Two weeks of Cactus League action have yielded an interesting paradox of performance for the Padres. On one side of the coin, San Diego possessed what MLB.com had dubbed the most talented farm system in Major League Baseball. Their reasoning for the high accolades? “Simply put, it is a combination of quality and quantity.”
The first week of action made Scott Boras look like a modern day baseball diamond Nostradamus. Boras, much to the chagrin of media pundits, fans, and players alike, compared the young players within San Diego’s farm system to hot talent lava. A proverbial volcano ready to burst. But at the same token: neither Major League rock, nor ready to compete for an arduous one hundred and sixty-two game sweltering season.
On the other side of the coin, the Padres responded in their first week of play going winless, losing their first three games while being outscored 13-6. Further exacerbating the point were the numerous mental and physical errors that led to unearned runs and brow furling anxiety.
A lot of the sentiment questioning, “just WHEN will this team be ready?”, was hushed as the second week of Spring Training came to a close.
Over the past week, the Padres have gone (6-1-1) playing eight games in seven days – seeing split squad action on Sunday. In that span, San Diego has averaged 9.25 runs scored per game with a +23 in runs scored differential.
The bats have been hot. Red hot. Hot talent lava hot. In fact, the Padres’ prowess to score runs, and having run production translate into spring training wins, has made a lot of people forget about the pitching woes this team has been unable to solve while in camp.
In his first action of the spring, Cal Quantrill gave up four earned runs, walked a batter, and hit another in his one inning pitched. Quantrill, the first round draft pick of the organization, saw his ERA balloon 36.00 and his fate of starting this season in the minors sealed.
Clayton Richard has looked pedestrian in his two starts going (0-1) with 9.00 ERA, giving up three home runs in his five innings pitched.
Likewise has Dinelson Lamet posting a similar 9.00 ERA, also giving up a long ball in his lone start (2.0 innings pitched).
Early surprises have been elders of the staff: Tyson Ross and Chris Young. Ross, roughed up in his first start, bounced back nicely on Thursday against the Rangers pitching two scoreless innings, yielding one hit and striking out two.
Young is battling for a possible spot in the rotation but seems to be leaning more likely towards the long reliever role out of the pen. Thus far, Young has been efficient in his four innings pitched, posting a 4.50 ERA. Young has been more precise with his command, not allowing a home run while limiting walks to one free pass issued.
Turning heads in the opposite direction are Bryan Mitchell and Joey Lucchesi.
Mitchell has shown glimmers of being the diamond in the rough that General Manager A.J. Preller pried away from the Yankees. In his career, Mitchell had been (2-6) with a 4.94 ERA in forty-eight games in parts of the past four seasons. This spring Mitchell has been dominant with his pinpoint control, pitching a scoreless four innings and minimizing the opposition’s batting average to a paltry .143 and a 1.00 WHIP.
Lucchesi, a fourth round pick of San Diego in 2016, has yet to see big league action. In his first action of Cactus League play, Lucchesi pitched two scoreless innings in the win over the White Sox on Sunday.
Japanese reliever/phenom Kazuhisa Makita, seeing his first action this week responded to his first outing (yielding a run and two hits to the Rangers on Thursday) by retiring all three hitters he faced on Sunday with only six pitches: one of which was an eephus breaking ball clocked at 56 mph.
Luis Perdomo has yet to make his first start of camp.
Let’s also take the time to acknowledge and celebrate the Padres’ proficiency at the plate, thus far.
Catcher Austin Hedges had homered four times this week – in each of his first four games. His off-season tinkering of his swing, trying to limit the distance his hands move in the load position while minimizing his leg kick, have produced immediate results.
Fernando Tatis, Jr., at times, has lived up to the hype. Tatis finished Sunday’s game a perfect 4-4 from the plate with five RBI’s and has raised his Cactus League batting average to .381. Tatis also ranks second on the team in a dubious statistic: strikeouts, with seven.
A potential controversy has been identified early at third base. Seeming incumbent to win the position, and a familiar face to the franchise, would be trade acquisition Chase Headley. The biggest statistical justification for Headley being the starter for the Padres can be seen in his durability and on-base percentage. Headley played in 147 games last year for New York, while assisting the team into the AL Divisional round, beating the Twins and then falling to the World Series Champions – Houston Astros. In those games, Headley posted a .352 OBP – his third highest total for his career.
Contrarians will point to Headley’s salary, naming the $13.1 million dollars we had to eat in the trade from the Yankees as the biggest reason the front office is compelled to pen him in the starting lineup.
The biggest challenge to Headley is trying to find an everyday place for Christian Villanueva in the lineup. Villanueva, a late season call up last season with San Diego, hit four homeruns in twelve games, posting a .344 BA. In twenty at bats, Villanueva has three homers, ten RBI’s, a .450 BA, and a 1.492 on base + slugging percentage. You cannot afford to send a bat with that kind of productivity down to the minors to begin the season. More challenging, you have to find a space defensively for him to settle into. Even more challenging, they have less than twenty-five days to figure it out.
The offense has been proficient and remarkable on paper – much more mediocre when put into the proper context.
The Padres, admittedly, have been able to score runs in bunches. But it has come against subpar competition in the thin desert air. The ball travels better in Arizona in February better than it will in April at Petco. The pitchers that San Diego has been facing for a majority of those games (most starters only pitch two innings) has been more comparable to minor league talent.
Furthering the inflation of the numbers is the fact that at this point into Spring Training, despite having to report later, the hitters are ahead of the pitchers in their progress. Arguably both hitters and pitchers are battling to hone their skills to be ready for Opening Day competition. In the opening fortnight of Cactus League action, advantage belongs to the hitters.
At the end of the day, there’s only so much lipstick you can put on a pig. As impressive as it has been to watch these young players swing the shelelales, there is cautious optimism that it can continue as we inch closer towards the season opener. Looming more ominously are the questions of how skipper Andy Green will fill the rest of the rotation. What is obvious to many is the abundant talent that is beginning to scratch the surface of their professional ability. Tons of skill that has yet to ripen maturely enough to produce consistently. A paradox for the Padres.