Beyond Adrian Gonzalez, a perpetual subject of trade rumors, what can fantasy owners like about the San Diego Padres?
Gonzalez was a .244 hitter with a .446 slugging percentage at Petco Park last season, but on the road his numbers were .306 and .643. In other words, in terms of slugging percentage, he was effectively Albert Pujols in his road games, but Mike Cameron (albeit with many more walks) at Petco.
That's why, since Petco's inception in 2004, fantasy owners have long targeted Padres pitchers while taking a conservative approach to selecting their hitters. And the problem this season is that in addition to a dearth of quality hitting candidates, there are also precious few attractive pitchers.
But don't misconstrue those words for the Padres being devoid of fantasy talent. Value is a relative thing in this game, and that the Padres tend to garner so little attention might actually serve their players well in fantasy.
Now, we know what you're thinking. Only six -- six! -- Padres players cracked our top 300, and one of them is Gonzalez himself. That's not a ringing endorsement of the team, especially not in a mixed league, but all six of those players are well worth your consideration on draft day. Let's take a look:
Heath Bell, No. 102 overall
He's the next-most obvious fantasy name on the roster, and that's not shocking, considering it's the closer who most often becomes the most appealing choice on one of the game's weaker teams. After all, saves are saves, and if you're wondering whether a closer can rack up a healthy save total on a bad team, well, Bell led the National League in the category (42) in 2009 despite playing for a 75-win team.
Not that Bell just lucked into all those saves. He's one of the game's more underrated relievers, with a 2.72 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 9.40 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in his three-year Padres career to date. Those numbers compare favorably with the game's top stoppers, and let's not forget that he does have that ballpark helping his cause, as his ERA is 2.49 and WHIP is 0.99 in his career at Petco.
If you're sweating the prospect of the Padres dealing Bell at the deadline to a team that might prefer him in a setup role, robbing him of a significant chunk of his fantasy value, keep in mind that not many teams have a closer who has performed better the past three seasons. The Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Angels, two teams rumored to be interested in Bell's services last July, had closers with noticeably weaker numbers (Leo Nunez and Brian Fuentes, respectively).
In addition, you might be wondering whether Bell's save total might suffer significantly if he remains in San Diego, simply because the Padres might not even win 75 games. To that point, it's generally 100-loss teams that present significant worries for a closer. Since the save became an official category in 1970, only 11 pitchers have saved 20-plus games for a 100-loss squad, and the record for such a team was Juan Acevedo's 28 for the 2002 Detroit Tigers. Unless you're convinced the Padres will go into the tank -- hard to imagine unless they deal Gonzalez early -- they seem unlikely to regress in performance by 13 games or more.
Mat Latos, No. 196 overall
He's another hotshot prospect, and if there's anything to dislike about Latos this season, it's only two things: He's an inexperienced 22-year-old and might be kept to a strict innings limit, having thrown only 123 frames between the majors and minors last season, 97 2/3 of those at the Double-A level and above.
Everything else about Latos, meanwhile, should be tantalizing to any fantasy owner. He's a pitcher who had a 2.49 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 10.53 K/9 ratio during his minor league career, before he even got a chance to reap the benefits of Petco. In 10 starts for the Padres late last summer he held his own, with 4.62/1.30/6.93 numbers in those categories. He'll be in the mix for the team's fifth-starter role and, if he wins it, might yet help even in shallow mixed formats.
Or, in the event he falls short in his spring quest, Latos might rank among the season's most attractive mid-year pickups, as the kind of blue-chip talent who can make an instant impact immediately upon his promotion.
Everth Cabrera, No. 212 overall
Another youngster, and fantasy owners looking for some cheap speed might want to consider Cabrera as a late-round selection, most likely as a mixed-league middle infielder or low-end NL-only starting shortstop. After all, he did swipe 25 bases in his rookie season, 22 of those coming after July 1, and that helped him on his way to a healthy 48 runs scored in his final 86 contests.
But here's the problem with Cabrera, the reason he failed to crack our top 200: As a Rule 5 draft pick entering last season, Cabrera, only 23, was plucked right out of the Colorado Rockies' Class A affiliate, meaning he scarcely received the kind of seasoning you'd expect from a typical prospect. Unsurprisingly, he was erratic with the glove at times, and he'd get into bad habits with his plate discipline, especially late in the season. In his final 39 games, for instance, Cabrera batted .226 with a .277 slugging percentage and 42 strikeouts in 155 at-bats.
Not to say that Cabrera is a player you should skip over, but understand that of our six ranked Padres, his downside represents the steepest of the bunch. With a year's experience under his belt he might take the next step and be a 40-steal performer who adequately holds down an everyday job or, possibly, he'll play his way out of a job by Memorial Day and spend the rest of the year in Triple-A.
Chase Headley, No. 216 overall
Now this is where it gets interesting. What's most attractive about the 2010 Padres is the young talent this team has on offense, and if there's any name you might be able to sneak through, it's Headley, who has amassed modest statistics through two-plus big league seasons but has yet to completely show his full potential.
Headley's offensive rates might not wow you (.262/.342/.392 AVG/OBP/SLG), but it's what he did in road games (.305/.377/.426) and in the season's second half (.293/.377/.421) that bears watching. He's 25 years old, nearing his power prime, and was once considered one of the better hitting prospects in the game. To say that he might be able to raise his batting average closer to the .290 level with a modest power boost isn't unreasonable, but what fantasy owners might like best is his position flexibility -- he's eligible at both third base and outfield.
Kyle Blanks, No. 283 overall
Another appealing young Padres hitter, and that's in spite of Petco typically neutralizing power hitters' production to a degree (just look at Gonzalez's slugging percentage splits). Blanks debuted last summer, at the time serving as one of the game's most promising young power hitters, and sure enough he clubbed 10 home runs in a 54-game cup of coffee. Six of those were hit at Petco, and four of those were bombs of greater than 400 feet, according to Hittrackeronline.com, meaning they'd have easily cleared the fence in most any ballpark.
Blanks' 10 homers averaged 415.3 feet in distance, which compares favorably to the game's elite sluggers, so he hardly got lucky when he got ahold of one. Also, while he whiffed a whopping 55 times in 148 at-bats (one per 2.69 at-bats), Blanks wasn't a free-swinging nightmare; his 4.06 pitches-per-plate appearance was topped by only 28 qualified hitters in baseball, and 56 with at least as many trips to the plate as him. Among the "walkers" who trailed him: Marco Scutaro, Ben Zobrist and Adrian Gonzalez!
Naturally all those strikeouts might lead to a low batting average for Blanks, perhaps not much better than his rookie-year .250 mark. He's a bona fide 30-homer candidate, however, and for a player whose ADP is currently outside the top 200, he's well worth a look late in a mixed-league draft, or in the middle-to-late rounds of NL-only formats. That's especially true for teams that have already built a solid core of batting-average specialists in the earlier rounds.
Best of the rest
Not that mixed-league owners will want to reach this far for Padres sleepers, but if you play in an NL-only league, you might want to scoop up a few lesser-known players off their roster in the late rounds of your draft.
From the rotation, typically a good place to find matchups or NL-only appeal, veterans Kevin Correia, Jon Garland and Chris Young (if healthy) warrant looks. Correia had a 3.68 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 18 home starts, providing a hint of Petco matchups potential for such pitchers. Deeper down the rotation, Clayton Richard was 4-0 with a 2.00 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in six starts at Petco after being acquired in the Jake Peavy trade from the Chicago White Sox. Even Wade LeBlanc, armed with a cutter, managed a 3.69 ERA in nine late-season starts and might warrant a reserve-round pick in NL-only formats.
Among Padres hitters, Scott Hairston and Will Venable have some pop, and could be of help as daily-matchups types. Hairston was a .318/.378/.543 hitter versus left-handers, while Venable managed .266/.332/.505 numbers against right-handers. Use them properly in such formats and you might find sneaky value from one of your final outfield spots. Jerry Hairston Jr. also could be of use, thanks to his multiple position eligibility. A third base/shortstop/outfield eligible player, Hairston would be of particular interest to Cabrera owners in deep NL-only leagues, as he'd be the most likely stand-in should Cabrera suffer any sophomore slump.
Overall, the Padres' outlook might be bleak, as far as the real game is concerned. In fantasy, however, this is not a team to be discarded, even if Gonzalez is eventually traded. Sometimes it's merely the promise of playing time that can make a player attractive for our purposes, and remember, there are more than 6,000 plate appearances and 1,400 innings to go around -- even on the bad teams!
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.