Patience must be a Padres virtue
Someday, San Diego's youth movement will pay off. But now? Times are tough.
San Diego Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso has declared a truce with Petco Park. After several years of waiting in vain for a chance behind Joey Votto in Cincinnati, he's grateful for the opportunity to play every day, even if half his games take place in a venue where long fly balls that ought to come to rest in a bleacher creature's nachos more often than not land in an outfielder's glove.
"I've come to peace with that,'' Alonso says. "People may think I have a problem with it, but I have zero problems with it. So be it. Deal with it. I'm 25, and I think the earlier I learn how to deal with it, the better it will make me as a hitter.''
Alonso, San Diego's cleanup hitter, has shown the patience to stick with his natural approach, which means hitting line drives gap to gap. He's batting .286 and ranks fifth in the National League with 12 doubles, virtuous numbers to show for his equanimity.
Alonso and the Padres both might benefit from patience, because their reason for hope is in the long-term prognosis. In February, ESPN.com's Keith Law rated the San Diego farm system as No. 1 in the game. He included six Padres prospects -- pitchers Casey Kelly and Joe Ross, outfielder Rymer Liriano, catcher Yasmani Grandal, Alonso and third baseman Jedd Gyorko -- among his top 100 prospects. The franchise has an opportunity to supplement that nucleus in early June with six of the first 70 picks in MLB's first-year-player draft.
But in the short term well, Alonso's hits haven't translated into many runs (he's scored only eight), and the rest of the Padres aren't crossing home plate any more frequently. Find a way to reach second base with the Padres, and it's a license to relax with a Kindle and a glass of chardonnay. They rank 15th among the 16 NL teams with 127 runs scored and a .629 OPS. Thank goodness for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The National League West has featured its share of surprises in the first six weeks. Tim Lincecum has one quality start, Chris Capuano is pitching like an All-Star and Jamie Moyer leads the Colorado Rockies' rotation with a 4.20 ERA. The Arizona Diamondbacks, a popular pick to win the division, recently lost 10 of 12. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who entered the season without much hype, got off to a 9-1 start and have yet to pause for a deep breath.
Meanwhile, it's the same old, same old in San Diego, where manager Bud Black's lineup is making fans long for the days of Tony Gwynn. Or Nate Colbert.
In the past week, the Padres beat Roy Halladay 2-1 in Philadelphia and notched a 6-1 win in Washington over Stephen Strasburg, who may or may not have been inhibited by Icy Hot in his jock. But highlights and feel-good moments have been hard to find during the team's 14-26 start.
The Padres have hit 16 home runs, which puts them within striking distance of Josh Hamilton if they can get hot. They're hitting .205 with a .608 OPS in San Diego and .241/.667 on the road, so futility isn't necessarily dictated by the venue.
On a positive note, the Pads are second in the league in stolen bases. But a team can manufacture only so many runs with an aggregate .301 on-base percentage.
"Obviously, it's nice to have the homer in there to bail you out when you don't have anything going,'' says third baseman Chase Headley. "You can hit a shot and pick up one or two runs right away. Our margin for error is smaller than a lot of teams. We have to play clean, be focused all the time and execute as far as getting runners over and getting them in. We're not going to win 8-7 very often. It's gonna be 3-2, and if you make an error that gives another team an out, that might be the end of it.''
As the Padres strive to get better, they continue to get younger. General manager Josh Byrnes shook things up Thursday when he released 34-year-old second baseman Orlando Hudson and summoned middle infielders Everth Cabrera and Alexi Amarista from the minors. Those moves didn't bode well for shortstop Jason Bartlett, whose strained right knee has him on the disabled list at the moment. Once he's healthy, his .133 batting average (11-for-83) might have him headed straight for an airport ticket counter.
The push to stockpile all those highly rated prospects began in earnest when former Padres GM Jed Hoyer traded Adrian Gonzalez to Boston for Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielder Reymond Fuentes. Byrnes, Hoyer's successor, made another bold move in December when he dealt starter Mat Latos to Cincinnati for Alonso, Grandal, pitcher Edinson Volquez and reliever Brad Boxberger.
Grandal is off to a strong start with Triple-A Tucson, where he's hitting .287 with an .866 OPS. A National League scout says he's a better defensive catcher and game-caller than Devin Mesoraco, the young catcher the Reds decided to keep. The scout describes Grandal as a "switch-hitting Alex Avila'' type -- which is pretty good if the Padres can get the 2011, All-Star version of Avila rather than the .700 OPS, 2012 model.
Alonso, who saw many of San Diego's prospects in the Cactus League, describes the Padres' system as "stacked.''
"They have a plan here,'' he says. "I saw some of these guys in spring training and they're good players.''
But a long-range plan doesn't preclude the Padres from taking some here-and-now lumps. Ryan Ludwick led the 2011 Padres with 11 home runs, and he's now in Cincinnati; so Byrnes knew the team was going to be power-impaired this season. The Padres acquired outfielder Carlos Quentin from the White Sox in a December trade, and expected him to provide cover for the kids in the middle of the order. But Quentin underwent knee surgery in March and suffered a setback earlier this week that led to a cortisone shot. This is Quentin's sixth trip to the disabled list since 2007; it'll be hard to count on him staying healthy even when he completes his latest rehab assignment.
"We thought he would give us a threat and a presence,'' Byrnes says. "With his makeup, he brings an intensity and a confidence to the lineup. So he's been missed.''
Center fielder Cameron Maybin and Alonso probably have felt the biggest burden to fill the void. Maybin, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract extension in March, was bumped from the leadoff spot after hitting .170 in his first 12 games. Alonso's numbers improved markedly in May once he came to grips with the December trade and finally allowed himself to relax.
"I feel like I'm more myself now,'' Alonso says. "I'm normal. You can get so caught up in trying to be something you're not in this game. You have to be content with who you are and what you're capable of doing, no matter what stadium you're playing in.''
Alonso showed some serious pop with his lone 2012 home run -- a line drive that traveled an estimated 394 feet and dented the Budweiser sign just beneath the second deck in right field at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Scouts and talent evaluators ultimately project him as a 15-to-20-homers, 40-doubles type of guy rather than a classic masher.
"He's able to let the ball travel in the zone, and he's shown he's able to hit good pitching,'' says Omar Minaya, San Diego's senior vice president of baseball operations. "You watch the games and see a guy who isn't going to rush himself in an RBI situation. He's going to hit the ball where he wants to hit it, and he isn't going to swing at bad pitches. He identifies the zone very well for a young hitter.''
Alonso is an intriguing hitter. But the Padres lack a Giancarlo Stanton, a Bryce Harper or even a Jason Heyward with the talent and charisma to be a focal point of the batting order and a franchise face for years to come. Unless they decide to bring in the Petco Park fences, they'll have to address their offensive issues with depth and imagination moving forward.
At least they have some financial flexibility. The Padres' Opening Day payroll of $55.8 million ranked 29th in the game, and the future will come into clearer focus when a new ownership group takes over for John Moores. Now that the Dodgers have been sold, the Padres are next up on MLB's agenda.
"With the moves we've made, we've gotten better performance at half the cost, plus prospects on the back end,'' Byrnes says. "Those are the things we have to do. But when your record is what it is, that isn't much consolation.''
The long-term outlook in San Diego is reasonably sunny. The short-term pain is more acute than the players, the front office or the fan base would prefer.