Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part IV: The San Diego Padres

With a rainout on Monday night, your 2009 San Diego Padres, expected by many to be the worst team in baseball, continue to sit at 9-4, the third-best record in the league, just a game behind the Dodgers for the division lead.

What they’re saying: Nothing terribly interesting; everybody’s waiting for the carriage to turn back into a pumpkin. Newsday’s Ken Davidoff basically says that that was fun while it lasted, but we can expect it to pretty much be over now. The Sicilian guy from Princess Bride is apparently writing for CBS Sports now, and he basically cobbles a bunch of Padres’ players’ quotes together and concludes: “who knows?”

I’ll stop the linking there, because there’s really nothing here. Everybody knows, or thinks they know, that this team isn’t going far.

Reasons for hope: More than I would’ve guessed.

  • They’ve got some nice young players in Kevin Kouzmanoff and Chase Headley, though they’re both really third basemen, so that’s not great. And neither has started hitting yet, which is a good sign, since they will eventually.
  • Jody Gerut has established that he really can still play, and he’s one of those too-rare great comeback stories that is also a very good player.
  • Brian Giles won’t finish the year hitting .151.
  • Jake Peavy and the pitching Chris Young will probably end up much better than they’ve started (though the interesting question in what team Peavy will be ending up with).
  • Paul DePodesta is a very smart guy. He and the Padres’ front office have been excellent at putting together strong bullpens from other teams’ garbage, and they may well have done the same again.

Why it won’t happen:

  • Kevin Towers may also be a very smart guy, but he’s not a very smart baseball guy, and he’s ahead of DePo on the front office depth chart. I haven’t watched nearly enough Padres games to get a feel for Bud Black as manager, but I only seem to hear bad things.
  • Giles’, Kouzmanoff’s and Headley’s rebounds won’t come even close to balancing the significant dropoffs from catcher Nick Hundley, 1B Adrian Gonzalez (who is awfully good, but not 186 OPS+ good — that’s Pujols territory), 2B David Eckstein, and SS Luis Rodriguez, who have likely all already seen their best days of 2009. Even Gerut is likely to fall off some from his torrid start. Throw in that they’re getting some unrealistically strong performance from bench guys Scott Hairston and Henry Blanco, and this is a team that’s scoring runs well beyond its means.
  • The pitching staff as a whole has a 3.83 ERA (10th in the majors) and 4.42 FIP (12th). So they’re getting pretty lucky to have an ERA so much lower than their FIP (which essentially says that the team ERA “should” be 4.42). They’re in the best pitchers’ park in baseball, and they’ve played 7 of their 13 games at home; in any year in which the Padres have a good pitching staff backed up by a good defense, they’ll end up with the fourth or fifth best raw ERA in the league. It’s far too early to evaluate their performance so far (three of their six road games were played in Philly, one of the best hitters’ parks around, so the overall adjusted ERA+ still puts them at 6% above league average), but the fact is that with Peavy + Young + three guys you’ve never heard of, this just isn’t a great, or even a good, pitching staff, and with shaky defensive players at most every position, they won’t be getting a lot of help. Guys like Kevin Correia and Walter Silva, if they stay healthy and in the rotation all year, are going to wind up with some lopsided W/L records in the wrong direction.

What PECOTA is saying: Color PECOTA unimpressed. It likes the Padres to go about 75-87, which is pretty close to where it had them pegged when the season started. That would put them in a tie for third, with a 7.46% chance of making the postseason.

My take: That’s about right. This isn’t a 100-loss team, the way the 2008 squad very nearly was, but it’s not a first or second-place team either. There are a lot of other deeply flawed teams in this division, though — basically everyone but the Dodgers (PECOTA still likes the D-Backs to win 87 and challenge for the wildcard, but we’re starting to see that there are some real concerns with that team). Based on that, I’ll bump the Padres up a couple wins to 77-85. This team is improving, but it’s still a couple years, a MannyBManny defection or retirement, and a DePo miracle or two from becoming a factor in the West.

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