Month: March 2015

Starting With James

On opening day, the Padres will play the Dodgers in LA. Matt Kemp will step to the plate wearing a San Diego uniform and the crowd will -in all likelihood – give him a standing ovation. Then, in the bottom of the first, James Shields will throw his first pitch as a Padre to Derek Norris behind the plate. San Diego’s magical offseason will be over and everything will be real. After AJ Preller’s moves in December, the team made itself attractive enough to lock up Shields on a four-year deal that will pay him just over $75 million. The veteran right hander’s signing was the largest contract issued by the Friars since the three-year, $52 million contract given to Jake Peavy during the 2007-08 offseason. The 33-year-old Shields, who pitched more than 200 innings in every season since 2007, chose to sign because he saw the same thing that everyone paying attention to baseball had noticed: the Padres were trying. Sure, he will solidify a rotation that includes Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, Ian Kennedy, and a fifth spot in all probability going to Odrisamer Despaigne or Brandon Marrow, but he means more than the rest of them. He represents a new beginning, even for a staff that poses some old questions.

Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross have shown flashes that they can be staff aces. However, staying healthy is still a question for both. Cashner, on a base salary of $4.05 million, is set to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season.  Last year he posted a 5-7 record with a 2.55 ERA in 2014 with 93 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings pitched. He was the opening day starter a year ago, but quickly fell to injury, leaving an opening for Tyson Ross to take the leadership role. Ross made the all-star team and Cashner was never really right. As conducive as Petco Park is to subduing offensive production, baseball’s most reliable hurlers can manage to get hitters out without the help of their defense. Ross’ strikeout rate really helped him last year.  But like Cashner, Tyson has had health concerns his entire career. This year they both hope to reach 30 starts.

Ian Kennedy is coming off of a great 2014 campaign for the Padres, having posted a 3.63 ERA and a 207/70 K/BB ratio in 201 innings. If he can limit home runs, as he did last season, he should have another strong showing in 2015. He just needs to be a solid 4th starter and eat innings along with Shields if Ross or Cash go down. I just hope Ian and Carlos Quentin are roommates in Peoria so they can work on their next plot to destroy Zack Greinke. After Carlos broke Zacky’s collarbone, Kennedy – then on the Diamondbacks – threw at his head. It’s not just about pitching for him. I agree with Ian Kennedy on everything that matters.

Brandon Morrow and Odrisamer Despaigne have emerged this spring as the two most likely to take the 5th spot in the rotation. It’s not a high priority to have this position locked down in the beginning of the season, but both have looked dependable. Morrow pitched great in 2012 with the Blue Jays and was on his way to becoming a cornerstone for their future. He posted a 2.96 ERA and 3.65 FIP in 124.2 innings that year. However, he has struggled since then with injuries. Morrow could end up coming out of the bullpen as an effective option for the Padres. Odrisamer Despaigne signed with the club out of Cuba in 2014, but he was relatively unheralded, garnering just a $1 million bonus even though he was not subject to international spending rules. In 96.1 innings last year, he posted a 3.26 ERA. If it’s close at the end of spring, it might be worth it to give Morrow the shot to start the year and put Despaigne at triple A so he can get starts and keep his pitch count up. If Morrow doesn’t work out, the Padres can put him in the bullpen and bring up Odrisamer for another look.

James Shields ranks first among MLB pitchers with 1,785 2/3 innings pitched since 2007. He has a career 114-90 record and 3.72 ERA over nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Royals. Last year he had a 14-8 record with a 3.21 ERA, 180 strikeouts and just 44 walks in 227 innings. Even though he struggled for the Royals in the postseason, he now heads a staff as the only member with a World Series start. Shields has repeatedly emphasized that he wants the Padres starting staff to account for 1,000 innings in 2015. Whether or not that’s realistic isn’t important. What matters is that San Diego now has a leader who can say that and really be heard. The Padres haven’t had a real alpha dog on their staff since they paid for one in Jake Peavy. Paying for that kind of value is something they apparently do now. His body of work is there and he’s hungry to get back to the biggest stage. The rest of the team needs to follow.

Follow on Twitter: @Nicholas_McCann

Buddy’s Relief

For all he has done, AJ Preller hasn’t executed the one action that most new GMs do when they take over a team: he hasn’t fired Bud Black and replaced him with his guy. There are different ways to look at this. He might be curious how good Bud Black can be with a real team. Or maybe Preller sees it as beneficial to have Black coach the first year of this project so if it fails he can blame him and fire him at the end of the year. However, it might be simpler than that. It’s very possible AJ respects Bud Black’s baseball mind and doesn’t see anybody else more qualified for the job. A baseball skipper’s legacy is most often impacted by the way they use their bullpen in important games. The most dependable strength of Bud Black’s Padres in recent years has come from the relievers, a group that has changed some since the beginning of last season.

Alex Torres is a solid left handed option. He has a history of being sporadic, but knows how to get dangerous left handed hitters out, making him a valuable asset in the NL West. Dale Thayer has been a work horse over the last three seasons, posting a 3.36 ERA with the Padres. Brandon Maurer, acquired from Seattle in the Seth Smith trade, has electric stuff. He could ultimately end up in the starting rotation or stay in the bullpen and be groomed to take over as closer someday. Second year 8th inning guy, Kevin Quackenbush should only get better in his role. He will never be the glaring talent of a Brandon Maurer, but he gets people out and he doesn’t seem to fear difficult situations.

The closer position is very dear to San Diego. The fan base will always be shaped by the body of work Trevor Hoffman provided. His consistency and demeanor were blended perfectly with his success. If ACDC’s Hells Bells started up when the game was on the line, everyone knew what it meant. But he was Bruce Bochy’s guy. Bud Black has had Heath Bell and Huston Street; both All Stars in their own right, but not Trevor. On July 18th last year, Street was traded away and Joaquin Benoit took over. The 37 year old had great success, even though the Padres weren’t division contenders. In 14 appearances, the big veteran right hander racked up 18 strikeouts, one win, and ten saves, while only giving up one measly unearned run to close out the year. He was masterful and if the Padres plan to emerge as a force to be reckoned with over the next few years, they need him to continue this performance when the spot light becomes brighter.

I often find myself walking around my neighborhood obsessively searching through my iTunes for the perfect bullpen walkout song.  I channel Trevor and pretend I am the one being looked upon to put an end to the opposition. Saving the Padres is something I can’t do. Other people need to save them for me. Since this offseason full of moves, I’ve been landing on Everything In Its Right Place, the first track on Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A. As a college educated white guy born in 1980, I realize I’m a walking Intro to Sociology case study at Mesa College. I’ll wear it. Thinking about Radiohead is what I do. It’s my favorite song on my favorite album of theirs, and while I think it’s the clearest sonic representation of the end of the 90s, it also would be a perfect fit to increase the drama in the 9th inning for these 2015 Padres. When I hear Thom Yorke – the rock and roll equivalent of AJ Preller-  sing, “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” I think about how embarrassing it felt to watch Heath Bell slide into the back of the mound at the All Star game. When Yorke follows that with, “There are two colors in my head,” I think about the debate over the two general color schemes the Padres have used. In my fantasy save opportunity, that would be the point in the song when a person wearing the brown could give a guilt trip to a person standing next to them in the blue. It’s all there. That song sounds like anything can happen and the Padres are in the same spot. The table is set for Bud Black to show us what he can do. He has the offense and starting rotation to get him to where he can really shine. This is the right place, and everything is now in it. It’s time to close.

Follow on Twitter: @Nicholas_McCann

First Sunday Game

The Middle and The Infield

The most glaring problematic area starting the 2015 season for the Padres is the unknown offensive capability of the infield. It’s filled with players who’ve shown promise but are coming off subpar years at the plate. At the end of AJ Preller’s stretch of moves in December, he closed it out before taking a Christmas break by getting Will Middlebrooks from the Boston Red Sox to play third base. I remember texting friends and my wife, WE GOT MIDDLEBROOKS! Their responses were mostly in hashtags: #PrellocalypseNow, #PrellerLife, #PrellerLyfe, #PrellzBellz, #PrellerBlessed etc. My all caps reaction was a clear reflection of AJ’s body of work leading up to the move, but I was excited about Will Middlebrooks coming to San Diego because the last few years I’ve watched Will on the Red Sox. My wife is from Boston, so that’s what we do. Middlebrooks never jumped out at me. He was serviceable at third base as a calming, low drama response to the outspoken Kevin Youkilis, who ended his time in Boston badly, mostly at the hand of Bobby Valentine. However, between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, a star emerged from the NESN Red Sox broadcast. Her name was Jenny Dell (See: Above). It was clear she was headed to a bigger stage than a local broadcast team and I used to playfully throw out suggestive comments about her to make my wife playfully jealous. But before Dell could leave on her inevitable meteoric talent based rise, things got juicy. She was quietly removed from covering Red Sox games because it was revealed that she had started a serious relationship with Will Middlebrooks. I would soon move on to NBC7’s seminal meteorologist, Dagmar Midcap, but in my simple troglodyte brain, when the Padres acquired Middlebrooks, I immediately figured if he could lock down Jenny Dell, he could lock down the hot corner for the baseball team I love.  For the Pads, it was a minor move, but it did add to the heap of infielders they brought to Peoria who can play multiple positions if asked. The defense in the outfield could be a huge problem, but the infield has depth and versatility, more than enough for Bud Black to work with.

At first base, Yonder Alonso, who missed 78 games last year and 65 the year before that, hit just .240 with seven home runs in 2014. He will always have a job in the big leagues with his glove, but we need to see him be a professional hitter for an entire season. If Carlos Quentin can prove he isn’t a complete train wreck at first, they could evolve that into an interesting platoon situation. It might offer the same stability that Adrian Gonzalez provided, something we haven’t felt since we had Adrian Gonzalez to provide that kind of thing.

Clint Barmes, brought in to compete with Alexi Amarista at shortstop, spent parts of last season playing all four infield spots. Amarista has played at least five different positions in each of the past three years and provides speed on the bases. Jedd Gyorko, who is firmly rooted at second for the Friars, also came up as a touted third baseman. Regardless, after signing a five-year $35 million contract extension last April, he became the only infielder the Padres are really tied to long term. Despite having below average range for a second baseman, he’s projected to have plenty of power to grow into.  So far he’s been a glimmer of hope for the future, but mostly a device for Mark Grant to make Beverly Hillbillies jokes.

The third-base battle between Will Middlebrooks and Yangervis Solarte is the one everybody is watching this spring. The lineup is extremely heavy with right handed bats. Solarte is  a switch hitter who can also play all the infield positions. He hit .260 in 2014 as a rookie.  Middlebrooks, with more service time and a year younger than Solarte, had a down year due to injuries, hitting .191 in Boston.  But In Will’s favor, he can also play first base, which would bail out Yonder Alonso against tough lefties. There are plenty of options and Bud Black doesn’t have to marry any of them.

While not being overly engaged directly, the Padres revitalized front office used modern media perfectly. Matt Kemp was coming to the Padres, then he might not, then we were told in a non-patronizing way to not be concerned about anything, and then he was ours. When we all exhaled that the big name talent was secured, the rest of the dominos fell. If Billy Beane is credited with the introduction of analytics, and Theo Epstein is the king of the Thanksgiving dinner, AJ Preller is the first person in baseball to really master the online news feed in a way that has propelled fan interaction and interest. At the end of the December run of moves, the glowing sheen of change was washed all over Will Middlebrooks to the point that just having another new name added to the elation. Is he just another guy who probably has a ceiling of an average Chase Headley year? Probably. However, Jenny Dell would disagree. Those crazy kids are engaged to be married. Jenny will battle her way up the ranks doing big college football sideline reporting and Middlebrooks will fight his way to start on a team on the rise. I’ll be tracking the news feeds, waiting to text my wife, MIDDLEBROOKS IS SINGLE! if it doesn’t work out.

Follow on Twitter: @Nicholas_McCann

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