San Diego Padres: A Team on Friar

On May 1, the San Diego Padres were 10-17, good enough for last place in the National League West. They had allowed a NL worst 129 runs while scoring just 103. The team’s run differential of -26 was the second worst in the National League, ahead of only the Miami Marlins. 

Since losing that night to the Chicago Cubs, the Padres have gone 30-23 (15-11 in June, as of Friday night’s victory over the Marlins) and sit just three games back of the Arizona Diamondbacks for the division lead, tied with the Colorado Rockies, and ahead of the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

How is a team that finished 76-86 last season looking like a competitor? There must be a reason why Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan picked the Padres to win the NL West when no one else did. What did he see?

At first guess, you’d probably figure the Padres third baseman, Chase Headley, who finished fifth in MVP voting last season was the one leading the team back to respectability. But, not so much. Headley has, to this point, put up his worst numbers since he became a full time player at the Major League level. His .227/.325/.355 line is a far cry from last year’s .286/.376/.498 mark and the nearly identical, aside from slugging, numbers he put up in 2011: .289/.374/.399.

One Padres player, Everth Cabrera, is hitting .300. Unfortunately, he’s also on the disabled list right now. Regardless, Cabrera has been a revelation for the Friars. At 26, in his fifth season in the majors, the shortstop was in the midst of a breakout before subcuming to injury. His entire triple slash line, .305/.382/.418, would represent career highs by at least 58 points per category. Just 69 games into the season, Cabrera already hit more triples (4) than in any year since his rookie season in 2009 when he recorded eight three-baggers. 

His four home runs are already a career high, while his 24 RBI ties his 2012 production. Did I mention Cabrera can run? Even with a week on the DL, he’s leading the senior circuit in steals (31) and is on pace to shatter last year’s league-leading 44 stolen bases. Typically, you imagine a player having a breakout and “carrying” his team to be a slugger, but for the Padres, it has been their table setter.

The Padres aren’t without other offensive sources. Carlos Quentin, who was hitting just .169 with two home runs on May 8, has rebounded for a .319/.412/.534 line with six homers since his nadir. The slugging outfielder has a 22:15 strikeout to walk ratio over this stretch and has exposed himself to four hit by pitches. When the Padres signed Quentin to an extension rather than looking to move him in a trade, it raised a few eyebrows, but in a tight division, having another good player on the roster is looking pretty smart.

Quentin is joined in this journey with a revitalized Kyle Blanks. Injury and ineffectiveness have diminished Blanks’ stock over the last year, and the outfielder/first baseman was a non-entity entering this season. But, when called on, Blanks has come through.

In his first big league experience in 2009, Blanks launched ten home runs in 54 games. Through 56 games this season, he has 8 home runs. The similarity between the two seasons, separated by three lost years, is shocking. Runs: 24 in 2009, 25 in 2013. Doubles: 9 in each season. Walks: 18 in 2009, 16 in 2013. Strikeouts: 55 in 2009, and just 47 in 2013. His triple slash was .250/.355/.514 in 2009 and stands this year at .278/.350/.472 through approximately the same number of games this year. This is the guy who looked like a slugger whose power would play anywhere, even Petco Park, and San Diego fans are finally seeing him perform.

And that’s what’s amazing about this Padres team: the offense is where the talent lies. The rotation is the promising flamethrower Andrew Cashner and castoffs from the Island of Misfit Toys. Eric Stults, Jason Marquis, Edinson Volquez, and Clayton Richard round out a rotation without a big name.

While there are rumors of a trade with the Cubs for Matt Garza, so far the Friars have put together a run without anyone even approaching an ace to lead the rotation. Which take us to the last point: the Padres run isn’t a mirage built upon a weak schedule. They’ve won seven of their last nine games against teams with records over .500 and are performing against winning teams better than they have in either of the past two seasons.

In a division with a flawed Dodgers team, a Giants rotation that isn’t what it has been the last few years, and a Rockies club without Troy Tulowitzki, the Padres can’t be counted out.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Adrian Gonzalez: The Padres’ Bargain

September started with Red Sox off-season acquisition Adrian Gonzalez as part of the AL MVP discussion, along with two of his teammates: 2008 MVP Dustin Pedroia and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.  While a substantial number of words were spilled this winter about Boston’s acquisition of the All-Star first baseman and his subsequent contract extension, his old team, the San Diego Padres, should be satisfied with the way things turned out for the team during Gonzalez’s tenure in Southern California.  

Gonzalez was originally selected first overall by the Florida Marlins during the 2000 amateur draft. Just three short years later the young first baseman was traded, along with Will Smith and Ryan Snare to the Texas Rangers for Ugueth Urbina.  The Rangers of course had their own stud first base prospect, Mark Teixeira, who made his major league debut on April of that year.  By hitting .259/.331/.480 while clubbing 26 home runs, Teixeira finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting and never looked back.  

The Marlins probable sold too early on Gonzalez considering his pedigree as a first overall pick and solid progression through the farm system including hitting .266/.344/.437 in AA Portland in 2002.  Off-season wrist surgery would put a damper on his 2003 numbers, both with the Marlins and then with the Rangers.  Across three teams in 2003, over 493 plate appearances, Gonzalez hit just .269/.327/.365 – good for a .692 OPS.  His home run total sat at just five.  Nonetheless the 2004 edition of Baseball Prospectus declared the first baseman as Rangers GM Jon Hart’s “crown jewel” of mid-season acquisitions and expected a full recovery along with Gonzalez forcing his way into the Rangers lineup by 2005 or sooner.

Sure enough, Gonzalez mashed AAA pitching to the tune of .304/.364/.457 in 2004 and .338/.399/.561 in 2005.  Unfortunately the success did not translate to his first exposure in the majors.  Making his Major League debut in April 2004, the top prospect hit just .238/.273/.381 in a cup of coffee with the team.  In more than three times the plate appearances in 2005 (still just 162), Gonzalez again struggled with a line of .227/.272/.407.  Unfortunately it was at this point that the Rangers, with Mark Teixeira now well established at first base and still under their control through the 2008 season, decided to trade from their position of strength, first basemen, for pitching help.

In January 2006, Adrian Gonzalez, Terrmel Sledge, and the pitching version of Chris Young were sent to the NL West San Diego Padres for major league pitchers Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka and minor league catching prospect Billy Killian.  Things did not go well in the Ballpark at Arlington.

Adam Eaton, brought in to solidify the starting rotation, was limited to just 65 innings in 2006 and left as a free agent at the end of the season.  After winning eleven games in back-to-back seasons before arriving in Texas, despite ERAs of 4.61 and 4.29, Eaton tallied just seven victories in his limited time on the mound with a bloated 5.12 ERA and WHIP of 1.57.  His 5.95 K/9 was a career worst and part of a downward trend for the hurler since his 2001 season where he recorded 8.41 strikeouts per nine innings.  Eaton was a better at home (.281/.346/.459) than away (.322/.391/.513) and subject to a reverse split with lefties hitting just .279/.340/.382 while watching their right handed counterparts tee off against Eaton: .320/.393/.592.

Right-handed reliever Akinori Otsuka fared somewhat better.  In two seasons with Texas, one as their primary closer, the Japanese righty tossed 92 innings of 2.25 ERA.  He averaged just under seven K/9 but registered a superb 3.50 KK/BB during his time in Arlington.  Unfortunately, injuries limited Otsuka in 2007 and that concluded his tenure with the Rangers.  While he did provide some value out of the ‘pen, it was not the difference making impact the Rangers should have gotten in return for a perfectly good player ho had the misfortune to be blocked at his position.

As for Killian, he spent two seasons in the minors with Texas before moving to the White Sox farm system.  He has never appeared in the Major Leagues.

When it comes down to it, this was simply not a good trade for the Rangers.  At worst, Gonzalez could have been a designated hitter for a team with a very potent lineup.  According to the Fangraphs’ version of WAR, Adrian Gonzalez alone worth 21.8 WAR.  Adam Eaton just 0.6 and Akinori Otuska 3.0 over his two seasons with the team.  Chirs Young, even battling injuries brought with him an additional 4.9 WAR.  Terrmel Sledge was worth -0.3 WAR.  

All things considered, the Rangers may have misread the market, trading too good a hitter for pitchers who were not young kids yet to break in or established top-shelf veterans.  The Rangers traded a future superstar for commodities that just did not match up in value.

Did the Padres get a better haul for their prize?  Gonzalez was certainly worth even more last winter than in 2006 and San Diego managed to snag several of Boston’s top prospects.  If they pan out, the value might look good in a few years.  If not, the Padres at least got promising young players in return.