Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 3/1/12

The San Diego Padres spent their second offseason in a row mired between an odd mix of rebuilding and contending, like when you want to break up with a girl, but continue seeing her because she’s paying your car insurance. December’s trade of ace SP Mat Latos gave the appearance of a full-blown rebuild, yet only two weeks later, the Friars traded 2 prospects for OF Carlos Quentin. The deal included SP Simon Castro, who despite a rocky season, entered 2011 as the game’s #58 prospect according to Baseball America.

GM Josh Byrnes pulled another rather curious move at the start of December, dealing 1B Anthony Rizzo- a key piece of the Adrian Gonzalez package from the Red Sox- to the Cubs for SP/RP Andrew Cashner. Rizzo struggled at the MLB level in 2011, yet posted a gaudy 1.056 OPS in his first taste of AAA. Even in the homer-happy

Cory Luebke

Pacific Coast League, that’s an impressive line. Cashner is an intriguing power arm, but threw less than 15 IP last year between the minors and Majors due to a rotator cuff strain. Further, the Cubs used him almost exlusively out of the pen the past two seasons, so the Padres are faced with the task of transitioning the 6’6″ righty back to the rotation, or they risk only having a short reliever to show for a potential middle-of-the-order bat in Rizzo.

[2012 MLB Preview Central]

While the Padres are convinced 1B/OF Yonder Alonso (from the Reds in the Latos deal) is fit to assume Gonzalez’s mantle at 1B, there was nothing preventing them from placing Alonso in a power-thin corner OF spot, while giving Rizzo another go at first. On top of that, the club seems set to hand OF Will Venable (.704 OPS in 2011) the RF job again, despite 1B/OF Jesus Guzman posting a surprise .847 OPS (139 OPS+) debut in 2011, and being one of the team’s best hitters for the latter half of the season.

But such has been the methodology in Southern California for two years now, as the Padres traded Gonzalez in December of 2010…only to then acquire Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, Aaron Harang, and Brad Hawpe. Will this collection of additions and subtractions improve on the club’s 71-91 finish in 2011?

3 Up

Best Case Scenario for 2012

Yonder Alonso proves his .943 OPS (154 OPS+) through 47 games with the Reds was not a fluke, causing fans to rest easy over the possibly unnecessary departures of Gonzalez and Rizzo. Carlos Quentin helps Alonso anchor the middle of the order in LF, while some combination of Venable, Guzman, C Nick Hundley and 3Bs Chase Headley and James Darnell provides some offensive spark to offset the light-hitting middle infield. CF Cameron Maybin finally reaches his long-awaited potential, swiping 40+ bags batting leadoff while boosting his OBP into a respectable .330 range.

In the rotation, SP Tim Stauffer logs 170+ IP for his 4th straight solid season, while current #2 Cory Leubke (L) evolves into the surprise ace of the rotation, after an impressive 154K in 139.2IP in 2011. Edinson Volquez, acquired with Alonso in the Latos deal, shakes off a nasty 5.71 ERA in 2011 to serve as a solid #3, while Andrew Cashner transitions to the rotation by mid-season, stays healthy, and posts promising numbers and boffo velocity while maintaining his control.  AAA LHP Robbie Erlin, acquired from the Rangers for CL Mike Adams at the 2011 trade deadline, steals the spotlight from top prospect Casey Kelly with an excellent September call-up.

Even in the first full season of the post-Mike Adams era, the Padres’ bullpen shines like the ever-present San Diego sun. Huston Street, Joe Thatcher, Ernesto Frieri, Luke Gregerson, and Brad Brach post a filthy K/IP as a group, and preserve the majority of leads the young rotation hands over to them. The Padres surprisingly challenge for the NL West through the end of August.

Most Important Padres

At the MLB level, the team’s lineup hinges on Yonder Alonso. Not only was he arguably the primary return in the Mat Latos trade, but the Padres’ subsequent dealing of Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs left the team with only a single safety net in 1B Kyle Blanks if Alonso struggles. On the farm, doubts are starting to creep into scouting reports on stud SP Casey Kelly, part of the 3-player return on Gonzalez from the Red Sox. Kelly’s Baseball America prospect ranking dropped from a high of #24 in 2010, to #31 last year, down to a concerning #76 this preseason. The talent and delivery are still there, but an underwhelming 6.6 K/9 at AA San Antonio last season places his once-lock as a top-of-the-rotation arm into question.

Potential Breakout Players

If the Padres are technically rebuilding, their farm system clearly takes center stage. With the departure of Rizzo and lack of dominance from Kelly, the club lacks elite-level prospets, but has a deep, quality core which includes LHP Robbie Erlin (who may have a higher ceiling than Kelly at this point), 3B Jedd Gyorko, RHP Joe Ross, OF Rymer Liriano, and newly-acquired C Yasmani Grandal from the Reds.

Back at the MLB level, left-handed SPs capable of striking out over a batter an inning are incredibly rare.  If Cory Leubke can build on his 2011, he could become a household name quickly.  With his athleticism, 40+ SB capability, and the fact that he’s still only 25 this year, you can never overlook Cameron Maybin’s potential.  If he can reach base at an accpetable clip, the dimensions of Petco could compliment Maybin like jelly compliments peanut butter.

3 Down

Worst Case Scenario for 2012

Alonso struggles at 1B, while Gonzalez contends for an AL MVP in Boston, and Rizzo shakes off a rocky MLB debut in 2011 to push Bryan LaHair to the OF for the Cubs.

Chase Headley

Petco saps the life out of Quentin’s production, and he labors to patrol its spacious left field.  But no batter outside of him hits more than 10 HR, and Padres’ fans deal with a rotating carousel of AAA players like James Darnell and Kyle Blanks when Venable and Headley struggle to produce.

Games away from Petco take a toll on the young rotation, leaving the Padres’ best weapon- its bullpen- trying to keep games close, rather than preserving leads and locking down W’s.  Cashner is not effective when moved into the rotation, and reaggravates his rotator cuff out of the pen.  Casey Kelly and Robbie Erlin battle inconsistency at AAA, while 3B prospect Jedd Gyorko is randomly attacked by a panda during a visit to the San Diego Zoo, and misses much of the season.  The Padres free-fall through the standings by the start of June, and are firmly entrenched in the NL West basement by mid-July.

Biggest Areas of Concern

As with every year at Petco, power from the lineup will be an issue.  The Padres have one proven power bat in Carlos Quentin, but he’s nowhere near the Adrian Gonzalez-level, and the Padres’ offense as a whole was still underwhelming throughout much of Gonzalez’s tenure.  An .830+ OPS from Alonso would be a huge boost to the middle of the lineup.  San Diego potentially has a handful of surprise power bats in Jesus Guzman, James Darnell (AAA), Kyle Blanks (AAA), and Jedd Gyorko (AA), yet fans must wonder whether any of them will get plate time due to the club’s loyalty to Venable and Headley.

Who Needs to Rebound

The majority of the Padres’ 2011 roster peformed as expected.  Chase Headley did have a 120 OPS+ in 113 games last year, but on a club so devoid of offense, San Diego needs more than 4 HR from the hot corner.  Will Venable’s seen his OPS drop from .763 (2009) to .732 (2010) to .704 (2011), and should have his RF spot be “audition central” come June if he can’t maintain at least a .740 OPS.  On the minor league front, if Casey Kelly’s 2012 statline can match his long-heralded ability, the Padres will finally have a marquee prospect to highlight a very deep farm system.

So there’s been a few bumps along the way, but despite trading All-Stars Adrian Gonzalez, Mat Latos, and Mike Adams, the Padres have a solid assortment of well-regarded prospects, young MLBers, and a handful of mediocre to above average veterans to boot.  And if everything breaks right in a division as wide-open as the West itself, they may even contend for a while.  Maybe Josh Byrnes was onto something after all!

Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug

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