He never touched home plate! -- Padres fans, the early hours of Oct. 2, 2007.
Whether or not Matt Holliday actually touched home, the play was the culmination of a disastrous turn of events for the Padres, who lost their final three games to miss the playoffs by the slimmest of margins. Compounding the heartache was the fact that beloved closer Trevor Hoffman blew a two-run lead in the 13th inning, leaving devoted fans with no place to direct their anger, except of course squarely on plate umpire Tim McClelland.
When the anger eventually subsides, Padres fans will surely realize that they still have quite a bit to be thankful for, starting with the day back in October 2005 when Rangers general manager Jon Daniels decided that Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young were expendable when the return was a package built around Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. Two years later, the Padres have a star first baseman and a No. 2 starter both signed (for reasonable money) through 2010. Gonzalez proved his San Diego debut was no fluke by blasting 30 home runs, the most by a Padre since the team moved to Petco Park. Young posted a career-best 3.12 ERA, made the All-Star team and emerged unscathed from a brawl with Derrek Lee of the Cubs. Young and Jake Peavy now form arguably the best 1-2 punch in the National League.
After winning 89 and 88 games, respectively, the past two seasons, Padres management decided to tinker around the edges rather than make sweeping changes. To replace Mike Cameron, the Padres acquired Jim Edmonds from the Cardinals. Tadahito Iguchi was signed to replace Marcus Giles at second base, and the club took low-risk gambles on Randy Wolf and Mark Prior to try to fill out the rotation behind Peavy, Young and Greg Maddux.
The Padres will count on the continued excellence of Peavy and Young as well as steady improvement from Gonzalez, Khalil Greene and Kevin Kouzmanoff to propel them to the playoffs this season. However, given the age and injury history of a number of key players, it's likely that the team will have to bring in reinforcements from the minor leagues throughout the season.
Ballpark: Park factors are funny things. Comerica Park in Detroit, a supposed pitchers' haven, ranked in the top half of the majors in park factor for runs in 2007. The statistics we use to evaluate ballparks are inherently prone to year-to-year swings, mainly because 81 games aren't a particularly large sample size for something of this magnitude. That's why it's all the more powerful to recognize that Petco Park in San Diego has ranked dead last in runs in each of the past three years. In 2-07, for the second time in three years, Petco ranked last in home runs. The park is particularly tough on home runs from left-handed batters, which doesn't bode well for Edmonds. Simply put, Petco Park is indisputably the worst ballpark for hitters and the best for pitchers in all of baseball. As a result, San Diego's offense tends to be underrated. The Padres actually ranked second in the majors in home runs on the road and sixth in runs scored on the road.
Intriguing spring battle: Josh Bard played 108 games for the Padres in 2007, and in those games, he threw out just 10 of 131 would-be base stealers. Despite that, he's the front-runner for the catching job in San Diego this season. That must be very humbling for Michael Barrett, only one year removed from a three-year run as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. On the other hand, Barrett himself is one of the very worst catchers at throwing out base stealers. Although Bard is a switch-hitter and Barrett bats right-handed, there's no natural platoon because Bard does his best work from the right side. Bard is the favorite, but he can't afford a slump of any duration as long as Barrett is on the squad.
Trainer's Room: If the Padres set a record for days on the DL this season, they have no one to blame but themselves. They acquired Edmonds, Wolf and Prior in the offseason, and there were no reports of a concurrent purchase of extended service plans. Prior is a story unto himself (see sidebar), but suffice to say he's the ultimate flyer, a guy with superstar potential who will go undrafted in many leagues this season. Wolf has made only 43 starts in the past three seasons because of an assortment of injuries. He underwent "minor" shoulder surgery last September and hopes to be ready for spring training. As a strikeout/fly-ball pitcher, Wolf could really benefit from pitching at Petco Park, if he can stay on the mound. Edmonds has missed 97 games the past two seasons and will turn 38 in June. It would be unwise to count on more than 125 games from Mr. Edmonds. It's not like the holdover Padres were bastions of health, either. Brian Giles played in just 121 games last season and underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee in October. Hoffman had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow this past October. The veteran closer hasn't been on the disabled list since 2003 but is now 40 years old, and the surgery has to be at least a minor concern heading into his 16th season. Bottom line: There's a lot of risk on this team.
Fantasy Stud: Although Johan Santana is still considered the No. 1 pitcher in fantasy baseball, Peavy is, at worst, right on his heels. Only two pitchers in major league baseball have struck out at least 200 batters in each of the past three seasons: Santana -- who's done it four years in a row -- is one, Peavy is the other. The Padres ace has a cumulative ERA of 2.97 in the four years since the Padres moved to Petco Park. In the same four-year span, Santana has an ERA of 2.89. Peavy is coming off his best all-around season and has proven to be durable. Santana certainly has greater upside, especially now that he's with the Mets, but the gap between the two pitchers isn't as large as you think. If you're willing to spend a first-round pick on Santana, you should be willing to spend, at the very least, an early second-round pick on Peavy.
Future Closer: At 30 years old, Heath Bell is no spring chicken, but he's relatively new on the fantasy scene. He made his major league debut in 2004 but spent the next three seasons bouncing between the Mets and Triple-A Norfolk before joining the Padres in a little-thought-of trade in November 2006. He exploded out of the gate in 2007, allowing just one earned run in his first 16 appearances, eventually replacing Scott Linebrink as the primary set-up man in front of Hoffman. Bell is neither a one-year wonder nor a product of Petco Park. He struck out 543 batters in 468 1/3 innings through his minor league career, and his road ERA was more than a full run better than his home ERA this past season. Hoffman is still an elite closer, but he's also 40 years old, needed minor elbow surgery last October and in the final year of his contract. Bell has the tools to be a top-notch closer and is relatively unchallenged in his spot behind Hoffman.
Base-running philosophy: In his first season as a big league manager, Bud Black oversaw a squad that attempted only 79 steals, the second-fewest in all of baseball. A year earlier, the Padres attempted 154 steals under Bruce Bochy. Two obvious explanations for the year-over-year decline are the departure of Dave Roberts (and his 55 stolen base attempts in 2006) and the team's No. 28 ranking in on-base percentage. Does that fully explain the decline? Actually, it might. When you look at the roster, the Padres really didn't have many players who were threats to run last year, and they still don't. Black coached under Mike Scioscia in Anaheim, so he's certainly been exposed to a more aggressive baserunning style before. The only current Padre who will be particularly valued for his speed is Iguchi, and there's no evidence that fantasy owners should be concerned about Black's willingness to turn him loose.
Prospects for '08: Last year, in his third season out of the University of Tennessee, Chase Headley hit .330 with 20 home runs and a .437 on-base percentage for Double-A San Antonio. Those numbers have the Padres trying to figure out a way to get the natural third baseman into their lineup. Although Headley has not played a single game in the outfield as a professional, the Padres are ready to let him compete with Scott Hairston for the left-field job. Since neither Jim Edmonds nor Brian Giles can be counted on to play a full season, chances are there will be plenty of playing time for both Hairston and Headley -- the latter is a nice sleeper for NL-only leagues or deep (14- to 16-team) mixed leagues. In a perfect world, Wade LeBlanc would spend all of 2008 in the minor leagues. In that same perfect world, Wolf and Prior would combine to make at least 55 starts. But despite the dreams of Huey Lewis (and the News, for that matter), we don't live in a perfect world, and it's likely that the Padres will need the services of LeBlanc in their rotation at some point this season. The 23-year-old struck out 8.8 batters per nine innings and walked only 2.2 per nine last season while splitting the year between Class A and Double-A. While he's still a work in progress, he could have immediate value in NL-only leagues given the benefits of Petco Park.
Prospect to watch for the future: Matt Antonelli was the 17th overall pick in the 2006 draft, and since then he's done nothing to make the Padres regret the choice. Drafted as a third baseman, Antonelli moved to second base in 2007, and the one-year contract given to Tadahito Iguchi appears to be designed to buy Antonelli a year of development before he takes over the keystone in 2009. Though not an elite talent, Antonelli is a potential 20-20 player down the road and deserves attention in keeper leagues.
Nate Ravitz is an editor and analyst for ESPN Fantasy.