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Series Preview #43: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. San Diego Padres

I'm going to tell you the story of a baseball team.

This baseball team was not expected to be any good going into the season, primarily because they had just experienced two straight losing seasons, including one where they lost almost 100 games.  This team did have some talented young players, both in the majors and the minors, and the new general manager put them on a path to contend in two or three years, if everything went according to plan.  For the short term, however, expectations were tempered and payroll was kept extremely low.

Then the team started playing and, much to everyone's surprise, they started winning.  By the end of May, they were in sole possession of first place in their division.  They weren't playing over their head, their Pythagorean W/L was fine, but still no one could figure out how this team was winning so often.  Their offense was lackluster outside of one MVP candidate, and their starting pitching was anchored by some young arms who came seemingly out of nowhere and had no experience in a pennant race.  But their bullpen was a huge strong point, and they scored just enough runs to stay in the heart of a pennant race against the Giants despite everyone doubting them.

By now, of course, you must have realized that I'm talking about the 2010 Padres.  Any resemblance to a certain present-day team in Sedona Red is entirely coincidental.  But for what it's worth, it's probably best if I don't remind how that particular story ended...

Of course, the shine has come off the Padres since that near-magical season, and they are firmly back in rebuilding mode.  The Padres sit at 60-71, 12 games behind the division-leading D-Backs.  Their hitting has been terrible all season, though rather better recently, and their pitching hasn't lived up to the standard of last season.  However, there's more there than meets the eye, as the Padres are one of only two teams in the division to have a positive run differential so far this season.  Add in some talented young players and this is a team worth keeping an eye on next year.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

San Diego
Hitting (wRC+): 92 91
Pitching (FIP-):
100 104
Fielding (UZR):
52.9 5.5


The fact that the Padres and Diamondbacks have almost identical wRC+ tells me two things:

1. The D-Backs' offense had a really, really bad road trip.

2. The Padres probably have a better offense than we remember them having.

The second point is a rather recent development, as the Padres have a team OPS that is almost a full 100 points higher in the second half of the season than the first half, culminating with a team OPS of .778 in August.  Petco Park is Petco Park, but the Diamondbacks and Padres actually look very similar offensively in regards to their park-adjusted stats. 

However, the vaunted Padre bullpen has fallen on hard times to compensate a bit.  While they once led the league in a lot of major categories, their bullpen now sits in the middle of the pack in wRC+ and most other categories.  One has to imagine that the team has struggled with the loss of Mike Adams, their best reliever, at the Trade Deadline. 

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Ryan Roberts, 3B
2. Gerardo Parra, LF
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Miguel Montero, C
5. Chris Young, CF
6. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
7. Aaron Hill, 2B
8. John McDonald, SS

San Diego Padres

1. Will Venable, RF
2. Jason Bartlett, SS
3. Cameron Maybin, CF
4. Jesus Guzman, 1B
5. Orlando Hudson, 2B
6. Kyle Blanks, LF
7. Nick Hundley, C
8. Logan Forsythe, 3B

Will Venable is back on track after having a horrible start to the season, as he comes into this series sporting a 108 OPS+.  Jason Bartlett is a solid enough bench player and defensive replacement, but he's miscast as a starter at the age of 31, as his 21 extra base hits in 516 PAs this season attest. Orlando Hudson is in the same boat as Bartlett, but he's at least made the most of things, with an OPS+ of 103 on the season.

But the Padres have some interesting young position players that command most of the attention.  Cameron Maybin just makes me mad.  I mean, the Padres have had nothing but good relievers for almost five years now, it's like their thing.  So where does Florida get off trading a five-tool, 24-year-old center fielder for the basically the only guy in the Padres bullpen with a career FIP over 4?  It's like paying full price for Disney World and never leaving Blizzard Beach.  It really just serves the Marlins right that he's put up 4.0 fWAR this season, they have no one to blame for this but themselves. 

Jesus Guzman is the starting first baseman for the San Diego Padres.  This statement is remarkable mostly for how much had to go wrong to make it happen.  Incumbent Brad Hawpe, backup Jorge Cantu, super-prospect Anthony Rizzo, and alternate infield prospect Logan Forsythe all had to be un-playably awful at first.  And awful they were.  So now minor league veteran Jesus Guzman is manning the post, and he has done his best Adrian Gonzalez impression so far, posting a .913 OPS (with Petco as his home park!) in 173 PAs.  Nick Hundley continues to be the best catcher nobody knows anything about, with an OPS+ of 125, and Kyle Blanks continues to be the left fielder of the indeterminate future, as he's playing the role for the third straight season. 

Pitching Matchups:

Friday: Josh Collmenter (7-8, 3.34) vs. Wade LeBlanc (2-2, 4.62)

Insightful Commentary: Among pitchers who 100 or more IP, Collmenter has the ninth-lowest BB/9 in baseball.  His rate of 1.89 per nine innings is by far the lowest he has put up for a season at any level, let alone the majors.  As an analyst, I have no idea what to make of this.  Maybe he had been pitching with one eye closed for his entire life, or maybe he was teaching himself to be ambidextrous in the minors by pitching with his left hand.  It's just one of those things, I guess.

Wade LeBlanc has spent most of his four-year career irritating Padre fans by continuing to exist while walking a few too many, and not striking out enough with his mediocre arsenal of pitches.  He's been in Triple-A for a lot of the season, but he's back to the majors, and it will be interesting to see whether he can finally turn the corner and stick as back-of-the-rotation starter. 

Saturday: Joe Saunders (8-11, 3.98) vs. Aaron Harang (12-3, 3.96)

Insightful Commentary: RegressionFest '11 continues for Joe Saunders, as he now has an ERA of 7 over his past three starts.  Although to be fair, he's walked more batters than he's struck out during that period, which tends to lead to bad results.  Facing the Padres at home should is an easier draw than what he has gotten his last couple of times out, but he's going to have to improve that K:BB line to get better results.

Aaron Harang seems to be doing the Petco Experience backward.  After years of pitchers coming to the ultimate pitcher's park to shave a couple of runs of his ERA, only to find that their lack of run support leads to worse W/L records than they had with their old teams, Harang seems to have beaten the system.  He's striking out fewer batters than his career average while walking more, and his ERA is nearly 4 in the cushiest park to pitch in in baseball, yet he has twelve wins, thanks to uncharacteristic run support from a last-place team.  Petco'd?

Sunday: Ian Kennedy (16-4, 3.09) vs. Cory Luebke (5-6, 2.91)

Insightful Commentary: A very impressive outing from Ian Kennedy last time out, as he scattered 6 hits across seven shutout innings.  While this is impressive enough without context, it also snapped a six game losing streak, and gave the team a chance to win the series against the Nats.  I've mentioned that Kennedy has become the stopper in this rotation before, but it's moments like this that really solidify that point.

Cory Luebke joined the rotation in late June from the bullpen, and hasn't disappointed so far.  He has a 2.71 ERA in 11 starts, and he has struck out more than a batter per inning this year.  He's only 26, and if he can keep this up, he has a chance to really become something.

Final Verdict: This has the feeling of a trap series, with the Diamondbacks being tired from their road-trip and potentially looking past the Padres.  This is a different team from the offensively inept version we faced earlier in the season, and the Diamondbacks will have to be sharp to take this series.  But I'll be optimistic and say Diamondbacks two games to one.

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All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.