How good can the Padres infield be?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The whole point of an off-season, in theory, is to take your team closer to your organizational goals. Whether it’s retooling a championship squad, adding pieces that will take your team closer to the playoffs, jettisoning players past their primes, or trading pieces of value so you can bottom out for a better draft pick. The winter months provide general managers a chance to make calculated, well thought-out decisions, and steer their team in the best direction possible.

Logically, since the Padres are not in rebuilding mode, Josh Byrnes’ goal should be adding 16 wins to their team.

16 extra wins gets them to 92 for the season. 92 wins in 2013 gets them a tie with the Dodgers, the loser of the 1-game playoff getting a Wild Card spot. Considering how good the top of the NL is, I think 92 wins is the minimum for any team with playoff aspirations.

Judging by the huge number of games missed last year because of injuries and suspensions, if the Padres can stay healthy this year and not take any illegal substances, there should be a marked improvement on the field. Full seasons from a number of important contributors could add at least 6 wins to the Padres’ total. But the big question is whether the Padres made enough changes, or added enough talent, to get those extra 10.

This review will be split into a few different parts, so I can take a look at each section of the team and, hopefully, give a indepth review of the state of the club. I’m using the excellent Organizational Depth Charts here on Friars on Base (links at the bottom) for the rosters.

Today, the Infield:

First Base:  Yonder Alonso

If he’s healthy, and considering the big injury he suffered was a fluke, he should be, Alonso should be a key contributor to the team for the 2014 season. His strikeout rate (12.5%) was excellent last year and if he can come anywhere close to his career walk rate of 9.3%, he should be able to put the ball into play and get onto base at an above-average clip. His career OBP of .346 is very good for a slow first baseman with almost no lift on the ball.

But let’s be honest about a few things. He’s never going to hit more than 15 homers in a season. Okay, never is strong. Let’s say I’d be shocked if he did. Playing in Petco, even with the closer fences, hurts him and fans have to lower expectations.  He’s just not that kind of player.

Defensively, he’s good but not great. On the base paths, he’s a huge liability and clogs everything up for those who come up to bat behind him.

But he’s a solid number 6 or 7 hitter in the National League. I don’t think he makes the Padres better, or pushes them past the others, but he’s not going to hurt them.

If I could suggest anything, it would be that the Padres should seriously think about platooning him with Kyle Blanks. Alonso can’t hit lefties and Blanks can. This saves them from the chance of having nagging, wear-and-tear injuries and also gives the Padres a good hitter on the bench for the later innings.

Second Base: Jedd Gyorko

There are two things about Jedd’s 2013 that stand out a lot. The first is his absolutely horrible strikeout to walk ratio (3.73) compared to the Major League average of 2.51. He struck out 23.4% of the time. I know that this is a lot of rookie growing pains and being overpowered by some excellent pitching, but his pitch recognition has got to improve this season. As you pay attention to games this year, watch how many pitches he’s seeing per at bat and see if he’s just swinging for the fences.

The second number that leaps out was his BABIP, at a fairly low .287. I expect him to get that number higher this year and when he does, he should see an increase in batting and slugging averages.

Gyorko’s the starter, full time, with only the occasional day off to save his legs from those minor injuries that cost players 15 days in August. But his hitting, defense, and speed all scream third base, which is where he should be playing. And if the Padres’ front office was better than competent, he would be there right now.

Third Base: Chase Headley

I could write a whole column on Headley, and what I think the Padres should do with him, and probably will. So I’ll save the good stuff for that day and just give you a heads up on what to look for from the incumbent third baseman.

Here are some amazing things that you probably didn’t know about last season: Although Headley lost a ton of home runs over the season, he actually hit more doubles then in 2012, and in 99 less at bats. His percentage of hits for extra bases actually went up in 2013, so he was driving the ball for extra hits a slight bit more. In fact, if you eliminate 2012 from his stats, last year was pretty similar to everything he had done before.

So which Headley is the real one? 2012, or every other year he’s been in the majors? I’m inclined to say the latter, which is why I’m expecting Headley to put up numbers similar to what he did before the breakout of 2012: .350 OBP, 30 doubles, a dozen homeruns, tons of strikeouts, and solid defense.

As they say, he’s the face of the franchise (although I don’t know if anyone aside from diehard fans could recognize any Padres) and he’ll be out there for as many games as his body will let him. There is no backup and no need to split his time with anyone.

Shortstop:  Everth Cabrera

How bad is it when your team’s only All-Star only plays 95 games? And doesn’t get onto the field for that game? And he’s suspended for PED use, which is supposed to give players strength and power, but yet him hitting a home run is a surprise?

There are many reasons to feel positive about Cabrera’s upcoming season. First, he dramatically lowered his strikeout rate, down to 15.9%, and saw a nice increase in the number of line drives he hit and the number of balls he put into play. With his speed, he should be making contact as much as possible and hope to leg out anything on the ground. He’s also maintaining a nice walk rate, and 2013 saw him reach the best OBP of his career.

If there’s one thing I’d like to see him improve on this year, it’s his hyper-aggressive running. Getting caught stealing 12 times, in 95 games, cancels out a lot of things he does well. Let’s just put it this way: if you erase those 12 hits from his batting average, he drops from a .283 average to .252.

Again, like the rest of the infield, he’s not losing his job any time soon, and there is no position battle. His defense is okay, his speed is great, and he’s an incredibly exciting player to watch. We should see more improvement from him this season.

Catcher:  Yasmani Grandal / Nick Hundley

I’m going to talk about both because although Grandal is the starter, we’ll be watching Hundley to start the season as we’re waiting for a right knee to heal. I’m just hoping that the knee heals quickly and Hundley finds a nice seat on the bench.

Grandal has shown a great ability to take a walk in the majors. I know that this is a very small sample size, but in his short career in the majors, he’s walking 14.7% of the time. The MLB average is 8%. He’s an on base machine and his patience helps so much in this lineup. Why is this important? For everyone thinking that Grandal’s success is medically-related, I’ve never seen anyone prove that PEDs improve your batting eye. This is a good sign that he can continue hitting in the majors. If he is healthy, and Bud Black wants to think outside the box, I’d recommend that Grandal bats second for the entire season. Let him and Cabrera get on base in front of all the swingers and see how many runs they can score.

Hundley is a backup catcher. There’s nothing wrong with that. He’s going to make $4 million this year to sit on the bench, catch once a week, and hold his tongue when he’s being interviewed. He can’t hit lefties, he’s well known for being horrible at pitch framing, and he loves swinging for the fences in a park built to punish hitters who do that. But he’s got some power, he can work a count, and he’s a decent bat off the bench.

The value at this position is solely defined by how much time Grandal spends behind the plate and, more importantly, how well he comes back from a very serious knee injury. I would recommend the Padres give him every DH slot when they’re playing interleague games, and I’d toy with the idea of putting him at first base every so often. His batting skills are too valuable to keep him out of the lineup, and the wear and tear of him catching every day could hurt him. Don’t be surprised if he’s the first baseman in 2016.

This group should see a huge improvement over last season if Cabrera and Grandal can stay on the field for a large number of games.  If Gyorko and Headley can just do the same thing that they did last season, and if Alonso can stay healthy and turn a few of those doubles into homers, I think the Padres add at least 5 wins to their total. They’re all young enough to keep improving and, if everything turns their way, this could be a very solid major league infield with a good mix of line drive power, on base percentage, and (from one of them) speed.

Next, I’ll be back to look at the Padres outfield and bench. Warning: if you’re  a big Carlos Quentin fan, you’re going to want to avoid it.

 

And if you’re interested in reading the Organizational Depth Charts (and crying in a few cases), here are the links:

Catcher

First Base

Second Base

Third Base

Shortstop

 

Topics: Chase Headley, Everth Cabrera, Jedd Gyorko, Nick Hundley, San Diego Padres, Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso

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  • ballybunion

    Well, so far you’ve ignored Gyorko’s groin strain that cost him a month (he was hitting .284 when he went down) and Alonso’s broken hand (he was on a 18 homer pace up to then).

    You even ignored the fact that Everth Cabrera’s drug use was to recover from a shoulder injury BEFORE the 2013 season, not during the season, when he passed all the drug tests. I also wouldn’t worry about his caught-stealing rate, since he went on the disabled list with a leg injury in mid-June and had only 6 steals against 5 caught stealing in the 24 games after he returned. Before that he had 31 steals in 38 tries, a respectable 82%.

    You also ignored Headley’s sore knee that required surgery right after the season ended, and that despite that, he hit .305 in 24 September games with 7 doubles, 5 homers and 14 RBI. That’s a 33 homer, 95 RBI pace over 162 games.

    Bottom line, you’re a bit of a pessimist, underrating Padres players, even though they’re solid major leaguers, just not superstars. What you overlook is a balanced club with no real holes, one that can play winning fundamental baseball against a lot of teams with superstars who cover their teams’ weaknesses with the sheer glow of their eminence, and a fawning, starry-eyed press that makes them out to be invincible.

  • Jay McKiernan

    I plead guilty on ignoring September. I tend to always ignore September numbers as predictors of the future because as soon as the rosters expand, you never know what level of talent everyone is facing. I also think that picking just one month and saying, “this is how the player will perform next season”, never works. It’s like looking at a good team record in Sept and assuming they’ll continue playing that way never works. Take a look at how the Padres have played in September. Good Septembers don’t always correspond to good play the next season.

    How can I be a pessimist when I’m predicting improvements for Gyorko, Cabrera, and Grandal and I state that Headley is only going to drop off in home runs? Or that Alonso is a solid major leaguer with great on base stats?

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