Twitter Chat: 2/3/15 Edition

I’ll admit, when I called for questions on Twitter yesterday, I already had it in the back of my mind that the title to this article would be “Make-Believe Twitter Chat: 2/3/15 Edition.” It wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in my Twitter followers coming up with pressing questions — rather, I was more concerned that people would save their juicy inquiries for the more notable Padres chats that always seem to run in conflicting time-slots on Fridays.

I ended up receiving eight questions, which is awesome. In fact, I might try this on a semi-regular basis. Thanks for all the questions and, as always, thanks for reading.

I really like the current look of the bullpen, but my initial thought when I read this question was that every team’s bullpen looks pretty dominant. The specialization of relievers, increased velocity from guys who usually only throw an inning (tops), and failed starters converting to shutdown relief aces leaves every team, seemingly, with a plethora of solid options out of the pen. Just for kicks, I looked at the PECOTA projected WAR from each NL West team’s top six relief options:

bullpenWAR2

As you can see, outside of the last-place projected Rockies, the Padres don’t really differentiate themselves from the rest of the division in terms of bullpen prowess. Overall, though, the pen is in pretty good shape. Joaquin Benoit‘s transformed himself into a reliable late-inning guy, and any number of righties out there — Kevin Quackenbush, Dale Thayer, Shawn Kelley, Nick Vincent, Brandon Maurer — look like they could take over Benoit’s closer job if he’s ever dealt. So there’s plenty of depth from the right side, and that’s before you even consider potential starters who might ultimately be ticketed for relief work, like Brandon Morrow, or Josh Johnson, or (left-handed) Robbie Erlin.

If there’s a weakness, I think it’s the lack of a dominant lefty. Alex Torres sports the protective helmet nicely, but when you look at his track-record with any scrutiny, he’s more of a second tier lefty than a first-choice option. His 2013 campaign was fine, but last year was a major step back — a 3.33 ERA for a reliever in Petco is somewhere around replacement level, probably, and that 5.5 walks-per-nine figure is ugly on the moon.

To get back to your actual question, no, I wouldn’t quite put this year’s pen in the same category of the mid-2000s ones. Hoffman-Linebrink-Otsuka was a pretty nasty 1-2-3, and those bullpens always had guys like a Cla Meredith, Rudy Seanez, or Luke Gregerson putting up out-of-nowhere off-the-charts numbers. But if a couple of guys really break out — like a Mauer, Kelley, or Quackenbush — then this relief corps suddenly morphs into the all-world variety.

As Sac Bunt Chris mentioned, I kind of already covered the Solarte/Middlebrooks compare/contrast in some detail. The short version, for anyone who (understandably) doesn’t want to slog through 2,000 of my words on the subject:

I don’t love either guy, but I’d probably go with Solarte because he’s a switch-hitter, he offers a contrasting offensive style from the rest of the lineup (more on that later), and he’s had far more recent success than Middlebrooks.

As far as who is actually going to win the job, I’d probably guess Middlebrooks, simply because he offers more upside with the power and, probably more importantly, he was acquired by AJ Preller and co. for the more-valuable-than-you’d-think Ryan Hanigan. I’ll guess Solarte takes over Alexi Amarista‘s super utility role, getting plenty of playing time at third, second, and maybe even short with a fly-ball pitcher on the mound.

I’m not sure how Spangenberg fits, as the Padres already have a number of backup infield options. If he could handle short, he’d probably get a decent look there, but it’s unlikely that he’d stick defensively. On the current roster, it feels like he might be left without a significant role, at least next season.

If the Padres were set at first base and third base, I wouldn’t mind running out some combination of Alexi Amarista and Clint Barmes as a stopgap at short, I suppose. For now, though, with major question marks all over the infield (even second base isn’t a sure-thing), an Amarista/Barmes shortstop platoon is concerning.

On that note, I think there’s a chance the Padres still make a move to improve at short before the season starts. The recent rumor is that the Padres and Brewers have discussed a deal that would send former top 100 shortstop prospect Luis Sardinas to the Padres, though it doesn’t appear the sides are close to a trade. That’s a deal that makes some sense. Sardinas, who came to Milwaukee in the Yovani Gallardo-to-Texas deal earlier this offseason, is blocked with the Brewers at short by 24-year-old Jean Segura, and the Padres … well, the Padres need a shortstop.

Sardinas might not be an immediate upgrade over the Amarista/Barmes combo, as there are major questions about his bat. PECOTA, for instance, projects him to be below replacement level for 2015 (in just 124 plate appearances). There are things to like, though. His defense is generally regarded as well above average at short, and he’ll be just 22 in May. Even if he’s not an immediate upgrade, he certainly isn’t a significant downgrade, and maybe Sardinas grows into something for than just a glove-first guy given regular playing time.

I’ve gotta go with Derek Norris.

That’s a concern, definitely. The current lineup, if we consider both Middlebrooks and Amarista starters, has six right-handed hitters, one lefty, and one switch-hitter. And all of the best bats — Upton, Kemp, Myers, and Norris — swing from the right side.

I’m not sure how much impact that factor will actually have — I can’t really remember reading much about the effects of a righty/lefty-heavy lineup from a sabermetric perspective, and in doing a quick scan of Google and a few particular websites, I couldn’t find much of anything on the topic. (I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.)

But it definitely hurts from a strategic perspective. Despite the fact that the two best pitchers in the NL West in Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner are left-handed, most pitchers throw with the opposite hand, and the Padres will be at a disadvantage when they face those pitchers. A late-game scenario where the Padres might have Norris, Myers, Kemp, and Upton lined up in order is going to offer distinct advantages to bullpens with right-handed flamethrowers.

For what it’s worth, here’s a table with righty/lefty splits of the Padres projected right-handed hitters:

Player Slash line vs. RHP Slash line vs LHP
Justin Upton .272/.340/.458 .282/.393/.530
Matt Kemp .278/.333/.473 .331/.394/.556
Wil Myers .264/.323/.420 .242/.326/.680
Derek Norris .208/.305/.314 .292/.374/.486
Jedd Gyorko .226/.280/.379 .249/.324/.439
Will Middlebrooks .227/.271/.397 .261/.315/.443

There are some small samples there obviously, but this year’s Padres team will likely be somewhat hampered both when facing a right-handed starter and late in games vs righty-stacked pens. That’s a bit scary, and it would be nice if we could use some sort of time travel machine to convert Upton or Norris or Kemp into a lefty swinger.

It probably was Cameron Maybin, not that long ago. In 2011, he looked like a future perennial all-star — a 24-year-old speedy center fielder with plus base running skills and an improving bat — finally putting the prospect pedigree to good work. It’s been mostly downhill since — the improving bat stalled and the injuries became the main storyline, relegating Maybin to spare outfielder duties (albeit at the hefty price of $7 million).

The best player now? This one’s kind of easy for me: Justin Upton. He’s right in the middle of what should be his prime, he has a near spotless recent track-record of health, and he’s been an excellent offensive player in essentially every year of his career. Even the defense, which sometimes gets tossed in with the rest of the subpar Padres outfield, has been closer to league average than you might think. Heck, Upton’s even a plus base runner. If a current Padre has an MVP-type season in him for 2015, its Upton.

The only downside, unless the Padres open up the vault, is that he’ll only be around for one year.

I’ll go with Gyorko, though a reasonable case can probably made for Alonso. I’m not a huge fan of Gyorko’s approach at the plate, but he’s a second basemen with some legitimate pop. Those guys don’t grow on trees (or any variety of plant, for that matter). If he can just get the average back up into the .240-260 range, he should be fine. And if you chalk up last year’s struggles to injuries, at least in part, suddenly things don’t look so bad. He’s only 26, and he has a nice minor league resume and a good MLB debut season under his belt. There’s still a good bit to like.

Middlebrooks is the most likely to fall flat, I’d say. Middlebrooks has many of the same issues as Gyorko at the dish, as they both swing and miss too often, although Gyorko has the more accomplished track-record. Here’s Middlebrooks’ career whiffs per swing graph from Brooks Baseball:

plot_h_profile

You can see that lower right hand corner — likely a heavy dose of sliders — is one of Middlebrooks’ weak spots. Even if he makes contact with those pitches, he can’t do anything with them. And, as you can see from the graph, he doesn’t make much contact with much of anything outside the zone.

Hitting division III junior college pitching is difficult. Hitting major league pitching is something else altogether. It’s unclear, to this point, whether Middlebrooks is fit for this kind of gig.

The conventional choice here might be an outfielder — both (particularly) Kemp and Myers make a lot of sense. But my (not so outlandish) guess is that Tommy Medica gets a long look if Alonso’s bat never comes around. Baseball Prospectus‘ PECOTA, which I’ve reference a few times already, actually projects Medica (.242/.306/.429, .279 TAv)  to be slightly better than Alonso (.260/.323/.387, .269 TAv) next year.

The problem is that, unlike Alonso, Medica isn’t left-handed, so he’d fall in with the rest of the right-handed-laden lineup. And like Gyorko and Middlebrooks, Medica falls under the category of hacktastic righty. So there’s hope that Alonso’s bat turns the corner, because he provides the offense with a different look. But Medica’s not a bad insurance policy.

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  • randplaty

    An interesting article about unbalanced lineups from a left-handed perspective, though I think you could probably apply some of it to a righty-heavy lineup as well.
    http://www.hardballtimes.com/the-most-left-handed-lineups/

    • Interesting article, thanks. He actually has a table in there with the least left-handed lineups, and (oddly enough) the top three are all Padres teams from the late-’60s and the ’70s. Also, according to his research, there was no significant correlation between a teams lefty/righty lineup composition and its productivity.

      I don’t know, though. Still strikes me as a potential concern. Maybe something to look into more.