreciable stretch of time... well, it's hard to argue against the notion that Richard is a product of his environment. But the Padres will have to make that argument to some other team when they are ready to make room for the kids.

  • Huston Street, RHP (28): He started strong with his new club before landing on the DL on May 5 due to a strained latissimus dorsi muscle incurred a night earlier. All bets are off until Street gets a clean bill of health. Assuming he does, he might be the Padres' best trade chip.
  • Edinson Volquez, RHP (28): Following in the footsteps of Kevin Correia and Aaron Harang, Volquez is another veteran right-hander whom San Diego makes look good. The complicating factor here is that he's young enough and cheap enough to keep around next year if there are no compelling offers. Volquez hasn't made it through a season healthy since 2008, but if he keeps doing what he's doing now for another 10 starts or so, he could fetch something in trade.
  • Orlando Hudson, 2B (34): He had a so-so first season with the Padres but didn't endear himself to hometown fans by periodically reminding them that he is good enough to play professional baseball and they aren't. Aside from the occasional triple, Hudson isn't hitting a lick (.207/.254/.324), and his defense is best described as indifferent. At his age and price ($5.5 million), it's tough to see a market for Hudson's services. Then again, if you can't trade the guy, releasing him is another option. There is something to be said for letting a guy who apparently is in a hurry to leave just go. 
  • Jason Bartlett, SS (32): Hudson's double-play partner is in the same situation, only worse. Bartlett hasn't hit (.136/.237/.198) or played defense, and he has a vesting option for 2013 that kicks in at 432 plate appearances. He also has a $5.5 million price tag, which—along with the not hitting or playing defense thing—would seem to stifle the interest of potential suitors. The question is whether Bartlett can keep playing badly enough to justify the Padres releasing him without getting backlash from the union that the move was financially motivated rather than based on performance. The upside, if you want to call it that, is that Bartlett's continued presence in the lineup could help the Padres land an earlier spot in next year's draft.
  • Carlos Quentin, LF (29): The man that Josh Byrnes let get away in Arizona, formerly represented by Jeff Moorad (he almost owned the Padres, sort of, for a few years... until one day he didn't) started the season on the disabled list and is currently rehabbing in the minors. There was speculation when the Padres traded for Quentin that they might try to lock him up long-term, but given his spotty health record and the fact that Petco Park isn't the ideal place for a slow, slugging outfielder (Ryan Ludwick sends his regards), this may not be the best option. As with Street, though, he needs to get healthy before any moves are made.
  • Will Venable, RF (29): Everyone's favorite “breakout-but-not-really” candidate is doing his thing, frustrating the heck out of all who watch. The .255/.327/.363 line is within normal parameters, but this year he has added errors and caught stealing to his repertoire. Maybe if he catches fire and someone on the Venable bandwagon takes control of a big-league team, the Padres can get something for him. The first one might happen, but the second seems a bit dicey. Oh well; it was a nice thought.

Replacements
Starting Pitcher
There are plenty of short-term options to replace Richard and/or Volquez if the need arises. Thanks to a slew of injuries, 37-year-old aspiring restaurateur Jeff Suppan—who spent all of 2011 at Triple-A—is in the rotation. Veteran right-handers Anthony Reyes and Kip Wells (I was hoping for Kip Addotta) were recently signed to provide depth at Tucson. Josh Geer—who spent much of 2009 in the big-league rotation but who missed last season while recovering from Stage III melanoma—lacks big-league stuff, but his return would make for a great story.

Beyond various pieces of duct tape, the two guys in the system who appear most poised to take advantage of any openings are right-hander Casey Kelly (22) and southpaw Robbie Erlin (21).

Coming into the season, the knock on Kelly—the centerpiece of the Adrian Gonzalez deal—was that despite his stuff, he didn't miss many bats. The early returns this year were promising (14 K, 0 BB in two starts), but then he landed on the DL with an elbow injury that has kept him out of action since April 11. Competitiveness and ability to make adjustments are points in Kelly's favor, and once he is healthy he should be a part of the big-league rotation.

Erlin came over from Texas with Wieland in the Adams trade. An obsessive strike-thrower, Erlin missed time this spring due to a left oblique strain, which may have delayed his arrival in San Diego. Now healthy, he boasts a 45-to-10 K/BB ratio in 33 2/3 innings at Double-A San Antonio.

Relief Pitcher
One reason the Padres were able to unload Frieri (aside from the general fungibility of most relievers—while the Marlins are paying erstwhile closer Heath Bell $6 million this year to set up Edward Mujica, the Padres are using minor-league veteran Dale Thayer to notch Holtzmans in Street's absence) is bullpen depth in the high minors.

Right-handers Brad Brach (26) and Miles Mikolas (23) have been recalled already, while several others could follow suit: Jason Ray (27), Erik Hamren (25, up briefly last year), Cory Burns (24, acquired for Aaron Cunningham), Jeremy McBryde (25), Ryan Kelly (24), Brad Boxberger (24, another part of the Latos trade). None of these guys figures to make a huge difference, but their presence may help enable Byrnes to move Street and/or Luke Gregerson and his re-emergent slider at the deadline.

Fewer options exist from the left side. Alex Hinshaw (29), an SDSU alum like his manager Bud Black, was recalled May 8. Jeff Ibarra (24) is available at San Antonio. Try to contain your excitement.

Infield
The Padres shifted Gyorko (23) from third base to second base toward the end of April. Headley blocks him at the former position, and the Padres are weak at the latter position. Gyorko's defense at the hot corner was passable. The early returns on his play at second base aren't overwhelming, but the idea is that he'll hit enough to make any shortcomings acceptable.

An obvious comparison for a kid with a big bat and big thighs is Dan Uggla, but that doesn't work here. For one thing, the minor-league version of Uggla (.276/.347/.442) didn't compare well to the current version (.259/.344/.481). Gyorko is a better hitter now (.316/.388/.508 in 1,089 minor-league plate appearances) than Uggla was at the same stage of their careers, but given that the latter wasn't highly regarded as a prospect, this should come as no surprise. Uggla has succeeded beyond anyone's reasonable expectations, which reminds us of a damning truth about prospects: Sometimes Wiki Gonzalez has a better career than Chad Hermansen.

The other thing about Gyorko is that, despite posting nice power numbers last year in the hitter-friendly California League and early in 2012 in the much less forgiving environment of Wolff Stadium, he is more of a line-drive hitter. This might actually make him a better fit for Petco Park, where fly balls go to die, but it also hurts the Uggla comp. To me, he's more in the Jeff Cirillo/Kevin Seitzer mold, but without the crazy plate discipline of those two.

Long-term, I don't like Gyorko's chances to stick at second base. But as a way to get his bat in the lineup and end the Hudson era, it isn't the worst idea. Besides, despite the Padres' poor track record in converting third basemen to second basemen—Jake Gautreau, Sean Burroughs, Matt Antonelli—it just might work.

On the shortstop side, the recently-acquired Amarista (23) becomes the Padres' best short-term option, although he probably is better suited to a bench role. Everth Cabrera (25), who manned the position for the Padres in 2009, might be in the mix if not for a domestic violence case in Arizona. And Bartlett has been so bad that some fans are clamoring for Andy Parrino (26) —the latest in a line of fringy middle infielders developed by the Padres such as J.J. Furmaniak, Sean Kazmar, and Lance Zawadzki—to take over as the everyday shortstop.

Other middle-infield possibilities include Logan Forsythe (25, currently recovering from March 9 surgery on his left foot to remove a semisoid bone) and Vincent Belnome (24). Both players draw walks and hit doubles but profile as utility players at best.

Outfield
Options here are less interesting. Kyle Blanks (25) might have gotten a look if not for his season-ending shoulder surgery. Blake Tekotte (25)—a fourth outfielder type—was up earlier but is now back at Triple-A. Darnell (25), the converted third baseman who has previous big-league experience and who is up now thanks to Wieland's injury, is another possibility. Daniel Robertson (26) and Sawyer Carroll (26) could be in the mix as well, although they are fringy in a Mike Baxter/Chad Huffman/Jon Knott kind of way.

Guesses
What the heck, I'm feeling adventurous. Here are my guesses as to what the Padres will do:

  • Trade Street when healthy, recall Boxberger; let the “Babylon 5” jokes begin
  • Release Hudson and Bartlett, recall Gyorko and Amarista
  • Trade Quentin when healthy, install Darnell as staring left fielder
  • Keep Richard; he's still cheap and he makes for a nice, if unexciting, insurance policy
  • Keep Volquez; his price tag, relative youth, and upside are enough to keep him around a while
  • Keep Venable; the demand just isn't there

I don't expect Street or Quentin to fetch much. If I were the Padres, I'd be looking for more middle-infield depth in the high minors; failing that, I'd take a shot on guys at lower levels with live arms who maybe haven't translated stuff into results.

As for the timetable on all of this, who knows? It could happen at any moment.

12 comments have been left for this article.

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