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Springtime Storylines: Is there life after Adrian Gonzalez for the San Diego Padres?

Mar 15, 2011, 10:00 AM EDT

Mat Latos

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season.  The latest: 2010’s biggest surprise, the San Diego Padres.

The Big Question: Is there life after Adrian Gonzalez?: My brother lives in San Diego and, over the past 15 years there, he has come to generally like the Padres. He’s an extremely casual fan of the game these days, however, so when he was in town visiting me last week it was no surprise that the biggest question he had for me was whether the Padres will continue to exist without Adrian Gonzalez. I think he asked me the same thing about Ken Caminiti in 1999 too.  Extremely casual fans in San Diego tend to really identify with a big slugging  superstar, probably because such beasts are rare in the 619.

Not that it’s a bad question. My brother will understandably look at a league leaders page in the Union-Tribune once or twice this spring and see that Brad Hawpe isn’t setting the world afire, and he will ask whether the Padres did the right thing in trading away their best player since Tony Gwynn walked the Earth.  The casual fans like him won’t be given much comfort by the addition of competent role players like Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson. They’re certainly not going to buy into the notion that the haul the Padres got for Gonzalez — Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Reymond Fuentes — was worth it, because they won’t appear before their eyes in 2011.  The astute Padres fan knows that some things in life are necessary when your club doesn’t have an unlimited payroll, and one of those things is parting ways with a superstar a year away from free agency.

Yes, there’s life in San Diego after Adrian Gonzalez. I believe that Jed Hoyer made the best trade he could under the circumstances and that his approach to rebuilding the Padres is the right one.  I believe, however, that 2010’s unexpectedly good year — which won’t be repeated — and the loss of their best player will kind of crush the mood of Padres fans who have to be cajoled into showing up to that beautiful ballpark even when the team is winning.  The mood, in other words, won’t line up with the team’s competitive trajectory, with the former taking a sharp dive and the latter leveling out compared to last year, but still trending upward.

So what else is going on?

  • For all of the fretting about Gonzalez, the Padres did not contend on the power of their offense last season. Indeed, they were near the bottom of the NL in runs scored. Their 90 wins came by virtue of allowing the fewest runs in the league. Their pitching staff is back mostly intact this year and how it goes is how the Padres will go.  I’m a Mat Latos fan, but I fear that the other guys — Richard, Stauffer, LeBlanc — are Petco creations. Sure, they’re still pitching in Petco, but I could see them backsliding.
  • That said, the Padres have a nice little starting pitcher juvenation machine going. Jon Garland came in last year to the friendly (for pitchers) confines of Petco Park, regained some confidence and took his show up to L.A. This year Aaron Harang is in town to, presumably, do the same thing.  If Harang is effective for the Padres it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see this pattern repeated over and over again, with the Padres benefiting from down-on-their-luck pitchers treating them like a Hollywood starlet treats the Betty Ford Clinic, and doing so on the cheap.
  • Heath Bell may be the biggest name on the team and, like Gonzalez was, he’s poised for free agency after this year. Do the Padres keep him?  On the one hand, Bell is an excellent closer who wants to stay in San Diego and said he’d take a hometown discount to do it.  On the other hand, an excellent closer on a multi-year deal is one luxury a rebuilding team with the Padres’ payroll constraints does not need. Frankly I’d be shocked if Bell was wearing Padres colors in 2012. If the Padres stink this year, they trade him. If they compete, they let him walk.
  • Is there anyone here to lead these guys? In addition to Gonzalez, the Padres lost David Eckstein, Chris Young, Yorvit Torrealba and Matt Stairs. Your mileage on the value of “veteran presence” may vary, but is there anyone on this club who can tell someone else to cut it out when they’re being a jackwagon? Is there anyone who — on a really bad night — can stand in front of reporters and let the other players skulk out of the clubhouse?  Put differently: can Ryan Ludwick truly lead this team?  [dramatic music swells].

So how are they gonna do?

I picked the Padres last in 2010 and they fought for the division until the last day of the season, so what the hell do I know?  Still, I don’t see them pulling that trick a second time. It’s a team that had trouble scoring runs with Adrian Gonzalez in the lineup, so they may be downright horrific without him.  The staff is still good, but I have a hunch that they’ll experience some growing pains and, in some cases, will be exposed.  I also think they’ll be playing to a lot of empty houses this year, and that kind of saps a guy after a while.

Fourth place is really the best I can see for the Padres this year.  And if they surprise? Well, I have a whole other year to explain why I was wrong. Again.

  1. beantownsports247 - Mar 15, 2011 at 10:47 AM

    The simple answer is NO . Rizzo will be in the MLB in a couple years but he will never be an A-gon , Casey Kelly has bust written all over him he has gotten crushed in double A . Hoyer also didn’t have much choice seeing as he was going to walk after next season , lose lose situation . Red Sox are happy about it though .

    • b7p19 - Mar 15, 2011 at 10:58 AM

      It’s not bad enough that you got our best player, but now you feel you need to trash talk what you gave up? Of course they will never get the same production coming back. And people wonder why the world hates the Red Sox. They are pretty much the Yankees with more annoying fans. Had to listen to them cry for 86 years and now we get to listen to them boast over and over. Picking on Padre fans though? Get a life. Good luck buying your next championship.

      • b7p19 - Mar 15, 2011 at 11:04 AM

        Sorry, I’m a little sensitive to Sox and Yankee fans. Lifetime of getting beat up will do that to you.

  2. icanspeel - Mar 15, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    Sure the Padres lost their best hitter in Adrian Gonzalez, but people fail to realize last year besides him just about every other position under performed offensively. The Padres plan this year was to improve just about every other position for the downgrade at first. Sadly even if most of the players have average years they will still be better than last years stats. With that being said the Padres will go with the same strategy this year as last. Keep the game close or grab a short lead after 6 innings, then throw in the big guns from the bullpen to the hold the lead. I am not sure if they will take the division, but I can see them in 2nd and at least competing

  3. b7p19 - Mar 15, 2011 at 10:52 AM

    I’m seeing 78-84 wins and a 3rd place finish for my Pads. Good starting pitching and possibly the best bullpen in the majors (arguable I know) will carry the team to a respectable season. There are a number of guys right at the brink of their prime that could break out and surprise some people (Venable, Hundley, Headley, Maybin), but it’s tough to replace an MVP canidate like Adrian.

    • seattlej - Mar 15, 2011 at 11:15 AM

      Yeah, the most interesting player to me on this team is Headley. The guy put up one of the quietest 4.6 WAR seasons you’ll ever see. That’s not that far off of what Gonzalez did. Granted, it was mostly on the strength of his glove and he’s not likely to reproduce such an excellent defensive season. But there is certainly room for growth in the bat and maybe even a 20 HR, .300 season could be in the cards at some point (which is probably something like a 30 HR, .325 season if he played in a neutral park).

  4. beantownsports247 - Mar 15, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    b7p19 living in Florida i have watched Maybin play and you are right he does have a ton of potential , best of luck.

    • b7p19 - Mar 15, 2011 at 11:03 AM

      You shouldn’t be able to drop nice comments like that after I overreact to your first one. Now I just look like a schmuck. Oh well, thanks for the nice words about Maybin, even though “potential” is a bad word in San Diego. (Sean Burroughs or Ruben Rivera anybody?)

      • seattlej - Mar 15, 2011 at 11:16 AM

        Yeah… the Pads are the only team that has had failed prospects.

      • b7p19 - Mar 15, 2011 at 11:25 AM

        I hear you, but I would say they have more than most simply because small market teams tend to give more chances to prospects and often times push them quicker. Matt Bush is just a little to fresh in my mind I guess.

      • monsieurbear - Mar 15, 2011 at 7:27 PM

        b7p19,

        San Diego is the second most populous city in California and the eighth most populous in the US. Of the cities with MLB teams, only NY, LA, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, and Philadelphia are more populous (and the top three have two teams each; Phoenix and Philly are not much bigger). How is San Diego a “small market team”?

      • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 15, 2011 at 7:35 PM

        You’re going by city limits size. In terms of metro areas, it’s 17th in the country, just behind Minneapolis and just above St. Louis. LA, SF, Riverside/Ontario/San Berdoo are three metro areas larger than San Diego in the state.

        And it’s metro that matters, because that’s what determines TV ad rates and ratings and all of the things that make a team real money.

      • monsieurbear - Mar 15, 2011 at 11:15 PM

        I’m not sure that I would consider the Twins and Cards “small market”.

  5. beantownsports247 - Mar 15, 2011 at 12:04 PM

    No problem it is understandable , we have def bought some players with big contracts like the yankees but we do have alot of home grown talent ( Pedroia , Youk , Lester , Bard, Bucholz , Papleblow , jacoby , kalish ) Wasn’t hating on the Padres , do like them in the NL if i was rooting for anyone because i think Jeds a great guy , he will do a good job figuring the situation out in SD , no worries . Rizzo will be a beast in a few years , Kelly DOES have potential just had a few bad outings last year in double AA , again , best of luck to the organisation.

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