What To Look For This Offseason

And so it begins.

The Padres offseason quest to improve their team and move up in the standings has begun.

Where should the Padres turn their attention? To answer that question, let’s conduct a position-by-position analysis:

Catcher: As with last year, the Padres will begin 2013 the same way they did in 2012: with Nick Hundley as their starter, and Yasmani Grandal set to arrive around June (in 2012 due to a suspension, in 2013 due to recovering from a major injury).

Hundley is like how Chris Gomez was when he played for the Padres (1996-2000): you can get by with him, but you can also do a whole lot better. While Hundley did hit for more power this year (13 home runs), he does not hit enough to justify being an everyday starter–his .233/.290/.389 line is virtually identical to his career numbers: .237/.296/.390.

A lot will hinge upon Grandal’s return. If he hits like he did in 2012, the Padres will likely trade Hundley. If not, then they may feel pressured to call up top prospect Austin Hedges sooner than they otherwise would. A natural behind the plate, Hedges does need to work on his hitting skills, and so needs more seasoning in the minors. He may come up for a “cup of coffee” in September, but he likely won’t be in the bigs to stay until 2015 at the earliest.

Bottom line: If Grandal hits when he returns, he’s going to be the starting catcher for at least the next two years. At that point, the Padres front office will be in the driver’s seat, having two major-league-ready catchers in Grandal and Hedges. So for now, he Padres won’t be trading to upgrade this position.

First Base: For the first third of the season, Yonder Alonso was improving off of his 2012 rookie campaign: he had six home runs, and so was on pace to hit exactly 18. Not bad for a guy who supposedly doesn’t have much home run pop.

But then, he broke his hand and missed a month. Afterwards, he had only one extra base hit (a double) the remainder of the season.

He is a possible trade prospect, although the Padres would likely have to get very creative to move him. To upgrade at first, they would have to move Alonso, who would then be without a position. In that case, they would have to offer a young starting pitcher (Robbie Erlin or Burch Smith), maybe a reliever, and Alonso to a team that has those specific needs. In short, Padre fans should expect to see Alonso back with the Padres next year, which giving his natural talent as a hitter is not a bad thing.

Second Base: Though he hit some speed bumps along the way, Jedd Gyorko showed that he belongs here. He could develop into the next Jeff Kent.

He’s not going anywhere. Period.

Third Base: Chase Headley is the big question mark this offseason. While he came back down to earth from his breakout 2012 season, he still has value as a strong defensive third baseman with power who can also steal a few bases (17 in ’12).

On the one hand, they could trade him, especially if they can’t work out a long-term deal for him. The pro’s of this are that they would then receive a bushel of talent in return–perhaps a young power-hitting outfielder–their greatest need.

On the other hand, if Headley is traded, the Padres would then have to move Gyorko to third, which opens up second base–and neither Alexi Amarista nor Logan Forsythe is the answer there.

Bottom line: The Padres will make every effort to re-sign Headley. Even if he never reaches his ’12 levels again (where he topped 30 home runs and led the league in RBI), he will likely do better than his ’13 numbers.

Shortstop: The Padres clearly missed Cabrera, who served a suspension the final 50 games of ’13. From June ’12-August ’13, he led the majors with 81 stolen bases, and last year, he had a .355 OBP to go with improved defense.

He seems to have shown proper contrition for using PEDs, and is ready to move on from it. For that reason, the Padres surely want to sign him long-term. The only hangup is that his agent is Scott Boras, who is notorious for asking for the moon for his clients. But since San Diego doesn’t really have any options higher than the single-A minors, Cabrera won’t be going anywhere this offseason. Pencil him in for 2014.

Left Field: The good news is that as a Padre, Quentin has hit .269/.368/.498 with 42 doubles, 29 home runs and 90 RBI.

The bad news is that Quentin did not achieve those numbers in one full season, but in two half-seasons; he played in 86 games in ’12, 82 in ’13.

Simply put, his health is very questionable. Given that, the Padres are stuck with him. Hence, they need to pray that he is not so injury-prone, even though he just underwent his third surgical procedure on the same knee.

It looks like left field in 2014 will look just like it did the last two years: Quentin, with a cadre of fourth outfielders (Venable and Denorfia assuming they’re not traded, Blanks and/or Guzman, assuming one of them is still around, and possibly Tommy Medica) filling in.

Center field: This is another huge question mark. It appears that Plan A is for Venable to take over here unless Maybin proves that he is over his injuries.

Back in 2011, the Padres rewarded Maybin’s decent-but-not-great season with a five-year contract, which they have regretted ever since. Denorfia is not serviceable against righties and while Venable was the team MVP in 2013 (largely by default), he has yet to show that he can play every day.

Right Field:  Given (a) not being able to move Quentin, and (b) Maybin’s uncertainty in CF, right field seems the most logical choice for an upgrade. While Giancarlo Stanton would be the most plum target (95 HR in three years), the Miami Marlins insist they will not trade him. While this might be a bargaining tactic, he is in high demand, so the Marlins are in the driver’s seat here; they would likely demand not one but two young starters, another prospect, and possibly Venable for Stanton.

Another possibility is Andre Ethier of the Dodgers. This would make sense for a number of reasons: while his 2012 power numbers were down, his career line is .288/.362/.470 with 141 career home runs, hitting at least 20 four times with over 30 doubles in seven consecutive seasons. Plus, the Dodgers want to move him in favor of the young and talented Yasiel Puig, which makes sense for them.

The only questions here are the following: even though the Dodgers are loaded financially, do they want to trade Ethier, a very good hitter, to a division rival? And, do the Padres have what the Dodgers are looking for?

There has been some speculation about acquiring Mark Trumbo from the Angels. He has power (34 HR), but he struck out over 150 times last year, and had a paltry .294 OBP. Plus his defense is a liability–imagine having both him and Quentin in your outfield!

A final option: the Padres could again go with a Venable/Denorfia platoon, and wait for Rymer Liriano to get some seasoning in AAA after recovering from Tommy John Surgery–but again, this is assuming that Maybin can play. Obviously, this is merely a fall-back position, given the Padres’ current needs and their being overstocked with starting pitchers (see below).

Starting Pitching: In a dramatic turnaround from 2013, this is the department where the Padres are now at their strongest. This is due to the emergence of Andrew Cashner as a potential ace, and Tyler Ross. At times, these two pitchers were lights out.

Even if he never returns to his 2011 numbers (21 wins, 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP), Ian Kennedy is still a serviceable number three starter.

Unless he is traded, Eric Stults will probably still be around. While not as solid as he was in 2012, Stults still pitched 203.2 innings, won 11 games, and had a passable 3.93 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. They may want to consider trading him now, however, while his value is still high, and everyone is always looking to add a lefty to their rotation.

For the fifth spot, the Padres can choose from youngsters Erlin, Smith, Keyvius Sampson, Matt Wissler, Donn Roach, or Tommy John Surgery recoveries Corey Luebke, Joe Wieland, and Casey Kelly.

In other words, they’re loaded here…which makes me scratch my head at why they’re talking about adding another starter.

Bottom Line: Cashner, Ross, and Kennedy, Luebke, Wissler, Wieland and Kelly aren’t going anywhere. This means that Erlin, Smith, and Roach are the most likely to be traded. They will come in quite handy as bargaining chips for teams that need starting pitching–always a needed commodity.

Bullpen: They are set at closer (Huston Street) and set-up (Gregerson and Thayer). But should one of these be traded, Neil Vincent seems ready to step in and help out.

The only real need here is for a left-handed specialist.

Prediction: The Padres are definitely in better shape than they were last offseason, thanks in large part to the vastly improved starting rotation. And unlike the 2012 offseason, the Padres will be busy. The honeymoon period for the new ownership group is now over. The fans are hungry, and won’t put up with excusing, especially with management promising a hike in the team’s payrolls.

The front office’s two main tasks will be to sign Headley to a long-term deal and upgrade in RF (or 1B, if they can get creative). Assuming they meet these goals and depending on whom they get, I see no reason why they would finish 76-86 for a third consecutive season, and every reason for them to be serious playoff contenders.

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