Around the end of last season, I got it in my head that the Padres would make a good gutsy dark horse team in 2012. Sure, they finished last in the NL West in 2011, but they were never that bad. They had the second-best Pythagorean W/L record in the division for most of the season, and they had an intriguing mix of youngish players. Guys like Cameron Maybin, Chase Headley, and Nick Hundley formed a solid core of position players, and they had some talented arms. Cory Luebke looked like he's going to be good, and if Heath Bell continued to be a solid closer and Mat Latos bounced back like he was supposed to...
...I'm just going to stop there, because you've already figured out what happened to this theory. San Diego began their off-season by doing the most Padres thing imaginable, letting their young, wunderkind GM go to the Cubs, and promoting washed-up former wunderkind to replace him in the form of Josh Byrnes. Byrnes and the rest of the crew evidently decided that, just because some random Diamondbacks blogger liked their team, they shouldn't hold out much hope for winning in 2012. The team probably had a hunch that they would lose Bell to free agency, but the Latos trade was what really solidified the off-season as a rebuilding period for the team. Though there's plenty to like about the prospects the Padres got for Mat Latos, the fact remains that teams don't typically get better right away after trading away their ace. While the Padres might be pesky this year, they won't be competing for a division title unless something truly unexpected happens.
The morale of the story: never bet on the Padres because they'll always disappoint you. At least until their six top-100 prospects get to the majors and march over the rest of the division, scorched earth style. But hey, that won't happen for at least, like, a year.
What the Stats* Say (According to Fangraphs):
*All stats from 2011 unless otherwise indicated.
Since each team has only played one series, I didn't feel comfortable putting up the stats from this season even to make small sample size jokes. While it doesn't tell us much about the Padres today, since they made such whole-sale changes to their roster, it does give us an idea of why the Padres felt they needed to retool their roster in the first place. Everyone knew that their lineup needed an upgrade, but the pitching, expected to be a team strength heading into 2011, had an uncharacteristically rough season. Thus, the Padres felt they had to take a step back before they could move forward, as Arizona was simply a better team across the board last year.
If you're like almost everyone else, you probably haven't thought about the Padres lineup in quite a while. In that case, I'll try to jog your (and by "your," I mean "my") memory.
Cameron Maybin was probably really good in the minors for Detroit. I don't know, I wasn't there, but he was the centerpiece of a trade for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis back when Dontrelle Willis was a thing, so chances are people thought he was going to end up being a pretty good major league ballplayer. Then, three years later, he was traded for Edward Mujica. Edward Mujica. I don't think it's unfair to say that a lot of people lost faith in Maybin during those three years. But after the Padres gave him a chance, he looked far more like someone who would be the centerpiece for a deal for one of the best players in baseball than someone who cost two relievers, as he led the team with 4.7 fWAR. And his new deal suggests that he'll be making the Marlins look stupid for five more years to come.
Carlos Quentin looked like the same sort of sly, under-the-radar addition as Maybin when he was acquired in a trade this off-season, but his knee injury meant that the team would have to scramble to fill the void. Part-time starting outfielder, full-time Quintessential Padre Chris Denorfia brings his brand of solid, unmemorable defense, decent on-base percentage, occasional gap power, and 1.5-2 WAR per season into a starting role to compensate. Jesus Guzman, last year's out-of-nowhere (even by Padre standards) slugging first baseman, shifts over to left field in order to keep his bat in the lineup.
Of course, Guzman was only shifted in the first place to make room for Yonder Alonso, possibly the Padres' most promising first base prospect since Anthony Rizzo way back in 2011. Okay, fine, maybe that's a little too snarky. Maybe you have to go all the way back to Kyle Blanks. But regardless, Alonso was the prize of the Latos trade, and is one of the best first base prospects in baseball. It's unclear how his somewhat limited power will play at Petco, but he has shown solid plate discipline and bat control throughout his time in the minors.
As you'll remember, Nick Hundley is one of the better catchers in baseball, and maybe people will finally take notice of this once he leaves San Diego and Petco. Elsewhere on the diamond, Chase Headley came tantalizingly close to his long-awaited breakout year in 2011, as he produced an OBP of .374. His lack of power (four home runs in 439 PAs last year) and late season injuries left him with room for improvement, however.
Insightful Commentary: Cahill's Diamondbacks debut comes against a weak offense in probably the most pitcher-friendly park in baseball. I have to wonder how much of this was a ploy by Gibby to take the pressure off of Cahill by having him not start in the opening series at Chase. Of course, if he gets knocked around now, it will look even worse, since you almost have to go out of your way to get legitimately knocked around by the Padres at Petco. And if he succeeds, he doesn't even get to take credit for it, since everyone's supposed to succeed against the Padres at Petco.
Edinson Volquez stresses me out, since he's always had plenty of talent, and he now finds himself pitching in an environment that suppresses home runs, one of his major bugaboos. If he's going to become an ace, it seems like this is the place for it to happen. But not even Petco can stop him from issuing walks, which he has done to the tune of a BB/9 rate over 5 every year since 2008. It's not a sure thing, but if Volquez can cut his walk rate, he stands a chance of becoming Jonathan Sanchez. Stop and read that last sentence again. Yeah, it's that bad.
Wednesday: Joe Saunders (0-0, 0.00) vs. Cory Luebke (0-1, 9.64)
Insightful Commentary: I feel like Saunders has been one of the most polarizing figures on here since the Haren trade. His supporters see a solid mid-rotation starter who will stabilize the young staff until Bauer, Skaggs and Corbin are truly ready, while his detractors see a fringe starter whose ERA will balloon to replacement level and who will take valuable experience from the prospects. It's all dumb. It's like, you guys realize you're arguing about Joe Saunders, right? He's going to log around 200 innings with an ERA slightly above 4 and peripherals that suggest he should be much worse. That's kind of his thing.
Nobody watched a Padres game after about May last season, but if they had, they would have seen Luebke pitch really well in his first full season. He struck out almost 10 batters per nine innings, and, perhaps more impressively for a rookie, he walked under three per nine. He's 27, so implying that he's likely to improve a lot might be disingenuous, but he could do exactly the same thing again this year and he would be considered an ace, so he really doesn't have to improve much.
Thursday: Ian Kennedy (1-0, 4.05) vs. TBA
Insightful Commentary: Dustin Moseley, who would be making this start, was placed on the 15-day DL with a shoulder straing after his last outing. And Tim Stauffer, who would replace him, went on the DL three days prior. Thus, I don't know who's going to make this start. I suspect that whoever ends up starting will throw in the high 80s to low 90s, specialize in pitching to contact and getting ground balls, and generally make the Diamondbacks look far worse than he has any right to. Because Padres.
Kennedy didn't have a bad start, per se, but he clearly was not at his best against the Giants last time out. His location is not where it was down the stretch last year, when it was among the best in baseball, but I suspect he'll figure that out as the season progresses. Presumably, an improvement in location will result in a rise in Kennedy's strikeout rate as well, since he relies so heavily on his off-speed pitches to get swings and misses.
Final Verdict: Series at Petco always scare me, especially since the pitching doesn't seem to be at mid-season form quite yet. Still, the Diamondbacks are the better team, and they seem to have the pitching advantage in this series. I'll say Diamondbacks two games to one. I'll settle for another sweep and a 6-0 record though...
Say, do you like unicorns in your baseball commentary? No? That's a shame. You should still check out Gaslamp Ball even if you clearly aren't their target audience.
(Stats from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.)