Padres gain confidence after late surge

Friars gain confidence after late surge

SAN DIEGO -- There is hope in San Diego, something that wasn't apparent a year ago at this time, on the heels of a 99-loss season.

The Padres, from CEO Jeff Moorad to manager Bud Black to his players, are certainly encouraged with the direction the club is headed moving foward.

The optimism is based on the way the team played over the final two months of the season with one of the youngest teams (an average of 28 years old) in the Major Leagues.

The development of rookie shortstop Everth Cabrera, pitcher Mat Latos and outfielders Will Venable and Kyle Blanks helped the Padres improve by 12 victories from their 63-99 campaign in 2008.

Even the veterans are encouraged by the strides made by a roster filled with players low on service time but not short on promise.

"I've been through a lot of stages in my career, having been on teams that won, on teams that were supposed to win, teams that are young," Padres second baseman David Eckstein said. "But knowing the direction this club is going, I want to be a part of that.

"I don't think this club is as far off as some people think. They've got to learn how to play the game the right way, because next year, there's not going to be any excuses. These guys are starting to step up."

Before they forge into the offseason, the Padres will need to find a general manager to replace Kevin Towers, who was the longest-tenured general manager in the Major Leagues before the team bought him out of the final year of his contract.

It's hard to say what the new general manager will want to do.

There are still needs to fill moving forward, though two trades Towers made during the season -- sending pitcher Jake Peavy to the White Sox and outfielder Scott Hairston to the A's -- netted seven pitchers, many who figure to play important roles in 2010.

The Padres could look for a right-handed bat, possibly to play center field, more help for the starting rotation and maybe some help at the catching position. But again, these were the needs of the outgoing general manager.

Contract issues
Free agents: Brian Giles, OF; Cliff Floyd, OF; Henry Blanco, C.
Eligible for arbitration: Heath Bell, RP; Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B; Kevin Correia, SP; Mike Adams, RP.
Player options: None.
Club options: None.
Non-tender possibilities: Cha Seung Baek, SP; Shawn Hill, SP; Luis Rodriguez, IF.

Catchers
• Nick Hundley, .238 BA, 8 HRs, 30 RBIs
• Henry Blanco, .235 BA, 6 HRs, 16 RBIs

To be sure, there has been noticeable improvement in Hundley in his first full Major League season, though he was derailed for 50 games because of a wrist injury. He has been charged with learning a new staff while trying to figure out opposing pitchers. He's shown some power at the plate. What the Padres want him to clean up are some things on the defensive side. Blanco served a capable backup and a good mentor for Hundley. The Padres could carry this tandem into 2010, though the team will keep its eyes out for a catcher in the offseason.

First base
• Adrian Gonzalez, .277 BA, 40 HRs, 99 RBIs

Well, it's safe to say the Padres are set at first base for a while, unless, of course, they opt to trade Gonzalez in the offseason. That is looking less and less likely, though, as the 27-year-old had another monster year at the plate, becoming the fourth player in club history to hit 40 home runs. He's been durable and very good with the glove. Better still? He will make $4.75 million in 2010, which might rank as the best bang for the buck in baseball. The Padres will likely again try to give him a few days off and play Blanks at first, but don't expect Gonzalez to rest too much.

Second base
• David Eckstein, .260 BA, 2 HRs, 50 RBIs

So impressed were the Padres by Eckstein's play and his leadership/mentorship abilities that they've already signed him to a one-year deal for $1 million for 2010. Eckstein did miss time with a nagging hamstring injury but otherwise proved durable and dependable at a position where the team has lacked stability. The team played better when he was in the lineup and his mentorship of rookie shortstop Cabrera is a big reason why the 22-year-old became acclimated to the Major Leagues so quickly. The Padres would like to upgrade their bench in the offseason by adding someone who can spell Eckstein on occasion.

Shortstop
• Everth Cabrera, .255 BA, 2 HRs, 31 RBIs, 25 SBs
• Luis Rodriguez, .202 BA, 2 HRs, 16 RBIs

Cabrera moved quickly in 2009, on the bases and from a Rule 5 pick in December to a dependable choice at a position where the Padres needed help fast. Cabrera was slowed early by a hamate bone injury but once he returned to the lineup, he played every day. His speed is hard to miss and his success rate on stolen-base attempts is notable. But his defense really set him apart. Good footwork, range and a strong arm should keep him at shortstop for the Padres for a long time. Much like second base, the Padres would like to find a utilityman who can back up both positions.

Third base
• Kevin Kouzmanoff, .255 BA, 18 HRs, 88 RBIs
• Chase Headley, .262 BA, 12 HRs, 64 RBIs

Kouzmanoff gets a lot of knocks for his slow starts and aversion to walks (though those were up this season), but he's been remarkably consistant in his three seasons with the Padres. He's shown power, been a run producer and likely would have set career highs in several offensive categories had he not missed two-plus weeks late in the season with calf/back issues. Where he's improved the most is defensively, where he had three errors and took care of everything hit his way. Headley filled in at his natural position late after Kouzmanoff missed time and played well. If the Padres opt to move Kouzmanoff in a deal, they can easily slide Headley in at third base.

Outfield
• Chase Headley, .262 BA, 12 HRs, 64 RBIs
• Kyle Blanks, .250 BA, 10 HRs, 22 RBIs
• Will Venable, .256 BA, 12 HRs, 38 RBIs
• Tony Gwynn, .270 BA, 2 HRs, 21 RBIs
• Edgar Gonzalez, .216 BA, 4 HRs, 18 RBIs
• Oscar Salazar, .269 BA, 3 HRs, 19 RBIs
• Drew Macias, .197 BA, 1 HR, 7 RBIs

The Padres have some decisions moving forward. Will the new genreal manager look to acquire a right-handed bat for the lineup to combat the left-handed pitching in the National League West? If that doesn't happen, look for Headley, Venable and Blanks to get the most playing time in 2010 with Gwynn the fourth outfielder who will certainly get plenty of playing time. The Padres like Salazar's bat off the bench. He can also play some infield. Should the Padres move Kouzmanoff (not likely), they could slide Headley back to third base and add another outfielder.

Rotation
• Chris Young, 4-6, 5.21 ERA in 14 starts
• Kevin Correia, 12-11, 3.91 ERA in 198 innings
• Mat Latos, 4-5, 4.62 ERA in first 10 Major League starts
• Clayton Richard, 5-2, 4.08 ERA
• Tim Stauffer, 4-7, 3.58 ERA
• Wade LeBlanc, 3-1, 3.69 ERA
• Sean Gallagher, 2-0, 0.00 in relief
• Cesar Ramos, 5-6, 3.99 ERA in 15 starts with Triple-A Portland
• Aaron Poreda, 0-3, 7.16 ERA in seven games with Triple-A Portland

By the end of the season, Correia was the lone survivor from the Opening Day rotation, as Young missed the second half after having minor shoulder surgery. He will be ready for the start of Spring Training. Correia, who came to camp on a Minor League contract, led the team in most pitching categories. Latos was impressive in his first 10 starts and merits a spot in the rotation for 2010. Richard looked good at times, and Gallagher, who came over from the A's in the Hairston deal, will get a look in spring. There figures to be plenty of competition for rotation spots. Poreda, considered the gem of the Peavy deal, will get a look at a rotation spot as well.

Bullpen
• Heath Bell, 6-4, 2.71 ERA, 42 saves
• Luke Gregerson, 2-4, 3.24 ERA, team-best 72 games
• Edward Mujica, 3-5, 3.94 ERA, 67 games
• Joe Thatcher, 1-0, 3.36 ERA
• Greg Burke, 3-3, 4.14 ERA
• Adam Russell, 3-1, 3.65 ERA
• Ryan Webb, 2-1, 3.86 ERA
• Mike Adams, 0.73 ERA in 37 games
• Luis Perdomo, 1-0, 4.80

Bell proved to be a more than capable replacement for Trevor Hoffman, saving 42 games in his first go as a Major League closer. The late innings were also covered well by two right-handers, Gregerson and Adams, who helped bridge the innings to get to Bell in the ninth. Gregerson offered more than his wipeout slider and was especially tough at home, where he allowed three runs in 41 2/3 innings. Adams missed part of the season with shoulder issues but again looked good in the late innings. Mujica pitched a lot in long relief and was given a late-season trial as a starter. Thatcher fared better as a left-handed specialist than he did in 2008, though the Padres might add another lefty to the bullpen. Webb and Russell have a lot of upside. Perdomo could start '10 with Triple-A Portland, possibly as a starter.

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.