Now that spring training is over, and we’ve had a chance to watch this 2011 Padres team define itself for the start of the 2011 season, it’s time to look at what some of the probable strengths and possible challenges that this year’s club will start with and that could be factors in determining this season’s outcome.
First the strengths as I see them:
- More Balanced Offense – In recent seasons for the Padres offense it’s been no secret that the biggest cog in the machine was Adrian Gonzalez. Control Gonzo, and you essentially forced the Padres pitching staff to allow 2 runs or less to win the game. This year should be different. Of course they will miss Adrian’s team leading .298 average, 30+ HR’s and 100+ RBI’s. However, with the addition of experienced batters Brad Hawpe, Jason Bartlett, Ryan Ludwick (still relatively new to this lineup), and Orlando Hudson, along with the additional year of experience for Headley, Venable, and Hundley, this should be a lineup that is tougher for opposing pitching staffs to navigate from 1-8. No longer is there one guy in the lineup that opposing staffs need to bear down on, knowing they could then make mistakes to the rest of the lineup and likely get away with them. Hopefully there will be more pressure to make quality pitches to batters 1-8, thus creating more chances for mental and/or physical mistakes during a game, and a better likelihood that it will be taken advantage of. Last year the number 6 and 7 spots in the Padres lineup produced the lowest batting averages of any team in the NL, and second lowest in all of MLB. This year’s Padres lineup should have more ways to drive in runs, especially from the bottom part of lineup. Also, don’t underestimate the positive affect new first base coach Dave Roberts will have on the Padres aggressiveness on the base-paths.
- Stronger Up The Middle Defense – Last year it was the still inexperienced Everth Cabrera, utility man Jerry Hairston Jr., and, though beloved, the aging David Eckstein that were in charge of the middle of the infield. This year it will be two experienced veterans in jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson who will turning two. Both have earned the respect of the baseball world as more than reliable defenders, with the O-Dog sporting 4 gold glove trophies on his mantle at home. Add to that the insertion of Cameron Maybin in center field, who’s ability to eat up real estate is admired by scouts and GM’s throughout baseball, and you have as solid a group of sentinels guarding the middle as the Padres have seen since coming to PETCO.
- The PENitentiary – They’r back, and opposing offenses trying to forge a come back victory beware. Bell, Adams, Gregerson, Frieri, and Thatcher all return (although Thatch’s strained shoulder has him starting on DL like last year). New will be Chad Qualls, whose experience should add even more depth to back end options, and Pat Neshek with as funky a delivery as there is to keep right handers off balance. Luebke will help from left side until Thatch returns, or Luebke goes to the rotation, whichever comes first. The Pen should have another season of slamming the door shut.
- Versatile Bench – Not a single aging veteran who can’t play defense exists on the 2011 Padres back up troops. Denorfia, Cantu, Gonzalez, Hunter, can all play multiple positions. When Patterson returns from DL it will be even more versatile as he can play infield and outfield positions. Not deep in left handed PH, but plenty from right side, and lots of leather is a plus in PETCO.
Possible challenges this club may face:
- Starting Rotation Questions – I’m not a cynic, nor a glass half empty kinda guy at all, but for me to say that I do not have some questions about this year’s rotation would simply be disingenuous. Some of these questions were presenting themselves before the lights were turned off from last year, and little that has happened this spring training has put them to rest. How would Garland’s departure (whose writing was on the wall well before he signed with the Dodgers) affect the work load and responsibilities of the young staff he was leaving behind? How would Mat Latos respond to being thrust into the role of staff ace, probable opening day starter, and de facto rotation leader? How would Richard respond to his stepping into the #2 role of the rotation? How will Stauffer fare now being in the rotation on a full time basis, pitching every 5th day, and facing lineups 4 times a night at the MLB level for the first time in his career? How much does Harang have left in the tank after a rough few seasons in Cincy? Who is the 5th starter? Spring training stats are almost meaningless, yet little was presented by this rotation numerically or anecdotally to put any of these questions to rest. While I expect most of these stories to have happy endings, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that may be one doesn’t go as planned. The good news is that there is help waiting in the wings, in the young arms of Casey Kelly and Luebke. Both showed great stuff, command, and poise in the multiple outings I witnessed. They both feature stuff as good as anyone’s, except Latos’s, on the staff already, and I would have no hesitation to start the long term development of these young arms that could be the core of the rotation for years to come.
- Starting Lineup Games Played – As i mentioned previously in this article I think this lineup and defense are better than those of last year’s 90 win team. Yes, there is added versatility of the bench in my opinion, but you always want the core of your team to stay on the field as much as possible. Two players that I believe Buddy Black will want to pay close attention to and give preemptive rests to in an effort to prolong their endurance for 162 are Bartlett and Hudson. Both have had some injury issues in recent seasons, and while not career threatening in nature, recurrences could limit their availability. Buddy is adept at this, having plenty of practice with Eckstein, Giles, and the handling of other veterans in recent years. Hundley is another key player that the Pads are banking on to have a step up year, and the team will need to have healthy not having a comfortable every day alternative in the wings. Headley showed signs of fatigue towards the end of last season as well, and may get a couple more days off during the 2011 campaign. Again, the good news is that with Cantu, Gonzalez, and Patterson (when he returns) there are plenty of combinations Buddy can use to dole out the needed rest, and not severely handicap the club for the day.
Overall, in my opinion, Jed Hoyer and his staff have done a great job of strengthening some of the weaknesses from last year’s team, despite having to trade his best offensive producer. This year’s lineup is more balanced, the defense is better, and the bench is more versatile. All that is good, but I still believe the way you win games is with pitching, and like last year the fate of this club will be in the hands of the starting rotation. Hopefully, some of the improvements made with the lineup and defense will take some of the pressure of the starting ro that it has shouldered in recent years. Giving the starters a few more early leads to work with, and maybe the need to throw a few less pitches with some leather being thrown around behind them can do nothing but help the starters go deeper in the games and ultimately the season, while also keeping the innings down for what should be another lights out relief corps.
If this year’s team plays with the same heart, tenacity, and focus as last year’s, then we are all in for another fun ride.