Liz Swain 9:30 a.m., May 29
The San Diego Padres, having reached the half-way point in the 2012 season, will hobble back out of the All-Star Game break a mere three percentage points out of last place in the National League West. With a record of 34 wins against 53 losses, they are one loss away from becoming the worst team in Major League Baseball.
When the season began, there were higher hopes for better results by the break. Rational expectations would not have included the Padres looking as though they could be in a position to vie for a play-off berth in September, but rather, a team that could compete to have a .500 record. Obviously, that hasn't happened the first half of the season.
Then, shouldn't the letter grade for the team be an "F"? Either you achieve your objectives or not, right? Pass or fail? Perhaps it isn't that easy, and as entirely subjective as a letter grade should be, perhaps it's best to use them anyway. Besides, it invites raucous debate at your favorite sports bar over a few beers with your fellow baseball fans.
So then, let's break it down, categorically, maybe we can figure out where the Padres have failed, and perhaps even find areas where they've succeeded and can build on.
Infielders: The overall batting grade would probably be slightly higher, but not for the unfortunate performances of Orlando Hudson, who is no longer on the team, and of Jason Bartlett, who is now on the disabled list and will likely not see another at-bat in a Padres uniform. Second base has since been filled by a combination of Andy Parrino (currently on the disabled list with a wrist sprain), Logan Forsythe, and Alexi Amarista. Amarista has held his own with the bat, but Forsythe has been good in limited starts due to injury. In the second half, expect Forsythe to be the regular second baseman and for Amarista to play more of a utility role. At shortstop, Everth Cabrera has cemented that spot for now, and is hitting better than he did over a season ago, but improvement is still needed. At the corners, the Padres are lacking overall power. Third Baseman Chase Headley is hitting more home runs than he did last season, but is not looking like a clutch hitter, and rookie first baseman Yonder Alonso isn't projected to hit many home runs but has hit the ball very well to the gaps, and he's still learning and could be a much better hitter in the second half.
Outfielders: Before Carlos Quentin returned from a pre-season injury, the outfield was flat-line, lacking both power and consistent hitting for average. Quentin came out and went nuts, but has since slumped; however, his power is a solid threat to build a line-up around. Will Venable is improved over last season but is sometimes still baffled in some plate appearances, and Jesus Guzman isn't playing every day and his performances have notably suffered. Chris Denorfia platoons with Venable, but Denorfia's hitting has been solid although he'll never hit for power that one would like to see from a corner outfielder. Cameron Maybin hasn't produced much, although he has recently changed a hitch in his swing-stride and expects improvement in the second half.
Catchers: Nick Hundley struggled from the start of the season, horribly so, but based on last season's performance it doesn't seem to be because of a lack of talent. Hundley was pressing, and pressing so obviously that his flailing away at bad pitches got him demoted to AAA Tucson. Nick will be back at some point, assuming that his replacement, Yasmani Grandal, comes down to Earth. Grandal has belted 4 home runs in only 35 plate appearances, but the limited sample is a teaser. Back-up catcher John Baker holds his own, and has performed above average in that role.
Pinch Hitters: The Padres are among the top teams in pinch-hitting, led by Mark Kotsay who might be the best currently in the game. Jesus Guzman has also had some good success, along with others. It has been one of the brighter spots in the Padres offense this season.
Outlook: It's doubtful that this squad can do much to end the season hitting even close to mid-pack in the league, but as a team they can improve some and certain players can improve individually. Only the Houston Astros have struck out more times than have the Padres hitters, and the Padres are dead last in runs scored and runs batted in. Will there be improvement? It isn't likely to get worse, so marginal improvement is not out of the question.
Starters: Three of the five pitchers slated to be starters on opening day are injured, and have been for most or all of the first half. Cory Leubke is out for the year and Tim Stauffer's second stint on the disabled list came quickly after coming off of the first. Many of the players that replaced them are now also out. The good news is that even in replacing them with cast-offs from other clubs such as Jason Marquis, they have held their own. The Padres are 12th in the league in earned run average, but the bad news is that they are in last place for issuing walks. The excessive bases on balls has improved since the start of the season, with occasional relapses at times. Edinson Volquez and Clayton Richard have been grinders.
Relievers: As usual, the Padres have some of the best relief pitching in baseball, but like the starters, the relievers have suffered injuries. Having to recall and send down talent, there have been far more bright spots than black marks with pitchers Luke Gregerson and Joe Thatcher performing well, while others occasionally run into trouble. Untimely walks and occasional mistakes in location have seen some tight games get widened in the late-middle innings, making it difficult for a somewhat impotent offense to have a chance. Still, relief pitching is not a glaring issue for the Padres.
Closers: Huston Street has been every bit as good as was last year's closer, Heath Bell, who left for the Marlins via free agency. When Street was injured, Dale Thayer pitched well in his absence, but Street is back and quite effective. This year's All-Star representative for the Padres might get more chances in the second half if the team as a whole can improve.
Outlook: Depends on injuries. If there aren't any more and some of the walking wounded return, then they'll certainly improve. But any more injuries could spell disaster, considering that the Padres have managed to dodge a bullet so far.
Infielders: There were far too many errors early for the Padres, and everyone seemed to contribute as though it were some sort of a disease. But as of late, fielding has improved although there are still flubs that shouldn't happen. Beyond the errors, the defense improved up the middle when the youth and speed of Cabrera, Forsythe, and Amarista took over in the middle infield from the aging veterans Bartlett and Hudson. More ground is being covered and less ground balls are finding their way up the middle and in the holes. Chase Headley is a very good fielding third baseman, and Yonder Alonso is making less rookie mistakes as he gets more major league experience.
Outfielders: Will Venable was error prone early on, but is improving in the outfield, and center fielder Cameron Maybin is one of the best center fielders in the league. When Jesus Guzman plays left field, he is still erratic but improving. Mark Kotsay is slow in his occasional starts and Carlos Quentin, while a little quicker, doesn't seem as good in the outfield as in years past. Chris Denorfia is a bright spot, in any of the outfield positions he can still make plays.
Catchers: With the departure of Nick Hundley to the minors, this is a position that has suffered and will continue to suffer. Back-up John Baker is solid, but lacks Hundley's arm and quickness. Yasmani Grandal looks improved from a year ago when he was in the Cincinnati Reds minor league system, but he lacks an accurate arm and needs to move and react with more quickness and decisively go after errant pitches. But if Grandal improves, he could be good enough when weighing his promising hitting skills with even an average glove and arm.
Outlook: At most positions, the Padres should continue to improve defensively. The only question mark is Grandal behind the plate, the Padres will certainly miss Hundley's defense, which has greatly improved every year.
Field Managers (Bud Black and Staff): Manager Buddy Black has done what he can with what he has. Without Carlos Quentin for the first two months of the season, there was no real batting order that would protect one hitter after or before another hitter effectively. In-game decisions were rational and as effective as could be given the players on the field and on the bench. Possible criticisms could be in playing the percentages in opting for right-hand vs. left hand situations both pitching and hitting, but it is a subjective question to ask why anyone would not trust numbers that dictate otherwise. The staff is good, Darren Balsley is one of the best pitching coaches in the business, Dave Roberts and Glenn Hoffman are proven base coaches, and the Phil Plantier/Alonzo Powell duo are long-time baseball men who are capable.
General Manager: Josh Byrnes has done well in his first year. When the pitching staff went down, most everyone he has signed from outside has performed better than expected. His preseason trades, with the Reds and with the Cubs, have given the Padres more pitching that is ready at the major league level and what appears to be a first baseman and a catcher that could cement a future Padres team that would contend to win the division. One possible bad move could turn out to be trading Ernesto Frieri midseason, to the Los Angeles Angels. In return he received a small second baseman in Amarista, possibly promising but very unproven, and a minor league pitcher with an excellent sinker but no real fastball. Meanwhile, Frieri has become the heralded closer for the Angels, and has yet to give up a run.
Outlook: Even if the Padres are sold, it is doubtful that any changes would be made this season. There are no apparent flaws in this area, but next season, there could be changes if new ownership comes in. In general, new owners like to bring their own people. Should that occur, anyone here let go in that process will certainly be snapped up by other organizations.
The Padres had a workout Thursday at Petco Park, and then bused to Los Angeles where they face the Dodgers in a three game series. The first match-up on Friday night will see a pair of Claytons, Clayton Richard (6-9, 3.91) of the Padres will go up against Clayton Kershaw (6-5, 2.31) for the Dodgers. Game time is at 7:10 PM PDST, and the usual suspects, Fox Sports San Diego for television and XX 1090 AM for radio will be broadcasting the game. As always, if you have Time Warner in your home and you don't own a radio, take Interstate 5 North for a little over an hour and exit Stadium Way and follow the traffic, you'll get there.