Padres prepare for life without Adrian Gonzalez

Until a nightmarish last half of August that saw them fall back in the National League West, the San Diego Padres were putting together one of the surprise seasons throughout all of Major League Baseball.

More than four months removed from the end of the 2010 regular season, it still takes Criss Angel to figure out exactly how much smoke and how many mirrors the Pads used to lead the division for 148 days. How do you compete for a playoff spot with an offense that features…

  • One everyday player hitting above .271? (Adrian Gonzalez – .298)
  • One player with more than 13 homers? (Gonzalez – 31)
  • One player with more than 58 RBI? (Guess who? – 101)
  • Two players with more than 60 runs scored? (Gonzo – 87, Chase Headley – 77)

The answer in a word: pitching.

San Diego posted the second lowest team ERA in the majors, behind only San Francisco. Yet while the Giants’ rotation was a who’s who, the Padres’ starting staff was mostly a who’s that. On paper, the trio of Mat Latos, Jon Garland and Clayton Richard didn’t strike fear in NL hitters. Still that group combined for 42 wins in 97 starts with a 3.39 ERA (Garland would finish the season with the Dodgers).

There’s no discouting the job that Bud Black did managing that group to within a week of a playoff spot, but for San Diego to contend in 2011, here are five holes that need to be filled by the end of Spring Training.

1. Replace Gonzalez’s offense – Hitters aren’t exactly lining up to take their hacks at Petco Park, so replacing A-Gone’s .298/31/101 won’t be easy. Adding Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett and Cameron Maybin gives the Padres useful speed in a park that plays very big. If Chase Headley and Will Venable can gain some consistency at the plate, San Diego’s offense could be a small-ball wonder. Ryan Ludwick and Brad Hawpe will likely be asked to replace Gonzalez’s power numbers. But with Ludwick no longer under the lineup protection of Albert Pujols and Hawpe away from Colorado (see Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday before getting to St. Louis), it doesn’t look promising.

2. Replace Gonzalez’s defense – So far the talk of A-Gone’s departure has centered around the offense he’s taking with him, but he’ll also be leaving a pretty big hole on the right side of the infield. A good first baseman not only doesn’t make a lot of errors – Gonzalez was top 10 in the majors in fielding percentage – but he prevents the rest of your infield from making them. San Diego was tied for the 2nd fewest errors committed in the bigs last season. Hawpe, with a total of eight career games at first – all last season – is the early candidate to take over. Good luck.

3. Leadoff hitter – Last season, injury forced Bud Black to use nine different players in the top spot in the batting order. If San Diego’s not going to have a lot of power, having table setters will be critical. Maybin will likely get the first crack at it, but if his history of low batting average and high strikeouts continues (.234, 92 K in 82 games last season) Venable, Hudson or Bartlett should all get a shot.

4. Third base – It looked like Chase Headley was going to be the undisputed starter at the hot corner. That was before the Padres signed Jorge Cantu to a one-year deal. Considering all of the other offensive numbers are pretty similar, Headley’s speed (17 SB last year) should give him the edge for the starting spot. But Cantu’s presence on the roster should keep him looking over his shoulder all year.

5. Bottom of the rotation – After a breakout season in 2010, Latos will earn the chance to take the mound on Opening Day with the lefty Richard sliding into the second spot. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess who takes the ball. Wade LeBlanc can help his chances to stay in the rotation by getting more groundball outs. That leaves two spots for three candidates – Aaron Harang, Cory Luebke and Tim Stauffer. Harang, who signed a one-year deal in December, hopes the pitcher-friendly confines of Petco can help him recover from a disastrous 2010. Luebke was a mixed bag in the four major league appearances he made last September and Stauffer looks to get back into the rotation after splitting time between starting and relieving last year. As a former pitcher himself, Black has shown that he can manage arms well. If he can replicate last year’s pitching success, the Pads could once again be hanging around well into the dog days.

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