I hate to keep using these previews to slam the Pirates' opponents, but they keep playing teams that aren't constructed very well, so I have to. Here's what to expect from the Padres, with whom the Bucs kick off a four-game series late tonight at PETCO Park.
POSITION PLAYERS: .247/.302/.381. 3.2 fWAR, 12th in the National League. The Padres' position players haven't been good by any standard, but they've been particularly bad considering how much the team invested in them last offseason. Two of their additions (Justin Upton and Derek Norris) have been great. The others, not so much. Matt Kemp has hit .254/.289/.344 with his usual poor defense, Wil Myers has hit well but has also played bad defense (no surprise, given that he's playing out of position) and is now hurt, and Will Middlebrooks has hit .226/.260/.397. And then there's the rest of the Padres infield, which lately has included some combination of Alexi Amarista, Yangervis Solarte, Jedd Gyorko and Cory Spangenberg, with first baseman Yonder Alonso on the DL. Amusingly, old friend Clint Barmes is currently listed as the Padres' first baseman on their team depth chart, although he hasn't actually played there.
PITCHING: 4.07 ERA, 4.21 FIP, 3.61 xFIP. 1.8 fWAR, last in National League. The Padres' pitching staff's poor performance this year has surprised me more than that of its position players, but note the difference between the staff's FIP and xFIP. That's the result of the Padres allowing an MLB-leading 1.32 home runs per nine innings, which is insane and is highly unlikely to continue, particularly given their home ballpark.
The Bucs face Ian Kennedy tonight, and he's struggled as much as anyone, with a 6.11 ERA so far. He has a 2.29 HR/9, though, which is totally ridiculous; his peripherals suggest he's merely been mediocre rather than wretched this season, although that's still far worse than was expected of him. James Shields, who the Pirates face Friday, has had similar problems, with a 2.17 HR/9 rate. Assuming he pitches 200 innings this year, he's on pace to give up 48 homers. He's still striking out 11.8 batters per nine innings, so he should be fine in the long run.
One pitcher who hasn't been bitten by the home-run bug is Tyson Ross, who will face Charlie Morton Saturday in a game that good easily feature 25 or so ground ball outs. Ross has his fair share of control issues, but I'm sure the Padres are cool with that, since he's striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings and is getting ground balls at a higher rate than any qualified starter other than Brett Anderson. He's filthy. Odrisamer Despaigne, who starts Sunday, is a mediocre back-end type.
In the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel has also struggled with home runs, although his other peripherals remain stable and he still throws hard, so there isn't much reason to worry about him. Brandon Maurer has pitched reasonably well; Joaquin Benoit has a good ERA but has struggled with his control. Shawn Kelley and Frank Garces has struggled badly with (wait for it) home runs. The Padres' bullpen has actually been the worst in baseball by fWAR, which I wouldn't have seen coming last offseason, when I thought adding Kimbrel to the bullpen was a little weird because the 'pen was already a team strength.
OUTLOOK: The Padres are currently 23-25, which makes them a significant disappointment after all their offseason spending. Their home-run issues should regress, which might make them slightly better than that in the long run, and there are still enough good arms on their pitching staff (Shields, Ross, Kimbrel and Andrew Cashner in particular) that they should be competitive.
But how competitive? The Padres' position players are bad. They might not be bad in a universe where a baseball team consisted of a catcher, two infielders, and five outfielders who never had to do anything but stand around. But in this universe, where you've got to have four infielders, where you only play three outfielders at a time, and where said outfielders have to try to catch the balls that don't go flying over their heads, they're bad. You can have two of Upton, Myers and Kemp on your team. You can't have three. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Padres' third-best position player by fWAR this year has been Will Venable, an outfielder who didn't even project as a starter but who has a big leg up on many of his teammates because he's a competent defensive center fielder.) And somebody still has to play shortstop.
Maybe there are ways out of this. Maybe Alonso, who was off to a great start to his season before injuring his shoulder, will return from his rehab assignment, keep hitting, and help solidify first base. Solarte, too, is probably a decent enough answer at some infield position or another. Maybe Middlebrooks will hit. Maybe Venable will play so well that the Padres can't help but continue to let him. If all that happens, things might start to fall into place. And if they do, who knows -- the Padres probably aren't going to catch the Dodgers, but a Wild Card spot is still within reach. If they make the playoffs, then you can forget everything I'm writing here if you want to. But mostly, what I see is a team that threw a ton of talent and money last offseason at a bunch of players who grab headlines but aren't a good fit together.
The worst aspect of the Padres' situation was that they assembled this mismatched team on purpose, giving up many of their best prospects to do it. (Looking through the Padres' top-30 prospects list, the guy I would want the most is Trea Turner, and he isn't even really a Padre -- he's heading to Washington in a few weeks as the PTBNL in the Myers deal.) This isn't, say, the result of a previous year's pennant chase gone bad, or of a new GM trying to make do with his predecessor's mistakes. A.J. Preller is, of course, a new GM, but he turned the Padres' roster over to such a great degree last offseason that this team really is his.
Preller's former boss, Rangers GM Jon Daniels, points out that what Preller did last winter was creative. The most obvious route would have been to tear down and start over. In this case, though, perhaps the obvious route would have been the better one. Or perhaps the Padres could have undertaken the creative route with a little more care. The Padres look like a fantasy team whose owner auto-drafted. That doesn't work in fantasy, and it probably won't work in real life, either.