Young Padres building but ready to compete
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Yasmani Grandal vividly recalls the first time he saw Yonder Alonso swing a bat. Some things you never forget.
"I was a freshman at the University of Miami," Grandal was saying Sunday morning in the Padres' clubhouse. "I'd heard about him, but we were from different parts of Miami in high school so I never saw him play.
"I'm watching him take [batting practice] my first workout in college, and I can't believe it. He's hitting balls farther than I've ever seen from a guy his age. We played together, and I saw what he can do. He's just a great hitter."
Alonso and Grandal kept moving around together, seemingly a team within a team. From Miami both landed in the Cincinnati organization, emerging as top-shelf prospects before getting shipped to San Diego this winter along with pitchers Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger. Coming to Cincinnati was the Padres' young ace, Mat Latos.
It could be -- should be -- one of those swaps that helps both clubs, affording fresh scenery and opportunities to flourish for five talents.
The Padres, with deals designed to replenish their system, clearly are building a solid foundation for the future. But that doesn't mean they're consigned to hard times in the present.
Manager Bud Black and his staff have made amazing things happen before -- 90 wins and two games shy of a National League West title in 2010, in particular -- and there is the belief they can do it again if a few things fall into place.
"It's exciting to know we want to win now -- and we can win now," said Clayton Richard, the potential ace with Latos gone. "Baseball has so many unforeseen circumstances. You never know what to expect. We're getting ready to compete, and we feel good about what we have here."
The acquisition of Carlos Quentin, returning to his San Diego roots after averaging 27 homers the past four seasons with the White Sox, gives Black a legitimate cleanup man.
Quentin's challenge is to avoid the kinds of injuries that have kept him off the field. He bashed 24 homers in 2011 but made it to the post only 118 times.
"He's big for us -- the one guy you can project to hit fourth," Black said.
Black's challenge will be fitting the right pieces around Quentin. Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett have experience in the first two spots in the order, and Chase Headley, a switch-hitter, can hit third but probably is best suited as a No. 2 hitter.
Black is making no early forecasts on Alonso, who hit .330 with a .545 slugging mark late in 2011 for the Reds and was a key component in the Latos deal.
"I've never seen the guy play," Black said. "He has 88 Major League at-bats. To borrow an old expression from Mike [Scioscia], I don't have a crystal ball."
Cameron Maybin, an emerging star in center field, can fit comfortably anywhere in the lineup except cleanup, hinging on where his abundant gifts take him in his second full season.
"You can look at Cam as a guy who can potentially lead off," Black said. "You like speed at the top of the order, the tone it can set and the pressure it puts on a defense.
"There are some things he has to improve. The standard is Rickey Henderson in terms of getting on base, but there aren't a lot of prototypical leadoff men now as you look around the game."
Maybin, getting on base at a .323 clip, was 40-for-48 in steal attempts, a superb 83 percent efficiency rate. By jumping his on-base percentage to, say, .335, he easily can reach 50 steals and set the offense in motion.
Turning 25 as the season opens, Maybin has gap power now -- 24 doubles, eight triples, nine homers in 2011. Part of that is out of necessity in spacious Petco Park and part of it is his lean frame still filling out.
Maybin's blazing speed turns doubles and triples by opposing batters into Petco outs, something duly noted by pitchers appreciative of how positively he impacts their earned run averages.
"There's a lot of ground to cover out there," Richard said, "and there aren't many players in the game who can cover as much ground as he can."
Richard has the stuff and track record -- 14-9, 3.75 ERA in 33 starts in 2010 -- to rebound from July shoulder surgery and give the staff a formidable presence. He was 5-9 in 18 starts before shutting it down in '11.
A second southpaw, Cory Luebke, could emerge as co-ace. He took full advantage of a starting opportunity to establish himself as a force (154 strikeouts in 139 2/3 innings) in 2011, despite a deceiving 6-10 record.
Volquez, a 17-game winner in 2008, hopes to rebound in the more expansive home park. He figures to fill out a solid rotation with veterans Tim Stauffer and Dustin Moseley.
As many as seven other starting candidates will take their best shots. Those who don't make the rotation can fortify a bullpen anchored by new closer Huston Street, replacing All-Star Heath Bell.
Grandal, a switch-hitter with pop, is expected to open the season at Triple-A Tucson, gaining experience. Capable Nick Hundley will handle the bulk of the catching, but Grandal, like his buddy Alonso, could be making an impact soon.
The Padres conceivably could win upwards of 90 games and challenge in the always unpredictable National League West. Or they could lose 90.
As inimitable Joaquin Andujar famously put it, "You can sum it all up in one word: youneverknow."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.