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Can the Fathers find the magic again in 2011?
San Diego will try to rebound from a disappointing collapse without three-time All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was traded to the Boston Red Sox for four players, including three top prospects. The Padres knew they couldn’t afford to keep the hometown star, so it was just a matter of when to deal him for maximum value. Co-owner Jeff Moorad and general manager Jed Hoyer said they needed to look out for the franchise’s long-term health. Hoyer has made several other changes to the Padres, who must compete with a payroll between $42 million and $45 million. The Padres had the best record in the National League on Aug. 25, and then went 14–23 the rest of the way. If they don’t fix their painfully inept offense, it’ll be impossible to recapture the good feelings from the summer of 2010.
The Padres made their living last year on pitching and defense and will have to do so again. Ace Mat Latos returns after a brilliant first full season in which he went 14–10 with a 2.92 ERA. He faltered a bit down the stretch but proved he had the makeup to lead a staff. He set a big league record by allowing two or fewer runs in 15 straight starts (min. five innings) from June 10-Sept. 7. He’ll be followed by lefty Clayton Richard (14–9, 3.75) and newcomer Aaron Harang, who’ll play for his hometown Padres after being released by the Reds. Jon Garland signed with the rival Dodgers, and the Padres declined to pick up Chris Young’s option, so there’ll be two spots up for grabs among at least four candidates. Tim Stauffer will be in the mix after a strong rebound from an appendectomy in May. Stauffer can also relieve, so he’ll be valuable. Dustin Moseley, signed as a free agent from the New York Yankees, can start or relieve. Wade LeBlanc, who pitched only once after Aug. 30, can swing between starting and relieving, or will be returned to Triple-A. Rookie Cory Luebke will go back to Triple-A if he’s not in the rotation.
A number of relievers were moved in the offseason, but the big three remain: setup men Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams and closer Heath Bell. Bell had another All-Star year, finishing with a career-high 47 saves. He was named MLB Delivery Man of the Year. His 94.0 save percentage (47-of-50) led all closers. Chad Qualls, signed as a free agent, will provide experience as another setup man. Of course, with Gonzalez gone, Bell remains the most likely Padre to be moved if the team feels the need to peel off more salary. Gregerson set a big league record with 40 holds. As a staff, the Padres set a record with 111 holds, making them the darlings of fantasy wonks everywhere. Hoyer used relievers in a handful of deals, but lefthander Joe Thatcher returns, and Ernesto Frieri was impressive as a rookie.
The Padres believe they’ve improved up the middle with the addition of shortstop Jason Bartlett and second baseman Orlando Hudson. Bartlett replaces Miguel Tejada, who was signed by San Francisco, and Hudson replaces David Eckstein, who became a free agent. Bartlett was originally drafted by the Padres in 2001, then traded to Minnesota the following July. San Diego gets younger at both positions, and should be better defensively. The Padres hope Bartlett regains his offensive form from his All-Star season of 2009, when he set career highs by hitting .320 with 14 home runs, 66 RBIs, 90 runs scored and 30 stolen bases. Both Bartlett and Hudson seem excited to be playing for the Padres. Hudson was given a two-year contract worth $11.5 million.
Brad Hawpe, signed to a free agent deal as the last major offseason move, will basically be a one-year rental to replace Gonzalez. He’s been an outfielder the majority of his career, with only a handful of starts at first base. The Padres traded Gonzalez without having an Opening Day replacement in the organization. Kyle Blanks, the heir apparent, underwent elbow reconstruction surgery in late July and isn’t expected back until around midseason. The Padres had moved Blanks to left field to get him at-bats before he was hurt. Anthony Rizzo, one of the prospects obtained from Boston, isn’t expected to be ready for a season or two. Third baseman Chase Headley had a serviceable year, but fans are still waiting for some power. He hit 11 homers last season and has just 32 in 1,502 at-bats in four seasons. Jorge Cantu, a liability defensively, may earn some time at both corners.
As a part of getting stronger up the middle, the Padres obtained center fielder Cameron Maybin from the Florida Marlins. Maybin was the 10th overall pick in the 2005 draft and later was traded by Detroit for Miguel Cabrera. He’s struggled to make consistent contact and has been sent back to the minors numerous times. His overall game is good enough, though, that the Padres were able to make Tony Gwynn Jr. expendable. Gwynn has good wheels but couldn’t even come close to hitting .250, a far cry from his Hall of Fame father. Rounding out the starting outfield are right fielder Will Venable and left fielder Ryan Ludwick, who didn’t deliver the expected power after coming over from the St. Louis Cardinals.
Nick Hundley returns as the starter. He started 73 games last year and hit a career-best .249, with eight homers and 43 RBIs. He’ll have a different backup for the third straight year. He’s gone from Henry Blanco to Yorvit Torrealba to Rob Johnson, obtained from the Seattle Mariners. Johnson was Seattle’s Opening Day starter in 2010, but he slumped and was sent to Triple-A. He hit only .191 in 61 games.
There could be a huge dropoff this year. The signing of Hudson means the team can’t afford to bring back Jerry Hairston Jr., a utility infielder who might have been the team’s true MVP last year. Hairston filled in when shortstop Everth Cabrera and then Eckstein were injured. Hairston himself was hurt in late August — coinciding with a 10-game losing streak — and again in late September. Cantu should provide some pop off the bench as well as filling in for Hawpe and Headley. Outfielder Chris Denorfia will be back to provide valuable depth, as will Oscar Salazar. Outfielder Eric Patterson was the “player to be named later” in the Gonzalez deal. When Blanks returns sometime in midseason, he’ll add depth either in the outfield or at first base.
Bud Black was named NL Manager of the Year, edging Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker by one point. It was a well-deserved honor, considering that Black led a team that had to make do with the second-smallest payroll in the big leagues. No one but the Padres themselves believed they’d finish any better than last place. A 10-game losing streak and 14 wins in their final 37 games ultimately doomed the Padres, but Black never let the team think it was out of it until the final out of the season. Hoyer has proved to be a capable replacement for Kevin Towers. However, like Towers, he’ll have to make do with a small player payroll. That’s why Hoyer has focused on building up the farm system.
While celebrating the unexpected 90 wins, Padres fans should ponder this thought: Did the Friars run out of gas from Aug. 26 on, or did they merely play like everyone originally thought they would? With the prospects from the Gonzalez trade still a year or two away from making it to PETCO Park, the Padres need to play riveting ball from the start or risk having fans vote with their feet by staying away. Hoyer has made significant changes to the roster, some due to financial reasons and others in an attempt to upgrade. Even so, it’s hard to see 90 wins from this bunch.