San Diego Padres: 5 Most Intriguing Spring Position Battles
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San Diego's biggest roster competition has traditionally been among the pitchers, as starters like Mat Latos develop and move on, to be replaced by other prospects.
Same goes for the bullpen; even though the Padres lost setup man Mike Adams and closer Heath Bell, they look ready to reload the bullpen—but they have more bullets than the magazine will hold.
At the start of spring training, it looked as if there might be only one position player spot up for grabs on the San Diego roster: utility infielder, with switch-hitting Everth Cabrera battling Logan Forsythe for the spot.
Then came the injuries.
Forsythe aggravated an old fracture in his left foot, and Cabrera strained his shoulder.
Outfielder Chris Denorfia is suffering from inflammation in his lower back that has kept him out of action for much of spring training.
So where does this leave the San Diego roster?
This slideshow should help answer that question.
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Tim Stauffer started 31 games for the Padres last year and will lead a rotation that should include Clayton Richard and Cory Luebke, who each started more than 15 games last year for San Diego.
A fourth starter will be Edinson Volquez, acquired from the Reds in the Mat Latos deal.
The fifth-starter slot is up for grabs, and that decision will have a domino effect on bullpen decisions. Three pitchers have a realistic shot at the last spot in the rotation: Dustin Moseley, Anthony Bass and Micah Owings.
A number of observers, to include fellow B/R writer Justin Peniche, believe that Moseley has the inside track.
"An injury to his non-throwing shoulder is the only thing that kept him from having his best season as a professional," writes Peniche.
"Moseley pitched much better than his 3-10 record indicates. He suffered from horrible run support and was a victim of miserable defensive efforts. More than 25 percent of Moseley's runs allowed were unearned."
On the other hand, Mickey Koke of Throughthefencebaseball.com believes that Moseley's shoulder woes may cause the Padres to think twice. "I can’t imagine the Padres not being somewhat concerned with Moseley hitting every start in the National League given his shoulder questions (he dislocated it twice last season)."
Koke points out that batting is what gives Moseley the biggest problem, and if he came out of the pen, he would usually not have to come to the plate at all.
With a number of AL teams looking for pitching help as the season approaches, I could see Moseley as trade bait to a team not concerned about pitchers having to hit.
Anthony Bass was a very pleasant surprise in 2011 after coming up midseason from Triple-A. He showed his versatility with three spot starts along with long-relief appearances. In his starts, he went 2-0 with a 1.20 ERA.
Owings is another versatile guy. He went 8-0 last year with Arizona, with an ERA of 3.57, a WHIP of 1.254 and a ratio of 6.3 K/9 in 63 innings.
He also has an additional arrow in his quiver: he can hit. As Koke enthuses, "He can absolutely rake at the plate. Over five seasons, he has an impressive .286/.313/.507 line. In 2007, he hit.333/.349/.683 with 4 HR and 15 RBIs in 60 at-bats. He’s a beast."
Owings feasts on right-handed pitchers, whom he has clobbered with a stat line of .314/.344/.582/.926 during his career.
Yes, that's not a typo: his career OPS against RHP is better than that of most position players.
He also has a very respectable .244 career average as a pinch-hitter.
If Owings doesn't win a spot in the rotation, he seems to be a lock at earning the long-relief job. He also can spot start and even be an extra bat off the bench in the late innings.
Purely based on past performance as a starter, the job is Moseley's to lose. But the Padres are fortunate to have two other arms in Owings and Bass who could move right into the rotation if Moseley falters or is hurt.
Once the fifth-starter decision is made, that will help clear up the bullpen picture.
Andrew Cashner in spring training. Photo: Charlie Riedel / AP
As Brian Polk wrote on a Yahoo! sports blog, "You know the Padres could give relief pitching away, and when they do, they find more to take its place."
Once again, there is wholesale turnover in the San Diego bullpen—but that's something the Padres are accustomed to.
With Mike Adams and Heath Bell no longer around, the Padres did not skip a beat, acquiring former Rockies and A's closer Huston Street to replace Bell. They then picked up hard-throwing setup man Andrew Cashner in the trade that sent Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs.
Last season, Cashner was out from April 5 until September 9 with a rotator cuff injury but did post a 1.69 ERA and an unbelievable 0.656 WHIP in his seven appearances (one in April and six in September, including one start.).
The former first-round draft pick seems healthy, and San Diego feels he's worth the risk.
"His stuff is so overwhelming," catcher Nick Hundley said. "We just have to make sure he's out there healthy and let him run with it. Here you go. Don't hold back. He can be real successful for us."
Justin Peniche writes on Bleacher Report, "If he can stay healthy and control his 100 mile-per-hour fastball, Cashner could even push Gregerson for the eighth inning job."
As Bill Center from U-T San Diego wrote this week, the official line from the Padres is that three pitchers are battling for two positions. The newly-acquired Micah Owings, Dustin Moseley and Anthony Bass are fighting for the fifth starter and bullpen long-man positions; loser may end up in Triple-A, although that's not set in stone. If the Padres are concerned about Moseley, that could increase the chances of keeping Bass around.
On the other hand, the organization might be better served by getting Bass regular work in the minors until he is needed back in San Diego.
If San Diego keeps both Owings and Bass, that would appear to fill up the bullpen.
In addition to Street and Cashner, incumbents Luke Gregerson, Ernesto Frieri and Joe Thatcher would seem to have a leg up on the others fighting for a spot.
On the other hand, each has warts which could cause a last-minute change.
Gregerson assumed the eighth-inning role when Mike Adams was traded last summer. As a seventh-inning specialist, Gregerson was nowhere near the dominant force he was in 2010; however, as Mickey Koke points out, he finished strong, converting 11-of-12 hold opportunities after Adams left.
Frieri was inconsistent in 2011 and also did not live up to his 2010 promise (1.71 ERA, WHIP of 1.105). The 26-year-old native of Colombia ended up with a 2.71 ERA and 1.349 WHIP—which is really not too shabby.
Center writes that Joe Thatcher "has battled injuries and consistency the past few seasons but has generally served as the only left-handed option out of the bullpen."
He continues that there are still six other candidates hoping to displace one of those arms: Brad Brach, Brad Boxberger, Miles Mikolas, Matt Palmer, Alex Hinshaw and Dale Thayer.
Of that group, he believes Hinshaw, a San Diego State product, has a shot because he would give the Padres a second left-handed option to Thatcher. In Center's opinion, Dale Thayer "has been the sharpest of the six" during spring training.
Thayer also has major league experience and excellent control. Also, Brad Brach is the only one of the six who is on San Diego's 40-man roster, which could give him an edge.
This bullpen battle will go right down to the wire…and possibly beyond.
Who Is the Backup Closer?
Huston Street at spring training in Peoria, AZ. Photo: Charlie Riedel / AP
Backup closer, you ask? Do teams really have backup closers?
When you have a closer with an injury history, you'd better have Plan B in mind.
Over the past two seasons with the Rockies, Huston Street missed nearly four months due to injuries. He has been on the DL five times in his seven-year career.
As Justin Peniche pointed out on BleacherReport, "The Padres have been spoiled by closers Heath Bell and Trevor Hoffman, who combined to save 334 games and spent a total of zero days on the disabled list since…2004."
If (should we say when?) Street does get hurt, Gregerson, Cashner and Frieri would all be candidates to close out games. Cashner has the best pure stuff, but he has limited experience.
Street himself believes the move away from Coors Field and into Petco Park will benefit more than his ERA and home run rate. The 28-year-old Street, who has 178 saves so far in his career, believes returning to sea level will do wonders for his body's ability to heal.
Street told AP, "[Colorado pitchers'] bodies are definitely more taxed over the course of the season playing at 5,000 feet. You can't adjust. You go on the road, you feel good. You come home and you're sore for no reason. There were (times) I had three or four days off pitching and you come home to Colorado and you feel sore."
I wrote about this problem in January when Aaron Cook signed with the Red Sox. "There is pretty good evidence showing that pitching in Colorado produces more wear and tear on hurlers due to the altitude," I reported. "Marc Normandin wrote an excellent analysis of that phenomenon for SBNation.com when he covered the Ubaldo Jiminez trade last year."
Normandin quoted former Baseball Prospectus writer Rany Jazayerli: "…one thing the Rockies have figured out—a finding backed up by medical science—in their decade in the mountains: as a result of the thin air, the body recovers from physical exertion slower than it does at sea level."
In 2004, when the Rockies briefly moved to a four-man rotation, Jazayerli wrote:
Mike Hampton threw eight shutout innings in his first start at Coors Field after signing with the Rockies, throwing only 98 pitches. The next day, he said, "I felt like I had been hit by a truck when I got up." The difficulty in recovering from each start was so debilitating that, before he was traded to the Braves, Hampton was planning to outfit his bedroom in Colorado with a pressure chamber so that his muscles might heal faster between starts.
Even if Street is correct, and the tonic of San Diego is just the elixir his body needs, the Padres will still want to audition others for the closing job in the future. Street has a $9 million contract in 2013 (with a $500,000 team buyout).
Given the Padres' limited budget and their history of moving players before they have to pay them big bucks, do not be surprised to see a couple of those young arms in some 2012 closing situations.
Everth Cabrera in action.
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If the Padres have a MASH unit, it involves the utility infielders.
At the start of spring training, it seemed that the only roster battle would be for that job, with the top candidates being two 25-year-olds, Nicaraguan Everth Cabrera and Logan Forsythe—the Padres' first-round draft pick in 2008.
Forsythe was at a disadvantage, because he has only played four games at shortstop (and they were last year at Triple-A Tucson). The smart money was on Cabrera, who showed promise in 2009 after being acquired from Colorado in the Rule 5 draft.
Mickey Koke of Through the Fence Baseball writes, "Cabrera was exciting to watch, and after hitting .255, with 18 doubles, eight triples and 3 home runs for the Friars that season, it seemed only the sky was the limit."
Cabrera is an interesting case. According to Bill Center of U-T San Diego.com, Cabrera might have been the Padres' regular shortstop a couple of years ago had he not suffered one injury after another.
Cabrera's litany of woes include a fractured hamate bone in his left hand in April of 2009 which required surgery, rehab and a visit to the 60-day DL, two right hamstring strains during the first half of the 2010 season that cost him six weeks, and last year, he broke the hamate bone in his other hand, costing him another two months on the DL.
As if that weren't bad enough, when he came back, he strained his shoulder sliding into second on a steal attempt, causing him to end the season on the DL.
"Over the past three seasons," Center reports, "Cabrera has been physically ready for just over 50 percent of the games on the schedule."
Forsythe is a good hitter who plays second and third, and according to Center, he's viewed by some as the Padres' second baseman of the future.
Forsythe hit extremely well in the minors, posting a .414 on-base percentage in four seasons. He tore up Triple-A pitching in 2011, showing some pop as he posted an OPS of .973—a monster number for a guy who hit only eight home runs. His stat line was .326/.445/.528 in 46 games. That earned him a call-up, but he hit just .213 with a .568 OPS in 62 games with the big league club.
He was also slowed a bit by a second surgery on his left knee in as many years.
At the start of camp this spring, Forsythe ran into more misfortune, aggravating an old foot injury. John Schlegel of MLB.com reports that he went back to San Diego to undergo surgery for a sesamoid bone fracture that he originally injured in college.
He's expected to miss the next eight weeks.
This would seem to make Cabrera a lock for the last roster spot, correct?
Not so fast.
As Koke observes about Cabrera, injuries have played a big role, "but even when he appears healthy, he is so inconsistent, it’s incredibly frustrating".
Enter the versatile Andy Parrino, a 26-year-old New Yorker who was a late-round draft pick of the Padres in 2007. In his five years in the minors, Parrino has played every infield position, along with both corner outfield positions.
Like Forsythe, he tore up the minors with his bat. He started 2011 with Double-A San Antonio and crushed opposing pitchers to the tune of a .927 OPS to go along with a .303/.388/.539 stat line in 40 games. That earned him a promotion to Triple-A Tucson, where he continued his torrid pace, posting a .327/.399/.484 stat line with an OPS of .883.
Also like Forsythe, he struggled in his major league call-up, hitting just .184 in 44 MLB at-bats in 2011.
However, according to Mickey Koke, "The coaches seem to love his work ethic and drive—he has a 'ballplayer' mentality. You know, hustle your tail off, get dirty and do whatever the team asks of you."
Parrino has ended up playing considerable more innings than Cabrera this spring, partly due to another Cabrera injury—this time shoulder tightness, which has kept him out of a few games.
"We're seeing a little of what we saw last September," Padres manager Bud Black told Corey Brock of MLB.com about Parrino. "With Andy, versatility is big. We need that player on the bench who can play shortstop. That's the primary focus for that guy."
Parrino has already started games at second base, third base and shortstop this spring. Koke reports that he's been working in the outfield in morning drills and could see time out there as well.
Although Parrino started as the dark horse in this competition, I would not be surprised to see him win the reserve infielder slot.
Who Will Replace the Injured Carlos Quentin in the Outfield?
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The offseason trade with the White Sox for Carlos Quentin, seemed to stabilize the San Diego outfield. Quentin, 29, posted a stat line of 254/.340/.499 with 24 home runs and 77 RBI in 118 games last year for Chicago.
However, Dan Hayes of the North County Times recently reported that Quentin needed arthroscopic knee surgery and is expected to miss at least the next four to six weeks.
Complicating the Padres' supposedly set outfield situation, Chris Denorfia is suffering from inflammation in his lower back that kept him out of action for the first two weeks of spring training. He received a couple of shots, which seem to have helped, but last week manager Bud Black was not confident that Denorfia would be ready to go on Opening Day.
“There is a little concern,” Black responded when asked about the possibility of Denorfia opening the season on the disabled list.
These developments offer a great opportunity for Kyle Blanks, who might now see regular action in left field until Quentin returns.
Blanks, drafted as a first baseman by San Diego in the 42nd round in 2004, was converted to the outfield because he was blocked by Padres' star Adrian Gonzales. Blanks has been up and down ever since, and he lost most of 2010 and part of 2011 to elbow surgery, but no one has ever questioned his power. He's a big man, and in 35 games last year at Triple-A he absolutely raked to an average of .351 and an OPS of 1.137.
Over his seven seasons in the minors, he has managed a very healthy OPS of .905.
However, Blanks himself missed a couple of days last week with a hamstring issue.
Dan Hayes believes that "If healthy, Blanks is the favorite to make the team because he is already on the 40-man roster." Jeremy Hermida is in camp on a minor-league deal, and the only other outfielders on the 40-man, Blake Tekotte and Rymer Liriano, were both sent down last week.
With Quentin out and Denorfia ailing, Karl de Vrie of HardballTimes expects Jesus Guzman, 27, to also benefit. He produced a .312/.369/.478 line in 271 plate appearances last year.