Fallen Padres

After both Phil Nevin and Trevor Hoffman went down in spring training, only the most optimistic Padre fans felt they had a chance of competing this year.  But no one expected them to be challenging the Tigers for the worst record in baseball.  The general consensus was that this was a 60-65 win team after the losses of their stars.  At their current rate, the Padres will finish with 48 wins.  Even their Pythagorean projection has them finishing with 54 wins.  So what has gone wrong?  In addition to losing 5 of 6 this season to the Brewers and nearly being swept at home by the Tigers... a lot!


The biggest culprit has been their pitching.  Their starters have struggled far more than expected and none of their off-season bullpen acquisitions has panned out.  In fact, their bullpen, according to the Baseball Prospectus, has been the worst in recent memory and may rank among the worst in history.  Pitching coach Greg Booker was scapegoated and fired at the end of May, which was probably the right move.  To whit, the team's ERA, walk rate and home run rate have all improved since Booker departed.


Judging from Booker's comments after the firing, it sounded as though he was expecting the Padres young starting staff to coach themselves.  He reserved his biggest gripe for the pitchers GM Kevin Towers brought in to fill out the bullpen: "You can prepare a donkey to run in the Preakness, but he probably won't run very well."  Although that may sound like sour grapes, his comments do have some validity.  Luther Hackman, Jaret Wright and Charles Nagy had spotty records (at best) coming in and Brandon Villfuerte and Clay Condrey were wild cards due to their inexperience.  Although Jesse Orosco had a sterling record entering this season, he is 46 and was bound for a let down sooner or later.  It just came sooner than later.

Injuries other than Hoffman's also played a role.  Had the Padres not also lost Jay Witasick and Kevin Walker at the beginning of the season, the bullpen might have weathered the storm.  Both are back with the team and should be healthy from here on out.  

For the final two thirds of this season, the Padres will be somewhat of a surprise to those who have pigeonholed them as the worst team in the NL.  Oliver Perez has straightened himself out in AAA - 3-3, 3.02 ERA, 1.175 WHIP, 48 Ks in 47.2 innings with just 12 walks - and will be recalled shortly.  Brian Lawrence, Adam Eaton and Jake Peavy have shown flashes of brilliance lately and the bullpen will be much stronger.  In addition to the returns of Witasick and Walker, the Padres also made a couple of nice waiver pick-ups recently.  Scott Linebrink is a young-ish, hard-throwing right hander with promise, and Rod Beck is, well, everyone knows Rod Beck.  While he isn't the Shooter of old, he still pitches with fearlessness.  His pitching line from AAA this year was quite impressive: 1-1, 0.59 ERA, 30.2 innings pitched, 32 baserunners allowed, 26 Ks against 7 walks.


The Padres are 4th in the NL in drawing walks so it might be surprising to learn that they are also second to last in runs scored.  Their 13th rank in slugging is the answer why.  While no one will mistake their line-up as the Murderers Row, they do have some guys who can hit the ball out of the park.  So what happened?

Again, injuries.  When Rondell White (nicknamed "RonDL" by industry wags) is the healthiest player on your team, you know you have injury problems.  Actually, that isn't 100% true: rookie Xavier Nady has played in more games this season than White.  But he is the only Padre who has.

Ryan Klesko and Mark Kotsay have both missed at least a quarter of the season.  Even the players the Padres bring up to replace the injured players get injured.  Jason Bay, who was having a terrific year in AAA - .950-ish OPS, good pitch recognition, 10 homers, 10 steals in 150 ABs - was promoted and 3 games into his major league career, was sidelined with a broken wrist from an errant pitch.  

Still, there is room for optimism.  Phil Nevin may return as soon as August.  Klesko and Kotsay are already working their way back to form.  Both Xavier Nady and Sean Burroughs have been better than expected.  Returning to the NL, Gary Matthews Jr. has been another  solid addition from the waiver wire.  The Padres won't have the most intimidating offense in the second half, but they should be much better than what they've shown and may finish with a respectable number of runs scored.

The Future

So can the Padres compete next year?  

Injuries (or rather, whether they can avoid them) will be the biggest factor.  The Padres have set or tied National and Major League records for injuries in 4 of the last 5 years.  Simply put, their training staff needs to be upgraded.

Money is another major factor, but not the way you might think.  No one in baseball consistently gets more talent out of trades than Kevin Towers (although it looks like that Ben Davis for Bret Tomko/Ramon Vazquez deal may end up biting him).  He also does a better than average job finding solid reclamation projects, too.  His downfall is handing out generous contracts to replaceable players, a la Chris Gomez, Wiki Gonzales, Carlos Hernandez, etc.  This needless wasting of funds, not the Padres' "small market" status, is what prevents them from signing marquee players.

And lastly, Bruce Bochy is a major factor.  Over the last 5 years, he has not been overly careful with his young starters.  Jake Peavy (22) and Oliver Perez (21) have been subjected to heavy workloads last year and this.  Eaton is close to being 100% back from the Tommy John injury (that Bochy likely contributed to) yet he's once again laboring under relatively heavy workloads, averaging almost 105 pitches per start.

That said, I don't think that injury is necessarily imminent.  Eaton is 25, which puts him a couple years beyond the critical age.  Peavy is more of a concern, but his high average is largely due to two outings this season.  He's at 101 per outing without those two.  So as long as their average outings don't go up any, he may be able to survive without serious injury.

Of equal concern with Bochy is that his teams don't play good fundamental baseball.  They have consistently been among the worst teams in baseball in both fielding and baserunning the last several years.  Part of the blame can be ascribed to the youth of the team, but soon, age will no longer be a viable excuse.  There has to be improvement in these areas if the Padres hope to compete when they open their new ballpark next year.  

The Padres have expressed an keen interest in acquiring one of this coming offseasons' prized free agent shortstops - either Kazuo Matsui, Miguel Tejada or Rich Aurilia.  Should Khalil Greene continue to develop quickly, that may not be necessary.  Regardless, changes at the top, either in method/style or in personnel may be required for this franchise to break free of it's "potential" label to become a contender.