The San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers kick-off the (domestic) 2014 MLB regular season from Petco Park this Sunday night. While the Dodgers are already off to a hot start as defending NL West champs, sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks in a two-game mini-set from the Land Down Under, the Padres hope to reverse the recent trend of mid-70 win totals and emerge as a contender for the first time since 2010. Can they pose a legit threat to the Dodgers and Giants? Can Jedd Gyorko turn his solid debut season into star-level performance? Can anyone stay healthy?
It’s time to find out in the 2014 edition of Bold Predictions:
The Padres will win 77 games and finish tied for third-place in the NL West (with the Diamondbacks)
I wasn’t around for the Padres Public win predictions, and with Cameron Maybin and Josh Johnson (among others) succumbing to injuries since they were published, I’m slightly less optimistic than the consensus about the Padres 2014 win total.
There are positives going into the season, for sure. There’s an intriguing collection of up-the-middle talent in Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera, Yasmani Grandal and (when healthy) Cameron Maybin. Chase Headley is still around at the hot corner, at least until the trade deadline. Andrew Cashner has a chance to develop into a legit staff ace. The bullpen is solid and full of depth.
There are too many negatives for the Padres to morph into serious contenders in 2014. The injury issues have become a sort of epidemic, buoyed by the Padres willingness to acquire players with significant injury track records (and a good dose of bad luck).
The starting rotation, now without Josh Johnson for at least a month, is starting to look like a weak spot. While Andrew Cashner has ace potential, his FIP last season was a good-not-great 3.35 and the converted reliever hasn’t pitched more than 200 innings in a season. His injury red flags are still prominent, too, with major shoulder problems in 2011 and 2012. Ian Kennedy is coming off career worsts in ERA (4.91) and walk percentage (9.1) and the rest of the staff members — Tyson Ross, Eric Stults, and (probably) Robbie Erlin — still have a lot to prove. And Johnson, already saddled with a somewhat lengthy stay on the disabled list, poses an even greater-than-expected health risk when he returns.
The outfield, once loaded with depth, is one Carlos Quentin DL trip away from giving Alexi Amarista more unwarranted playing time. And until Cameron Maybin returns, Will Venable is out of place in center and Seth Smith/Chris Denorfia is a relatively light-hitting right field platoon.
Young players at premium positions and a deep farm system give a glimpse of hope in the near future, but an injury-ravaged roster will leave the Padres with another 70-something (okay, 77!) win season in 2014.
Jedd Gyorko will hit 30 home runs
Maybe this doesn’t seem that bold, as Gyroko popped 23 home runs last year in 525 plate appearances as a rookie. But consider this: since Petco opened in 2004, only two Padres – Adrian Gonzalez (four times) and Chase Headley – have hit 30 or more home runs in a single season.
(Prepare for ultra-specific Baseball Reference Play Index search.)
Just to put things into historical perspective, I used Play Index to find all players who hit between 20-25 home runs in their first season and debuted between the ages 22-24. You know, like Gyorko. What did they do as a follow-up? The group of nine (one was eliminated due to spending time in the service) averaged 23 home runs in their first season and 24 in their second season. Only Ralph Kiner, Cory Snyder, and Wally Joyner hit over 30 homers in their second season, though. Of the six that didn’t, only Joe Gordon managed to hit over 20 in year two (he hit 28). In fact, excluding Kiner, no player in the group turned into a perennial 30-home run guy.
See, it’s a bold prediction!
The biggest factor for Gyorko’s quest to 30 dingers this year might revolve more around improving his contact ability than his actual power stroke. Last year, his strikeout percentage jumped from around 18 percent in the minors to 23.4 percent in the bigs, and his walk rate dipped to 6.3 percent. As Geoff Young outlined last year, Gyorko lost control of the strike zone in the second half of the season and, while that didn’t hurt his power game, it did damage his overall value.
While Gyorko might continue hitting for power with a poor approach, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to sustain the 15.9 percent HR/FB rate (34th in MLB) he put up last year. In the end, more contact – specifically more good contact – should equate to more power.
Chase Headley will be traded at the deadline
Earlier this offseason, I wrote about the Padres missing their opportunity to sign Chase Headley to a long-term extension. While it would have been nice to have Headley around for another couple of years at, let’s say, $15 million per, he’s now too close to free agency to represent a wise investment. At this point, not only is a long-term deal unlikely, it also wouldn’t be a particularly wise move for a team in the Padres tax bracket.
Whether the Padres trade Headley at the deadline ultimately comes down to a number of questions: Are the Padres still in contention in late-July? What kind of season is Headley having? Can San Diego acquire more value in prospects at the deadline than they would by holding onto Headley and receiving draft pick compensation?
Often times contending teams are willing to overpay at the deadline to add a “final piece” for the playoff push, and Headley could represent that for someone in need of third base help. Here’s a list of teams projected to win at least 80 games with potential issues at third base (both projections from Baseball Prospectus/PECOTA):
Ignoring for a second that PECOTA projects Headley to be worse (.278/1.6) than a couple of the players listed above (most projection systems are more fond of him), that’s a pretty healthy potential market for the third basemen’s services, especially when you consider it ignores teams projected just below 80 wins. Hopefully, for the Padres sake, one of those teams develops a glaring hole at a third and is willing to overpay for Headley.
The Padres will sign both Everth Cabrera and Jedd Gyorko to long-term deals
While two contract extensions during the season might seem unlikely if you’ve followed the Chase Headley extension saga, in-season deals have been increasingly popular in recent years across MLB. Just last year Will Venable, Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia, Jose Altuve, Anthony Rizzo, and Elvis Andrus signed extensions during the season. In 2012, both Carlos Quentin and Huston Street signed extensions with San Diego, and stars like Joey Votto, Matt Cain, and Cole Hamels inked monster deals elsewhere. (Thanks to the MLB Trade Rumors Extension Tracker).
An in-season extension for Gyorko and/or* Cabrera makes sense for a lot of reasons — (1) seemingly everyone thinks it would be a good idea; (2) it would give the Padres a longer look at both players before making a long-term commitment; and (3) it would help reduce the sting from Headley’s likely departure.
*And, really, how can you sign one and not the other?
While extending players like Gyorko and Cabrera makes sense from both a baseball and financial perspective, it would also give Padres management a chance to rebuild trust with fans who’ve had to sit through multiple ownership/front office changes and a general lack of direction over the past few years.
Carlos Quentin will play at least 100 games
Switching from hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular to Petco Park hasn’t negatively affected Carlos Quentin’s offensive game any. In fact, he’s put up better raw numbers in his brief Padres career than he did in Chicago (.257/.352/.505 to .268/.368/.498). Once you factor in the differences in parks, it isn’t even close. Since Petco opened, Quentin has posted the fourth and fifth highest single-season OPS+ (minimum 300 plate appearances), behind only Adrian Gonzalez (twice) and Brian Giles.
The problem, of course, is that Quentin has struggled to stay on the field, undergoing two knee surgeries since coming to San Diego. Prior to 2012, Quentin missed significant time with a separated shoulder, plantar fasciitis, a wrist surgery, a strained hamstring, a shoulder injury, and Tommy John surgery.
While the Padres have been hit hard by injuries so far this spring, Quentin has managed to stay healthy. The latest knee surgery appears to have went well, and he did reach 130 games twice with the White Sox. It’s only a matter of time, you would think, before Quentin’s able to string together another season without a major setback. Hopefully it’s this one.
I’ve run out of boldness. What are your Bold Predictions for 2014?