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March 13, 2008

Prospectus Today

Friar Follies

by Joe Sheehan

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Among the many injuries ripping across the game right now, I noticed that Jim Edmonds is going to miss the rest of the exhibition season with a strained right calf. That Edmonds is injured isn't a surprise at all; he's 37 years old, he missed 97 games over the past two seasons with a variety of ailments, helping make him a significant risk this year, and he plays one of the most demanding positions on the field.

That's actually not the worst of it. Patrolling center field in Arizona's fairly large outfields while playing a third to a half of meaningless games is one thing. Having to cover Petco Park's massive expanse of pasture-404 feet to the gaps-for a team that has been built around fly-ball pitchers, in games that will mean quite a lot, is something else entirely. Edmonds' body has been sending a clear signal for the past couple of years, that it can't handle the rigors of a major league job in the middle of the diamond. He's needed to move to a corner spot for a couple of years now, the natural progression of a formerly great center fielder as he advances towards 40 years old.

It's not just his health. Edmonds' defense, as you would expect, has declined along with his body. In our system, he's posted below-average Rate2 scores in three of the last four seasons, and his 2007 mark of 95 is the second-lowest of his career. The Padres, who admittedly did not trade much to take on the last year of Edmonds' contract, have put themselves in position to have one of the oldest, worst-fielding center fielders in baseball. There's no reason to think this can end well, not with the condition of Edmonds, the dimensions of Petco, and the Pads' pitchers lean towards getting fly-ball outs.

In the Padres' favor here is that they have no one in left field who can't be moved, and in fact, platooning Edmonds and holdover Scott Hairston could be the best thing for both players. Hairston has good power against southpaws (.273/.329/.483 career) while Edmonds has regressed over the last couple of seasons to his early-career levels against them (479 OPS in '06, 631 in '07). Hairston's case for everyday play is marginal, which pairs well with Edmonds' need for a caddy.

The problem, of course, is that while this would give the Padres a solid left-field platoon, it would also leave them with no center fielder. No, not the way, say, the Twins don't have a center fielder, or the Ranger or Braves or A's don't, where there are three or four sub-optimal choices. No, the Padres have just four outfielders on their 40-man roster, and while a number of ex-prospects and marginal guys are floating around camp, only Jeff DaVanon has any kind of experience playing center in the majors, and he's not a regular. The decision to let Mike Cameron go, in the moment, made plenty of sense. By now, it's one that has left the Padres in a bind.

Perhaps the best stopgap option, Corey Patterson, was available for months before signing a minor league deal with the Reds. Patterson lacks OBP, but has the speed and skill to cover the big Petco center field. Signing him would have provided the necessary support for a pitching staff that needs a good defensive center fielder, just as the Blue Jays need a good defensive shortstop behind their groundballers. At 28, Patterson even offers the possibility of development, as opposed to the 37-year-old Edmonds. With Patterson gone, the only remaining center fielder by name is Kenny Lofton, and he's no more ready to cover the gaps in his twilight years than Edmonds is.

Are trades an option? Certainly, the Rays could use an out for Rocco Baldelli, who will be used in right field until a deal comes along. He doesn't have much trade value, having missed most of the last three seasons to injuries, and he has less than that at the moment, unable to play even in spring games due to an unusual disorder. There may be a buy-low opportunity here for Kevin Towers, although he is likely reluctant to deal for a player whose availability rivals that of Faberge eggs.

What's left? The Padres and Red Sox have made a number of minor deals over the years, each more than willing to help the other out. Would the Sox be willing to end the Jacoby Ellsbury/Coco Crisp drama by dealing Crisp, who wants to be an everyday player, to San Diego. The Padres have some depth in their system, the ability to deal a B- prospect or two to make the '08 team better. The Sox can get significant value from Crisp's glove, but Ellsbury's OBP means a lot to them and they may not wish to have Crisp around in a part-time role. Again, the established relationship between the organizations comes into play here.

To be honest, this is all pretty theoretical. The Padres think Edmonds is a center fielder, their center fielder when healthy. They're not perceiving a hole or looking to fill one. They've pushed infield prospect Chase Headley out to left field this spring in an effort to get his bat in the lineup, potentially making the defense that much worse. Headley can rake; he's not going to be a good left fielder for some time, if ever. Then again, shopping Kevin Kouzmanoff, coming off a pretty good year, for a center fielder would improve the team on both sides of the ball.

Positioned between Hairston and Giles, Edmonds would help give the Padres one of the worst outfield defenses in the game. That's a recipe for disaster. An outfield of Headley/Edmonds/Giles or Headley/Hairston/Giles, is approaching 1989 Dodgers' levels of comedy. That team used an aging Kirk Gibson and a heavy Franklin Stubbs in center field at times, and occasionally had Kal Daniels in left alongside Stubbs.

The Padres aren't likely to close the gap on the Diamondbacks and Dodgers under any circumstances. They're not a good offensive team, and they need time to integrate their young position players. The team's strength the last few years, though, has been the way it fits into the park, with fly-ball pitchers, deep fences and Mike Cameron. Now, in a post-Cameron world, they're about to find out just how much of what they thought was pitching was actually defense.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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