Hope springs eternal this time of year on the baseball diamond, especially for teams that have something to prove after just missing out on last year’s postseason party. San Diego finished two games behind eventual World Series champion San Francisco in the National League West, and was only a game away of capturing the wild-card berth.
How close were the Padres to winning their division and appearing in their first postseason since the 2006 campaign? San Diego had a six-game advantage over the Giants in late August before suffering through a 10-game losing streak. The Padres still had a miniscule half-game lead in the division on Sept. 26, but they were eliminated from the postseason on the last day of the marathon 162-game regular season.
Despite winning 90 games last year, San Diego is currently a tempting 40/1 long shot to win the NL pennant, and 75/1 to win the World Series. The Padres haven’t advanced to the postseason since winning the NL West in back-to-back seasons of 2005-06.
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San Diego was one of the busier teams in the offseason, which is surprising for a squad that was so close to reaching the next level. Unfortunately, that is the mantra of any small-market team in Major League Baseball’s system.
Gone from last year’s squad are slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez who was traded to Boston for prospects, along with the veteran leadership of middle infielders David Eckstein and Miguel Tejada. This leadership vacuum figures on giving the Padres some growing pains heading into the 2011 campaign.
However, it wasn’t a mass exodus as starting pitcher Aaron Harang, relief pitcher Chad Qualls and infielder Orlando Hudson were signed to deals while outfielder Cameron Maybin, pitcher Casey Kelly, shortstop Jason Bartlett and catcher Rob Johnson were acquired in trades.
Catcher Nick Hundley figures on being a key component on this year’s squad. The three-year veteran has a talented pitching staff and bullpen to work with, and has shown promise at the plate during his brief career.
Bartlett was acquired from Tampa Bay in the offseason, and he is expected to fill the void of departed veterans Eckstein and Tejada. The double-play combination of Bartlett and Hudson has the potential to be a strong point on this squad.
Maybin was brought over from Florida, and the 24-year-old was the 10th pick in the 2005 MLB Draft. The speedy center fielder has a ton of potential, but has hit just .246 with 10 home runs with 78 runs and 36 runs batted in over a three-year career spent in Detroit and Florida. The Padres acquired him by shipping off two relievers from one of baseball’s best bullpens.
Speaking of pitching, that remains San Diego’s strong point and main chance to contend once again in the NL West. The Padres ranked second in the league in team ERA (3.39), tossing 20 shutouts while allowing opponents to hit just .240.
PETCO Park is a pitchers’ paradise with its spacious outfield, and starting pitcher Mat Latos figures on being the main component once again. The right-hander racked up 14 wins last season along with a 2.92 ERA, surrendering 7.3 hits per nine innings while striking out an average of 9.2 batters.
Clayton Richard and Harang will also contribute to the starting rotation, but the fourth and fifth spots are still undecided. Kelly is a tantalizing prospect who was the key in the Gonzalez deal with Boston, and he could provide valuable innings.
Closer Heath Bell has quietly been one of baseball’s best closers the past couple of years, recording 40 saves the last two seasons with ERA’s of 2.71 and 1.93 respectively. Chad Qualls figures to settle into a middle reliever role in an effort to get Bell plenty of save opportunities.
San Diego retooled the middle of the field, and is younger, more explosive but less experienced. Expect the Padres pitching to again be the strong point of this team while they go through some growing pains. Another 90-win season will be a stretch, but this team should remain competitive and finish the year slightly over .500, making the 'over' 76 wins at Bookmaker.com the right play.
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