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Ducks vs. Snakes - or Snorts vs. Pits

Geoff Young, who runs the erudite, witty and entirely rainbow unicorn-free site Ducksnorts, wrote me last week - we agreed to exchange questions and answers about each other's teams, in advance of the weekend series against the Padres. His Q's and my A's about our team can be found here; below, his highly-informative answers about the Padres. Thanks to Geoff for his efforts: I imagine sitting through a 22-inning game provides plenty of time to go into some depth! :-)

1. Trevor Hoffman ended 2007 for the Padres and has had some rocky appearances at the start of 2008. Is this too small a sample size to be concerned, or has he finally lost his edge? Do you think he will still be your closer at the end of the year? If not, how will the club handle the situation, and who would likely replace him?

The laws of nature dictate that at some point Hoffman won't be able to survive on guile alone. It's probably wise to be concerned, but at the same time, it's too early to react and make a silly decision that gives greater weight to the last three weeks than the previous 15 years. Right now it's tough to tell whether this is a blip or the beginning of the end. That's the same line I've been using for the past several years whenever Hoffman hits a rough patch, and I'm not prepared to abandon it just yet (although it's a bit scarier to watch him pitch now than it was a few years ago). As for the long haul, Heath Bell would be the logical replacement.

When the time comes, it's hard to say how the Padres will handle the transition from Hoffman to Bell or anyone else. With luck, they'll have full cooperation from Hoffman, who is an institution in San Diego -- as much for his community work as for anything he's ever done on a baseball diamond. I don't envy anyone in the organization who might have to tell him they no longer need his services. I'm also hoping desperately that Hoffman figures it out first and does the right thing. But again, I don't think we're there just yet, a few shaky outings notwithstanding.

2. The Padres' outfield is seen as a significant weakness, with Edmonds and Giles both 37, and in the twilight of their careers. On the other hand, in left-field is former Diamondback Scott Hairston, aged 28, who performed brilliantly for the Padres after the trade late last year. What are your assessments of the trio? Can Hairston maintain anything like that pace? And if Edmonds and Giles falter, do the Padres have replacements waiting in the wings?

The outfield could be stronger, for sure. Jim Edmonds represents a significant downgrade from Mike Cameron in center field. I don't even worry about offense from Edmonds because if you look at the Padres roster, they've actually got good power from several positions. If Edmonds can get on base every now and then and play a decent center field, he should be useful. The problem is, it's not clear whether he can do either of those things on a regular basis at this stage in his career. Also, he missed a good chunk of time toward the end of spring training so he looks a bit rusty out there right now. But at his age and given his injury history, rust may be all that's left of Edmonds. We don't know yet.

Giles looks terrific in the early going. He played on a bad knee for most of 2007, and after having surgery this past winter, he appears to be moving around much better. He's also driving the ball again -- maybe not for home runs in that park, but at least for doubles and triples. Giles is a shadow of his former self, but that shadow is more productive than many guys' current selves. Assuming he can stay healthy -- a big assumption at his age -- Giles should provide reasonable value in right.

As for Hairston, first off, thanks. He darned near got us into the post-season. Going forward, I don't see him (or most hitters) continuing at the pace he established down the stretch in '07. Hairston feasted on fastballs up in the zone last season, most thrown by Giants pitchers. This year, he's seeing fewer of those pitches and more breaking stuff down and away. Hairston has good power to all fields and will draw the occasional walk, but I'm not sure how high his batting average will be with that approach. I expect him to be reasonably productive, in a Reggie Sanders lite kind of way, but he'll also be streaky.

If something should happen to one of the current regulars, Paul McAnulty could step in and do a passable job short term, although he's more of a fourth-outfielder type. Longer term, Chase Headley has moved from third base to left field and is taking to his new position well. Headley had a monster spring but has gotten off to a slow start at Triple-A Portland. Still, my expectation is that we'll see him up during the season -- possibly as early as mid-May -- and he'll play a prominent role on the 2009 Padres.

3. The Diamondbacks appear to be moving into "win now" mode, concentrating their resources into being challengers over the next three seasons. Looking forward over the same kind of time-frame, whereabout do you see the Padres in the cycle of baseball life? Coming up, going down, or holding steady?

I suspect I'm in the minority here, but I see the Padres mostly holding steady. Many observers will point to veterans such as Giles, Edmonds, Maddux, and Hoffman as evidence that the club is in decline, but these guys -- important though they may be on a daily basis right now -- don't represent the team's core. That would be Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Khalil Greene, Jake Peavy, and Chris Young. They're not super young, but all of these guys are entering or in their prime and have significant big-league experience. Calls of a full-scale rebuild don't make much sense to me, although mixing in kids like Headley and Matt Antonelli does. Just because the Florida Marlins scrap everything and start over every time they win a World Series doesn't mean everyone else has to. Although come to think of it, the Padres haven't won a World Series yet...

4. Kevin Towers has now been the Padres' general manager since 1995, making him the longest-serving GM with one club in the majors (if I'm not mistaken). What do you see as his strengths and weaknesses over that time? Also, for the first decade, he worked with only one manager, Bruce Bochy. Has last season's change to Bud Black affected things at all? And must all Padres managers HAVE the initials BB?

As I've outlined in the Ducksnorts 2008 Baseball Annual, Towers has an incredible record when it comes to trades: Andy Sheets for Phil Nevin, Joey Hamilton for Woody Williams, Jay Payton and change for Dave Roberts (which I hated at the time), Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka for Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young, magic beans for Heath Bell, etc. Towers is famous for his ability to gain trust among peers and his diligence in learning as much as he possibly can about players involved in a potential deal. If there is a better trader in baseball, I don't know who it is. Towers also does a good job of exploiting the "San Diego discount" to bring veterans here for short-term deals at a palatable price -- Mike Piazza and Greg Maddux being two recent examples.

Weaknesses? Towers has been notoriously active in the Rule V draft over the years, sometimes with miserable results. The names Wil Cunnane, Donaldo Mendez, Kory DeHaan, and Jason Szuminski won't mean much to folks who don't follow the Padres, but for many fans, they represent the failure of a front office to spend money on legitimate big-league talent. Towers has had better luck in recent years -- right-hander Kevin Cameron looks like he could contribute for a while -- but while I applaud the effort to look for talent in unconventional places, I'm not sure the Rule V draft (George Bell and Johan Santana notwithstanding) is the best place to do that.

Towers also has overseen some terrible amateur drafts, most notably 2004, when the Padres snagged local high school shortstop (now rehabbing pitcher) Matt Bush over Jered Weaver, Jeff Niemann, and your very own Stephen Drew with the first pick overall. The Padres have improved in this area, although now they may err too far on the cautious side -- but I'm not sure how much of that is Towers' doing and how much is simply organizational philosophy.

The change from Bruce Bochy to Bud Black had a definite impact. There's no way Kevin Kouzmanoff would have gotten the opportunity to overcome his slow start under Bochy. Ask Xavier Nady.

As for the initials BB, I'm sure we're all anxiously awaiting the day when a certain former Arizona State outfielder takes charge in San Diego. Beware of flying fake syringes.

5. At time of writing, the Padres have the best ERA in the league - that's probably no surprise. However, the Padres are ranked second in the NL for BA, a sharp improvement on last year's 15th-placed finish. Is that just the small sample size? Or does the team project to have a significantly-improved offense?

The offense is about the same as last year, which is better than most people realize. Again referring to the Ducksnorts 2008 Baseball Annual, no team in all of MLB had more extra-base hits on the road last season than the Padres. Adrian Gonzalez is a stud who would get serious MVP consideration if he played half his games in, say, Philadelphia or Milwaukee. Khalil Greene has holes in his offensive game but good power for a shortstop. Kouzmanoff's overall numbers as a rookie were depressed because of his terrible start, but he provides a nice balance for Gonzalez. This is actually a good (not great) hitting team that isn't recognized as such because Petco destroys offense.

6. Finally, Petco Park is an extremely pitcher-friendly park. Do you think this is a good, bad or neutral think, and how much impact does it have on the way the roster is constructed?

I think at this point it's mostly good. When the club first moved downtown, there were some veteran players who didn't adapt well to the new environment and who were a bit vocal about it (the park, of course, not their inability to adapt). In 2007 the Padres finally started using Petco Park to their advantage, outscoring and outhomering the opposition by a healthy margin.

In terms of roster construction, the main things Petco does are encourage pitchers to throw strikes and hitters to drive the ball to the gaps on an even plane (generally without much loft). Guys like Peavy and Maddux fit into that first category, while Gonzalez and Kouzmanoff fit into the latter. The ballpark also places an emphasis on defense and speed, particularly in the outfield. There's a lot of ground to cover out there, so a guy like Mike Cameron was a great fit. Also, with runs at such a premium, the ability to take an extra base is valuable. Unfortunately the current squad features a bunch of guys who run around with pianos on their backs, which doesn't play well at Petco.