September 23, 2009
On the Beat
Sometimes it is easy to forget the Padres exist. They basically wrote off this season before it started as former owner John Moores, in the midst of selling the team to Jeff Moorad and going through an expensive divorce, lopped $30 million off of last year' s payroll and gave Kevin Towers, the longest-tenured general manager in the major leagues, just $43mllion to build a roster with.
Except for dealing ace of the staff and face of the franchise Jake Peavy to the White Sox at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, the Padres have been out of sight and out of mind in 2009. However, a funny thing has happened with the Padres over the last couple of months. They have started to play winning baseball with a roster that still includes first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, closer Heath Bell, and a bunch of names only a hardcore fan would know. The Padres have gone 31-21 in their last 52 games, quite a turnaround since a 37-62 start.
It's a turnaround that has given Towers hope the Padres can shorten the usual rebuilding curve, an idea that manager Bud Black seconds. "We still have a ways to go," Black cautioned. "However, what I do like about what we can take away from this season is that there is no longer a question of if we have enough talent to be competitive at the major league level. I think we've proven that over the last two months, so we've got past that stage. The next big step will be to prove the guys we have can take their talents and use it to win at the major-league level on a consistent basis over a full season. We've gotten a taste of it for part of this season."
Gonzalez is already established as one of baseball's top young stars, and has a .338 EqA this season to back that up. Left fielder Chase Headley (.272), third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff (.263), and catcher Nick Hundley (.254) have solid holds on their lineup spots. However, a number of other Padres hitters have taken steps forward this season, including outfielders Kyle Blanks (.310) and Will Venable (.294) and shortstop Everth Cabrera (.283). Blanks has had his rookie season shortened by plantar fasciitis in his foot, but the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder has impressed observers with his raw power and athleticism for someone so big. Venable was pegged as more of a fourth-outfielder type until the second half of the season, but he has been so impressive lately that he is all but assured a spot in the lineup for Opening Day 2010.
The biggest revelation has been Cabrera, who was selected from Colorado in the Rule 5 draft last December after playing at Low-A last season. The Padres felt the 22-year-old could handle the defensive part of playing shortstop in the majors, but his hitting has been a happy surprise. Everyone connected with the Padres cannot quit raving about him; veteran bench coach Ted Simmons mentioned Cabrera in the same breath with such shortstops as Larry Bowa, Ozzie Smith, and Omar Vizquel. "This kid could eventually play defense like those guys, he's that good," Simmons said. "The biggest difference is he can already hit, whereas those other shortstops did not start becoming factors with the bat until they physically matured when they were around 28 years old. Everyone compares this kid to (Dodgers shortstop Rafael) Furcal, and it's a fair comparison. As a scout, you always look at the shortstops with the great arms and give them an eight (the highest grade on the 20-80 scouting scale). Well, when you see Cabrera, he's an eight unlike other eights-he's the eight of eights. Nobody else looks like an eight after you've seen him."
Pitching will always be a key for the Padres as their home field, Petco Park, suppresses offense more than any other park in the major leagues. Kevin Correia, signed as a free agent after being non-tendered by the Giants at the end of last season, leads the starting rotation with 4.0 SNLVAR, and has produced a .510 SNWP. While he has proven to be a wise pickup, the Padres are resting their long-term hopes on some of their younger arms, including Mat Latos, who had 1.1 SNLVAR and .476 SNWP in 10 starts after being called up in July, Tim Stauffer (2.1 and .541), and left-hander Clayton Richard, one of the key components coming from the White Sox in the Peavy trade. Bell is leads the team in WXRL with a 3.82 mark, but Luke Gregerson, obtained from the Cardinals in the off-season trade for Khalil Greene, has been a real find, contributing 3.122 WXRL. That might enable to the Padres to sell high on Bell in a potential trade during the offseason while elevating Gregerson from set-up man to closer.
"We feel like we are to the point where we are fairly well set with the position players," Black said. "The key for us now is going to be the pitching. We have had some guys take steps forward and have a number of good young arms either on our major league roster or in our farm system. Our pitching has been much better lately and if we can carry that on from here then I think we have a chance to be good again, perhaps a little more quickly than we originally anticipated coming into this season."
Astros owner Drayton McLane was said to be on the fence, as recently as last weekend, on whether to retain manger Cecil Cooper for 2010. McLane has obviously since jumped off of that fence, as he fired Cooper on Monday, even though he'd given the second-year manager a contract extension through next season back in April.
The firing wasn't a huge surprise. Cooper never seemed like the right fit for the Astros since being promoted from bench coach to replace Phil Garner late in the 2007 season. The players never warmed to him, nor he to them, and Cooper was reportedly one of the first people to leave the clubhouse after games. Cooper went 171-170 in his a little more than two full seasons on the job.
The biggest factor of all, though, was that the Astros were 70-79 and on a seven-game losing streak at the time. Cooper was put on the spot for that record despite the team's affording itself a club-record $107 million payroll. The Astros will also miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year since making the lone World Series appearance in franchise history in 2005, when they were swept by the White Sox.
"It seems like we've been on sort of a gradual downhill spiral ever since we made it to the World Series, and you can't point to just one thing," Astros first baseman Lance Berkman told the Houston Chronicle's Richard Justice. "There are several factors involved in that. If there was ever an environment for sweeping reform or change, this would be it."
"Coop is a very solid baseball guy and gave his heart and soul for this organization," Astros GM Ed Wade said. "Unfortunately, I got to a point where it was appropriate to make this change and make it now. It gives us a couple of weeks to go ahead and evaluate some other facets of our operation at the field level and hopefully use that time to make the right decisions going forward."
The Astros opened the season with the oldest roster in the major leagues, and Wade would prefer to now go with a youth movement. However, a lack of top prospects at the upper levels will prevent that from happening unless McLane, who has always been opposed to rebuilding, gives Wade the go-ahead to trade a star like Berkman or right-hander Roy Oswalt for a package of prospects.
In the meantime, third-base coach Dave Clark was promoted to interim manager. He was a well-regarded manager in the Astros' farm system, and is expected to get strong consideration for the full-time job. Two former major league managers, Jim Fregosi and Manny Acta, will also likely be candidates, along with Red Sox first-base coach Tim Bogar.
While the Astros will have a new manager in place next season, there is a chance that the team on the verge of winning the National League Central might also have a new skipper in 2010. That's because Tony La Russa's contract expires at the end of the season, and he has yet to commit to coming back for a 15th year with the Cardinals.
"The same goes for me that goes for any player who is a free agent or any player trying for a statistical finish," La Russa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold. "It's not time to talk about this now, and instead be totally committed that we don't get distracted by anything."
The Cardinals are all but assured of getting to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, when they made a stunning run through the postseason after winning just 83 games in the regular season, a run that was culminated by their beating the Tigers in the World Series. "Winning makes it fun," La Russa said. "The question isn't, is (the fire) still burning right now. Just the way I was raised as a competitive person, I'll never get to the end of the season with it being out. But once you get to the end, that's what you have to evaluate."
The White Sox traded designated hitter Jim Thome to the Dodgers and right-hander Jose Contreras to the Rockies on August 31, and now it remains to be seen if GM Ken Williams will completely overhaul the roster in the upcoming offseason. The White Sox are 73-79, which is disappointing for a team that felt it had a good chance to repeat as the American League Central champions.
Williams must decide whether to exercise the $12 million mutual option on right fielder Jermaine Dye, or allow him to leave as a free agent. Outfielder Scott Podsednik and right-handed set-up reliever Octavio Dotel are also eligible for free agency. There has also been speculation closer Bobby Jenks could be traded, as he is likely to receive a huge salary in arbitration over the winter.
While White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen seemingly has an option on all things, he says he will let Williams handle the GM duties without offering advice. "I'm not going to say, 'We should trade this guy and we should trade that guy,'" Guillen said. "Obviously, I have a little thing to do with who's coming and who's not, but since I've been managing this ballclub I've never come out and said, 'I don't want whoever.' If Kenny has something in mind, he will do it. I did in the past say, 'I don't want this guy in my clubhouse, I don't want this guy on the team.' A few people, I went to Kenny and said, 'Hey, listen, I don't think this guy's going to work here. I don't think having this guy is going to help this ballclub,' and he did what he had to do. But in the meanwhile, I haven't told him what trades to make. He knows what we need, he knows what we want, he knows what direction we're going in. That's why I stay away from that.''
Scouts' views on various major leaguers:
Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):