Five Questions: San Diego Padres

Did Matt Holliday ever touch home plate?

No, but what’s done is done. Get over it already.

What’s up with the outfield?

It’s in a state of flux, as usual. With Milton Bradley in Texas and Terrmel Sledge in Japan, left field will be patrolled by some combination of Scott Hairston, Chase Headley and Jody Gerut (with perhaps a dash of Paul McAnulty). Hairston almost pushed the Padres into the playoffs in 2007 but has never played a full big-league season. Headley is a third baseman being shifted to left field because he’s blocked at the hot corner by incumbent Kevin Kouzmanoff. Gerut is this year’s version of Sledge (was good, got hurt, who knows what’s next), albeit with a slightly better track record. McAnulty is a designated hitter without big-time home-run power in a league that doesn’t use a DH.

Center field belongs to veteran Jim Edmonds, assuming he can keep himself healthy. Failing that, look for Hairston to get some time there as well as… well, there isn’t really anyone else. Jeff DaVanon is in camp, and I guess the fact that his father once played for the Padres might work in his favor. Callix Crabbe is a Rule 5 draftee who could stick, but he’s more of an infielder. Basically the Padres are pinning their hopes on a 38-year-old who has missed 97 games over the past two seasons and who appears to be seriously in decline. The hope is that Edmonds can enjoy a Mike Piazza-style resurrection in San Diego.

Brian Giles is in right, but he’s 37 years old and coming off knee surgery. He hasn’t put up good numbers since 2005; assuming he’s healthy, a slight rebound isn’t out of the question. Then again, at this stage in his career, neither is a complete collapse.

What’s up with the back end of the rotation?

Last year the Padres brought in Greg Maddux and David Wells. One of those worked out real well, the other not so much. This year it’s Randy Wolf and Mark Prior. The situation is a little different, though, because Maddux basically never misses a start, while Wolf hasn’t made as many as 20 since 2004. As for Prior, my advice is not to think about him at all and hope for a pleasant surprise later in the season. Realistically we’re looking at guys like Shawn Estes, Justin Germano, and Glendon Rusch for that fifth spot. The fact that these aren’t exciting options wouldn’t be a problem except that the rest of the rotation isn’t as good as some people seem to think it is.

The Padres are counting on a full complement of starts from Wolf, which is probably a mistake given his recent track record. And they appear to be hoping that Estes, Germano, Rusch or possibly minor-league left-hander Wade LeBlanc can keep the club in games until Prior is ready to go, at which time… we have no idea what to expect from Prior. Personally I’d have liked to see the Padres grab a boring known quantity (Livan Hernandez, Kyle Lohse?) for the back end, but that’s just me.

Can Khalil Greene ever figure out how to hit at Petco Park?

I don’t know, but if he does, Greene is an instant MVP candidate. From the Ducksnorts 2008 Baseball Annual:

Khalil Greene, Home vs Road, 2004 – 2007
Home Road
2004 276 .241 .345 .338 278 .301 .353 .543
2005 242 .256 .285 .399 234 .244 .308 .465
2006 227 .210 .282 .346 233 .280 .356 .507
2007 314 .216 .258 .412 345 .288 .322 .519
Total 1059 .230 .292 .377 1090 .280 .334 .511

As noted in the Annual, Greene is basically Kevin Elster/Dale Sveum at Petco Park, and Alfonso Soriano everywhere else. Stick Soriano at shortstop, and he’d merit serious MVP consideration.

Given the consistently wide discrepancies between his home and road performances, it’s unrealistic to expect that Greene will ever hit like Soriano at Petco Park. But if he could hit like, say, Rich Aurilia or Hubie Brooks for half of his games while maintaining the solid road numbers, Greene would rank among the elite shortstops in baseball.

I haven’t said, though, whether Greene can do this. There’s a simple reason: I have no clue. And anyone who claims to know is lying.

The Padres have a beautiful new park and are enjoying unprecedented success on the field; why don’t more fans attend games?

There’s a problem of perception in San Diego. Many fans believe that the Padres are overly frugal and won’t do what it takes to win. Reality paints a different picture, of course: The Padres have enjoyed four consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history and in 2007, they came within one strike of their third straight playoff appearance.

In 2006, the club brought in Piazza and Josh Bard to replace Ramon Hernandez, who signed a big contract in Baltimore. The Padres ended up with one of the most potent catching tandems in baseball, without the nasty side effect of having to pay Hernandez handsomely into his thirties. Then, mid-season they acquired Todd Walker and Russell Branyan, both of whom produced with little fanfare.

The same thing happened in 2007. The club picked up Heath Bell from the Mets for a glass of water, and Bell emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball. Then, while division rivals were throwing giant wads of cash at Jason Schmidt and Barry Zito, the Padres signed Maddux, who provided better value. Then, mid-season they acquired Bradley and Hairston, both of whom—stop me if you’ve heard this before—produced with little fanfare.

Do you see a pattern here? If you don’t, I’ll give you a hint: It involves a ball club being proactive in acquiring talent to help itself win games. Sure, maybe the Padres could have done even more—the back end of the rotation was a disaster in 2007 and doesn’t appear to be much better in 2008—but by and large, this is a team that is taking the necessary steps.

While the organization quietly goes about the business of improving itself, many fans focus on what isn’t happening rather than what is. Some voice their opinions on talk radio, while others hit where it counts:

Padres Winning Percentage and Home Attendance, 2004 – 2007
Year W-L Pct Att/G
2004 87-75 .537 37,244
2005 82-80 .506 35,429
2006 88-74 .543 32,837
2007 89-74 .546 34,445

Attendance spiked on moving to Petco Park, then slipped each of the next two years despite both resulting in playoff appearances. The Padres experienced a slight rebound in 2007, but attendance has dropped by 7.5% over the past four seasons despite an unprecedented stretch of on-field success.

For whatever reason—and you’ll find as many theories as people to espouse them (I canvassed my readers at Ducksnorts, and the general consensus is that there is no general consensus; less facetiously we noted market size, lack of marquee/exciting players, and the transitory nature of the city’s population as possible factors, with some folks opining that we’re seeing the numbers return to equilibrium after the initial spike that comes with moving into new digs)—San Diego hasn’t fully embraced this incarnation of the Padres. It’s a shame, because people are missing some pretty good baseball.

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