Instead of the usual end-of-month statistical spew that I’ve been known to present in the past, I decided to try something different this year. I’ve asked several Padres bloggers to offer their thoughts on the team.
Participants this month include Anthony Trifiletti (Friar Watch), Peter Friberg (various; currently covering prospects here at Ducksnorts under the title “Padres Prospect Report”), Jim Higgins (FriarBall), John Conniff (MadFriars.com, a web site that covers the Padres’ minor league organization), Corey Brock (Padres.com), Ed Barnes (On the Road with Matt & Mud), Dex and jbox (Gaslamp Ball), Rich Campbell (San Diego Spotlight), and yours truly.
I always feel like I can learn more by listening to what others have to say than by yapping all the time. Without further ado, here is our first monthly roundtable. Enjoy!
Geoff: It’s hard to believe that a full month of the baseball season has already come and gone. Seems like yesterday we were just starting to think about spring training. Of course, it’s still too early to make any definitive judgments about the 2007 Padres, but I’m sure you all are noticing some trends emerging. What has impressed you the most about the Padres through the first month of the season?
Anthony: The bullpen. New additions Heath Bell and Kevin Cameron have been outstanding, Doug Brocail has been effective, Cla Meredith looks even better than last year, Trevor is Trevor and Scott Linebrink has lost weight and seems to have regained some life on his pitches. We can’t realistically expect them to maintain this pace but they should continue to be one of the best ‘pens in baseball.
Jim: I think it has to be the bullpen. They started off hot by not allowing a single run in the first 28 1/3 innings the group collectively pitched and except for a couple of hiccups, they have kept teams off the scoreboard and have closed out a lot of games by preserving wins. The new additions in the ‘pen are looking sharp and I agree with Anthony that this group should be one of the top ‘pens in baseball all year.
Corey: The easy answer here, of course, is the bullpen. I’m coming from the American League where, for whatever reason, it’s OK to have a bullpen filled with guys who carry 4.00-plus ERAs who, somehow, manage to remain gainfully employed year after year. I had heard so many good things about the Padres’ bullpen and watched them in spring training, which isn’t really a measure of anything (just ask Cla Meredith) for anything other than getting your arm in shape. It’s not just the ability to hold leads and bridge the gap between the starter and Trevor Hoffman, but it’s how they do it. Meredith’s stuff is as nasty as I’ve seen in either league. Heath Bell’s power sinker and curve have me thinking this guy has future closer written all over him. It’s the arms and stuff, not just the results, from the guys in the bullpen that have impressed me the most. Nasty? Yes. Scary? Yes. Dominant? Completely.
Ed: How can anyone not be impressed by the bullpen? If there is a common thread among teams that tend to overachieve when looking at Pythagorean W-L, it sure seems to be a strong bullpen. If you look at the Padres the last two seasons, they’ve outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 wins in 2005 and 2 wins in 2006. Right now they are actually below their Pythagorean win total but I believe that will change by the end of the year. This bullpen will allow the team to stay in games that they shouldn’t be able to all season long. Now the hitters just need to hold up their end of the bargain so games don’t go 17 innings like the marathon on Sunday.
Dex: The bullpen has been extremely impressive (the couple of blown saves notwithstanding). Though I know that Kevin Towers has the gift when it comes to identifying relief pitchers, it still absolutely amazes me that Cla Meredith, Scott Linebrink, Heath Bell and Kevin Cameron aren’t closers. It’s like the Justice League of America in the bullpen. It’s like the Thundercats. I feel like music from an action movie should be playing when the bully comes in.
Rich: The pitching and the bullpen, even though I knew it would be good. The pitching staff as a whole has been fantastic. That’s the most obvious answer, true. But it is obvious for a reason.
Geoff: Okay, but does anyone like the bullpen? Seriously, I’m in total agreement here. It never ceases to amaze me that Towers is able to reload the ‘pen every year without spending big money on big names. We knew about the big three, but Bell has been fantastic and Cameron — despite occasional lapses in control — looks like a guy who should stick around a while. Anything else stand out for you this month?
jbox: I’ve been really impressed with Josh Bard‘s hitting. Especially after coming off the DL — it didn’t seem to faze him at all. I was afraid Adrian Gonzalez was going to go through a sophomore slump this season, but he has shown great consistency, power and clutchness. I’ve also been impressed with Bud Black. I don’t think I’ve heard one complaint about him this season (except about him removing Gonzalez in that 17-inning ordeal); to me that means he’s doing his job well because he hasn’t been an issue. Marcus Giles has blown me away both offensively and defensively; KT made some excellent moves in the off-season.
Rich: Defensively, this team is better than I thought. Much of that is because Kouz has been far from a liability at third and because I’m prone to forget about fly balls lost in the gloaming or the sun. If not for the uncharacteristic blips from a Gold Glover and a couple of mental mistakes (the full windup, Jake???), we would have a minimum of three more wins.
Peter: That the Padres are in the top 5 in home runs in the NL (with 25 in April). I thought they could have 7-9 guys hit 15-25, but I still expected them to be mid-pack at best.
Geoff: That is very surprising. It’ll be interesting to see how well they’re able to sustain this as the season progresses. I still hold out hope that Khalil Greene will turn into an offensive force at shortstop. Speaking of the farm system (from which Greene graduated not long ago), what are you liking so far at the minor-league level for the Pads?
Peter: I’m impressed with how well Will Venable is acquitting himself in Double-A in only his second full season of professional baseball (skipping Hi-A).
John: How well third baseman Chase Headley has hit for power. All of us knew he would hit for average and draw his walks, but a slugging percentage of .600 plus was a big surprise. He’s put on about 15 pounds in an attempt to get stronger and he should be in Portland by mid-season.
Geoff: It would be nice to see guys like Venable and Headley continue to develop. More bats are always welcome, which leads us to our next question: What do you think the Padres could be doing better?
Jim: Getting runners home. It seemed like there was a stretch there where the team was averaging between 10-15 baserunners per game but only scoring three runs. That ain’t going to cut it in a competitive division that can put runs on the board. You can’t win games by leaving guys on base, especially when you are getting more than enough hits.
Corey: I’ve watched these guys on the road and at home enough now, even though the sample size isn’t huge, to see that there’s something about playing at PETCO Park that turns good hitters into Rey Quinones (sorry, lame Mariners’ reference). Again, I’m coming from watching games at what’s regarded as a pitcher’s ballpark at Safeco Field. But PETCO Park makes Safeco almost look like Coors Field. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard so many well-struck balls end up as outs here, and routine ones at that. What can they do about that? I don’t know, but I thought it bears mentioning.
Geoff: Welcome to our world, Corey! There have been definite concerns about the offense ever since the Padres moved to Petco, and I imagine those will continue to exist into the future. I’m not sure I have an answer for that other than guys need to figure out a way to deal with their environment, which sounds like a horrible copout. Leaving that aside for now, what else could this club be doing better?
Anthony: Holding baserunners. Opponents are 21 for 22 against the Padres, by far the worst record in the league. Last season opponents stole 150 bases (most in the league) and were thrown out only 26 times (fewest in the league). You know you’re in trouble when Mike Piazza leaves and you get worse at throwing out baserunners.
Corey: Instead of focusing on the offense, I think that the pitchers need to do a better job of holding guys on base. I realize Bard/Bowen/LaForest will never be confused for I-Rod but that’s hardly the point. They are simply not getting much help. Six stolen bases allowed in three games over the weekend, although Juan Pierre runs on everyone.
Ed: Corey’s point about holding runners on is quite valid. Sure the catchers aren’t the best catch and throw guys in the world but the pitchers aren’t helping them at all. Between Chris Young, Jake Peavy and Greg Maddux, you’ve got three pitchers who don’t really bother too much with holding runners on. Young and Peavy are very slow to the plate, giving the catchers no shot. I understand wanting to get the man at the dish but base stealers are 28 for 31 against the Padres right now. Guys like Russell Martin are running wild. We can safely say this wasn’t all on Piazza after the first month of 2007.
Dex: The Padres could definitely be holding baserunners better. I wonder if this is a case of misunderstanding the available data. I’ve read the same Baseball Prospectus and Bill James essays that question the importance of the stolen base since most baserunners aren’t successful enough at it and the value of a runner at second base is only incrementally more favorable when compared to the risk. However, in the Padres case, it feels like they’ve taken that data and said, “Well that just means that we don’t have to worry about steals.” I mean, come on. At least throw over a couple times to keep the guy close to the bag. At least acknowledge the guy’s there. It doesn’t take a rocket arm to ensure that the other team’s catcher isn’t stealing bases on you.
And only as I finish writing this answer do I look over and realize Ed and Corey have mentioned the same thing. See!? It’s not just the crazy Gaslamp Ball guy who thinks so!
Geoff: The crazy Ducksnorts guy will pile on as well. It’s got to be frustrating if you’re Rob Bowen (who seems to have the strongest arm) and you make a perfect throw to second but still aren’t even close to nailing the guy. To Dex’s point, I tend not to worry a lot about stolen bases, but even I find what opponents are doing a bit alarming. When teams are running that often, with that kind of success rate, they’re essentially taking an extra base without incurring any real risk. The Padres are giving away bases. You can get away with that every now and then (I think of the game a few years ago where the Marlins swiped 10 bases in a game against Stan Spencer and the Padres still won), but in the long run, it seems to me that’ll catch up with you. Anything else?
Peter: Not much, which scares me. As well as they’re doing as a team, some “regression to the mean” might be coming. Individually, Clay Hensley, Mike Cameron, and Kevin Kouzmanoff are each struggling more than I expected. As an organization, the scouting team needs to do a better job of identifying upper-tier pitchers. In 2005 the Padres drafted Cesar Ramos 35th overall. In doing so they passed on Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden. Now sure, you could say that with any pick, but when it comes to pitchers they’ve gone the “safe” route too often and now the organization is completely devoid of sure-thing upper-tier pitchers (of course the BP caveat of “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect” applies).
jbox: The Padres are doing decent but have left a lot of room for improvement. They really need to be bringing in men in scoring position. With their anemic offense they really need to start advancing runners whether that means hitting, sac flies or bunts. Geoff Blum, Kouz and Mike Cameron need to start hitting if this club is to be successful.
Rich: The sabermetric crowd will hate this answer: productive outs. I’m seeing far too many people stranded on third. Whatever happened to a ground ball to the right side or a lazy fly ball with a man on third and less than two outs? Also, our strikeouts have not only been too common, they have been most horribly timed.
Geoff: Sabermetrics or not, there is something to be said for playing good fundamental baseball.
John: Obviously that Kevin Kouzmanoff, our number one prospect, hasn’t hit. I still think he’ll perform if the Padres stick with him his numbers in Double-A and Triple-A are too good. I’m surprised, though, how good his defense has been. Also, I would have like to see Paul McAnulty get a little bit more playing time on the big club, but it’s hard to argue with what Jose Cruz Jr. has been doing in left field.
Geoff: True dat. Cruz certainly came out of nowhere. Who else has surprised you — positively or negatively — in the early going?
Anthony: Clay Hensley seems to have lost his mechanics, and his command and movement have suffered. Clay has been effective in short stretches but then seems to come apart after 3 or 4 innings, perhaps due to the blister that flared up at the end of spring training. A move to the bullpen might be the best move for Clay at this point but the Padres ‘pen is stacked and there’s no credible alternative for the rotation.
Peter: Hensley’s struggles.
Geoff: Agreed. I think Hensley took a lot of us by surprise. In a vacuum, I like Anthony’s idea of shifting him back to the ‘pen, at least temporarily, but that makes no sense given the makeup of the current team. Hensley has pitched a little better the last couple times out, so hopefully he can build on that.
Jim: I know it’s only April but Adrian Gonzalez seems to really be developing into a solid cleanup hitter. He’s already driven in one-quarter of the runs he did last year and he should exceed his home run numbers, too, even if he slumps at some point. I felt the Padres lacked a proven RBI machine heading into the season but Gonzalez is proving to be the one guy who can get runners home. If the Padres had another Gonzalez, they might not be having problems driving in runs consistently like they are now.
Corey: One, I think the division is much better than I originally thought. I saw most of these teams a year ago in interleague play and felt it was a pretty weak division. I think there’s a lot of parity this season and I have been very impressed by the Dodgers — their speed, diverse offense and the arms.
On a separate note, I really thought Kouzmanoff was going to fare better out of the chute than he has. I didn’t think he’d be an All-Star but a guy who could contribute in the lower third of the order. After watching him for a month, I think he needs some Triple-A time. Yes, he was a .332 career hitter in the minor keagues but only 102 of those at-bats came at Triple-A. I know the really good hitters are able to bypass Triple-A but Kouzmanoff is at a critical point where he needs to get his confidence back and the only way to do that is hit. Bud Black has said you can’t get a good read on a hitter, nor is it fair to judge one, until he gets 100 at-bats under his belt. Kouz has 67 at-bats and is hitting .119. I wonder if when Russell Branyan comes off the bereavement list, Kouz doesn’t go to Portland.
Ed: How can you not call Kouzmanoff disappointing so far? Like any Padre fan, you want to see this kid do well but right now it has to be difficult for him mentally. After his walk-off single early in the month or his home run off Jason Schmidt at Dodger Stadium, I was hoping he’d turn the corner and start to hit more consistently. Still, here we are at the end of the month and he has eight hits. He needs a few hits that he doesn’t deserve in the worst way, be it a 15 hopper through the infield, a Texas leaguer, a pop fly down the lines, something like that to get him going, but unless a few of those come soon, it might be time to send him to Portland.
Dex: Kouz surprises me. He’s just absolutely fooled at the plate. His swings don’t even look confident. I had been told by so many people that he’d be the real deal, I guess I just never anticipated that he could start slow… Or at least not this slow.
Rich: The rookie Kevins, Kouz and Cameron. Kouzmanoff hasn’t hit, but we’ve learned that he is quite passable on defense. We won’t be rearranging Cammy’s Gold Gloves to make room in the case, but he is not a butcher. The one thing we did figure he would do is hit, and so far that hasn’t happened. But I still think it will. I would keep him up with the club, although I would play Russell Branyan a bit more.
Geoff: With the recent history at third base, expectations have been very high for Kouz. As frustrating as it’s been for us to watch, I can only imagine what it’s like to go through. Maybe a few weeks of destroying Triple-A pitchers would do the trick. Fortunately, there have been some positives as well. Right?
Ed: Marcus Giles has been a pleasant surprise for me. I liked him to bounce back from the 2006 because he’d be healthy, he had a strong finish last season and he had a very low BABIP, but he’s much better in the field than I realized. Hopefully his bruised ribs from Sunday’s game aren’t too serious.
Dex: Marcus Giles has been a surprise to me. Count me in the group who didn’t think that San Diego and being around family would have any sort of significant effect. I guess there’s no place like home.
Ed: I’m also shocked that the Mets couldn’t find a place for Heath Bell. They really had no room for a guy that pumps 95 and has a useful breaking pitch? Really?
Geoff: Yeah, I’ve been scratching my head over Bell pretty much since the season started. You never know how a guy will respond to a particular situation, but I agree with Corey that this kid looks like a future closer. Acknowledging that the Mets have a strong bullpen, and intending no disrespect to Ben Johnson, I have a hard time understanding this one.
Ed: Kevin Cameron and his cutter have also been a surprise. I talked to Darren Balsley about him during spring training and he said he was impressed with his cutter. Now that we’ve gotten out of Arizona, we’re all seeing what Balsley was seeing. This Rule V pick is working out better than Jason Szuminski or Kory DeHaan.
Rich: Cameron has been a wonderful surprise: 12 2/3 without giving up a run, poised and confident; not what I would expect from a Rule V guy. Great pick by KT. Imagine that… a good decision about the bullpen from Kevin Towers. Amazing! (tongue firmly in cheek)
jbox: I’m surprised by the number of mental errors that we’ve seen in the last week: Peavy’s self-proclaimed “brain fart” Monday night pitching from the windup with a man on first, Kouz not taking third base when Cameron was out at home, Adrian hesitating and missing an opportunity to get an important out in the ninth inning, Mike Cameron misplaying balls hit to the outfield.
Peavy also has surprised me. After last year I started forgetting that Peavy was good. Watching this year, I find myself saying, “Hey, I remember that guy from 2005.”
Geoff: Yeah, it’s nice to have Jake back to his old self.
Dex: One more surprise is Jose Cruz Jr. I had no idea he was good at baseball.
Ed: Jose Cruz Jr. and the entire left field position has been incredibly productive. After the way this guy has been released by team after team the last few years, I wasn’t sure how useful he’d be unless he was facing a left handed pitcher. He’s had a great April and is forcing Bud Black’s hand when making out the lineup card.
Geoff: Cruz has blown me away. I thought he was done and didn’t seriously expect him to contribute anything, but he’s been outstanding at the plate and in the field. How about down on the farm?
John: I think Matt Bush may finally put together a decent, but not great, season at the plate. There doesn’t seem to be as much pressure on him this year and with that lineup he should see plenty of good pitches to hit.
If you look past the errors, which will go down as gets older, he can play the position defensively. He’s got the best infield arm of anyone in the organization or on the big club.
Geoff: That’s encouraging. I’m not getting my hopes up, but it would be nice if the Padres could get at least some return on their investment.
Well, thatâ€™s April for you: not as good as it could have been, but not horrible either. Weâ€™ve got a long ways till the finish line. No doubt it will be fun to see how things unfold over the summer.
Thanks, guys, for joining me in this discussion. I hope everyone enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed putting it together. We’ll get another roundtable going next month. Meanwhile, be sure to visit and support these fine Padres bloggers.