San Diego Padres: Projected starting lineup
For the second consecutive season, the Padres won 76 games and missed out on the postseason. The massive dimensions of Petco Park are going to put runs at a premium (San Diego ranked 24th in total runs scored), so the Padres went out and picked up two starters that have considerable upside (Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson) but also own significant baggage. Is the offense going to be any better? Can the pitching improve (team ranked 24th in ERA last season) enough to keep the Padres competitive in the NL West? Here’s a breakdown of the hitters and pitchers that will fill out the opening day roster.
Batting 1st: Everth Cabrera - Shortstop
The speedster was having a nice 2013 campaign until a 50-game Biogenesis suspension cut his season short. The switch-hitter was an elite batter from the right side of the dish (.365 batting average), a trend that allowed him to set a new career high in batting average by 28 points. There is sustainability here as Cabrera did not luck his way into a robust batting average with an abnormally high BABIP (Batting Average on Balls put In Play), he simply made more contact as a result of striking out only 15.9% of the time (as opposed to 24.5% of the time in 2012). He has stolen 81 passes over the last two seasons (210 games) and forms a nice double play tandem with Jedd Gyorko (both players had a fielding percentage north of 98% last season) up the middle. For those interested in the fantasy game, I’ve got Cabrera ranked as far and away the most valuable Padre, as he ranks seventh among shortstops and 73rd overall.
Batting 2nd: Will Venable – Center Fielder
At 30 years of age, Venable responded to an increase in opportunity (481 at-bats) with his first 20 homer/20 stolen base (actually finished with 22/22) and a career-best .268 batting average. There are a few reasons why you should expect statistical regression this season, but let’s start with the positive. Venable had a monster second half (.315 batting average/.357 on-base percentage/.549 slugging percentage) after a miserable first half (.224/.268/.423), providing hope to those who thought we had already seen Venable’s most productive days. He also hit 68.2% of his homers at home last season, and given the size of Petco, it is reasonable to assume that very few of his 22 bombs were cheap ones, thus making a repeat performance more likely than had he thrived on the road. On the flip side, Venable saw his stolen base total dip for a third consecutive season, a major concern given the Padres ranked in the bottom third of the league in team home runs and batting average. They will need to manufacture runs via timely hitting and base running, making the threat of speed atop this lineup absolutely crucial. For the same reason, I’m also worried that the center fielder has more career strikeouts (542) than hits (530). If he can get on base with regularity, the middle of this order will have a chance to elevate San Diego into an average offense.
Batting 3rd: Chase Headley - Third Baseman
Remember when he looked like a franchise cornerstone and potential MVP in 2012 when he cranked 31 homers, drove in 115, and scored 95 runs in 161 games (604 at-bats)? Well, that appears to be the exception to the norm as he totaled just 17 home runs, 119 RBI, and 102 runs in the 254 games (901 at-bats) he played in 2011 and 2013. His strikeout percentage rose for the third consecutive season and he continues to be a victim of his home ballpark (his slugging percentage has increased by 65 points – 16% – on the road over the last three seasons). On the plus side, he is a true switch hitter (.274 as a lefty and .276 as a right since 2011), something any team would love to have in their best hitter. Headley isn’t the player we saw in 2012, but he is better than the one we saw in 2013 (.250, 13 homers, 50 RBI, and 59 runs) and will need to rebound if San Diego has any hope of increasing their win total.
Batting 4th: Carlos Quentin - Left Fielder
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some "Hard Hittin’ Carlos Quentin," but it is difficult to get excited about him as this team’s cleanup hitter. In his four seasons with the Chicago White Sox, the concern was his health, not his talent, as he crushed 107 home runs and drove in 320 runs (despite batting .257) but missed 170 games because of various injuries. The only part of that that has wrung true during his two year stint as a Padre has been the health risk, as he has played in only 51.9% of games. He wasn’t brought in to be a .300 hitter, but his 119 point decline in batting average and 253 point dip in slugging percentage in home games last year simply isn’t going to cut it. In addition to struggling at Petco (he’s not the first hitter to do so), Quentin’s advanced metrics raised enough red flags to suggest the 31-year-old is no longer a middle of the order talent. In 2013, he recorded a career-worst 33.9% O-Swing (percentage of pitches a player swings at outside of the strike zone) and his lowest walk percentage since 2007. His ISO (isolated power: calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage) also hit its lowest mark since 2007 while his ground ball rate continued its upward trajectory. I wouldn’t mind the ground balls if it came at the expense of strikeouts, but it hasn’t (he struck out 42.1% more often than in his first season in San Diego), making Quentin a player trending in the wrong direction. If he can stay healthy, there is a chance he puts up serviceable numbers, but his health has been anything but assumed over his eight year career (98 games per season).
Batting 5th: Yonder Alonso – First Baseman
Alonso hasn’t been a disappointment in his time at San Diego, but he is slowly developing into a platoon option. Over the last three seasons, 80% of his long balls have come against right-handed pitchers while his batting average (+44 points) and OPS (+105 points) have also increased significantly. With minimal experience I’m not reading too far into his declining ISO, but it is worth monitoring. On the bright side, Alonso has consistently improved throughout the course of the season, as his batting line (.296/.365/.422) in the second half over the last three seasons nearly mirrors that of the much more highly thought of Eric Hosmer over the same stretch (.293/.348/.442). The 26-year-old isn’t going to be a 30 home run first baseman any time soon, but he has flashed middle of the order type of skills and has nice upside if he can start seasons the same way he has finished them.
Batting 6th: Jedd Gyorko - Second Baseman
Even with the pitcher friendly nature of Petco Park, the argument could be made that Gyorko was the most powerful second basemen in the league last season. His 23 homers trailed only Robinson Cano, and Gyorko actually averaged fewer at-bats per homer than the former Bronx Bomber. As statistically pleasing as his power was, the 25-year-old has plenty of room to improve. He averaged nearly four strikeouts per walk (Pedro Alvarez territory) and simply couldn’t produce when his teammates set the table. Gyorko’s batting average dropped 52 points when there were runners on base and another 44 points when those runners were in scoring position. His power came in spurts (two 22-day periods where he hit at least seven homers) and I would look for him to establish more consistency after a year of getting his feet wet at the major league level. A .249 batting average is what has him projected as the sixth hitter in this lineup, but should that improve (he did hit .328 in his final AAA season), Gyorko could become this teams primary run producer sooner rather than later. He is the next most valuable commodity in fantasy baseball after Cabrera, as he checks in as my 12th best second basemen and 136th overall player.
Batting 7th: Seth Smith - Right Fielder
Smith was brought in this offseason from Oakland, and while he isn’t a player to build an offense around, he is capable of succeeding in San Diego. His ground ball to fly ball rate has increased in back-to-back-to-back seasons, and that’s not a bad thing. Smith hasn’t shown much power since leaving Coors Field, and with his pitches per plate appearance also rising over those years, he projects as a pest that can get on base. Smith’s .253 batting average last season was unlucky (his BABIP was identical to what it was in 2011, when Smith hit .284) and he should be a reasonably productive slap hitter in the bottom third of the lineup.
Batting 8th: Nick Hundley - Catcher
Season by season, Hundley’s career has been full of inconsistencies, but his 2013 batting slash (.233/.290/.389) nearly mirrored his career line (.237/.296/.390) and is about what you can expect this year. Much like Alonso, Hundley has been much better against righties (a 72 point spike in batting average) and post all star break (+60 points) over the last three seasons, leaving the door open for him to put together an entire season. Statistically speaking, he was a plus-fielder for the third consecutive season, and that, along with his ability to manage an underrated pitching staff, are why he is the everyday starter.
Starting Pitcher #1: Andrew Cashner
I’m buying Cashner as a viable #1 starter after what I saw in his first full season as a starting pitcher. He posted a 3.09 ERA (better than "aces" James Shields and David Price) to go along with a very promising 1.13 WHIP (better than Matt Cain and Cole Hamels) while stretching his arm out to that of a starter (he threw 63.2 more innings last season than in the first three years of his career). Those numbers are phenomenal, but they aren’t the ones that have me giddy about his outlook in 2014. Cashner is not afraid to attack the strike zone, something that typically takes time to develop and is a huge asset while pitching at San Diego. Last season, Cashner walked fewer batters while pitching more innings than young guns in Shelby Miller and Jose Fernandez that the baseball community has labeled as future aces. He could very well establish himself this season as the best pitcher than few people know about, giving the Padres some stability in a rotation full of risk.
Starting Pitcher #2: Ian Kennedy
It was only three seasons ago when Kennedy tallied a 21-4 record with a sparkling 2.88 ERA and 198 punch-out’s, and he showed some signs of regaining that form last season. Consider this: in eight starts at home last year, Kennedy held opponents to a .223 batting average and struck out 10.15 batters per nine innings. In his 2011 breakout season, a season in which he finished behind only Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee in the Cy Young voting, opponents hit .227 against Kennedy and struck out 8.03 times per nine innings. He’s given up too many homers of late, but that has the potential to change at Petco, giving the 29-year-old Kennedy plenty of upside in 2014.
Starting Pitcher #3: Josh Johnson
Rolling the dice. That’s the only way to look at this signing as Johnson has had all sorts of arm troubles and has managed to start just 135 games in the last seven seasons (less than 15 starts three times over that stretch). He is another pitcher that has struggled with the gopher ball over his career (15 homers surrendered in 16 starts last year) that should benefit from moving to the third most pitcher friendly park in the majors (in terms of 2013 home run rate). Maybe San Diego catches lightning in a bottle and they get 30-plus starts out of JJ. But even a 15 start season at his career level (3.40 ERA and nearly one strikeout per inning) would justify this signing.
Starting Pitcher #4: Eric Stults
While the first three pitchers in this rotation have tremendous upside, Stults is who he is: a pitcher who will give the Padres a chance to win at home. He owns a respectable 3.62 ERA in his 47 starts for San Diego, but those numbers have been driven by his top notch efforts at Petco. Last season, Stults went 6-4 with a 3.06 ERA and a .233 BAA (Batting Average Against) at home and 5-9 with a 4.77 ERA and a .311 BAA on the road. In an ideal world, the Padres develop a fifth starter, allowing them to pick and choose their spots with Stults, as he can be an asset if used properly.
Closer: Huston Street
Street has produced solid numbers throughout his career (converting 85.1% of his save opportunities with a 2.98 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP) and has been even better as a member of the Padres (94.9% with 2.35/0.90). Much like Johnson, however, expecting a full season is unwise. After appearing in at least 63 games in four of his first five major league seasons, Street has failed to reach that plateau a single time in the last four years. Despite a rapidly declining strikeout rate (one fewer K in 2013 than in 2012 despite throwing 17.2 more innings), I am comfortable handing him the ball in the ninth inning of a one run ballgame because of his track record. I love the offseason acquisition of Joaquin Benoit, who is coming off of a career year with the Tigers (2.01 ERA and 9.8 k/9), as he has had recent success as both a set-up man (he’s presumed role in San Diego) and a closer.
Looking to talk Major League Baseball? Need help filling out your fantasy baseball roster? I’m always fielding questions on Twitter @unSOPable23 and would be happy to discuss.