Chris Denorfia and the volatile Padres

Baseball Journal

The Padres have the talent to contend for a playoff spot. What could happen if they stay healthy?

With a combination of high end talent and what should be a weak division, the 2014 San Diego Padres find themselves in the playoff hunt come September. In a far more realistic universe, the very same Padres team is one with myriad injury risk and a volatile roster that could very well find themselves headed for their fourth straight losing season. Not so coincidentally, the epitome of the Padres’ volatility happens to be their most valuable player in 2013, OF Chris Denorfia.

Denorfia embodies much of what the Padres lineup represents: fickleness in production level and injury risk. Chase Headley’s wRC+ dropped from 145 to 113 from 2012 to 2013, bringing his true production level into question. Headley was recently diagnosed with a grade 1 calf strain, setting back his recovery from offseason knee surgery. It is also questionable if Yasmani Grandal will be fully healed enough from his ACL surgery from last August to open the season with the club. Slugging outfielder Carlos Quentin has yet to appear in 120 games since 2010 due to knee and shoulder ailments. Wrist and hand injuries sapped the power of Yonder Alonso to the point where his ISO slugging was lower than Everth Cabrera’s. Cabrera himself is a question mark after coming off a 50 game suspension for his involvement with the Biogenesis scandal. Possibly their top position player CF Cameron Maybin lost last year to an inflamed wrist and torn knee ligament.

The common denominator amongst all of the aforementioned players is true talent. Headley is just two years removed from a 2012 campaign in which he posted a 7.2 fWAR. Carlos Quentin posted a superb 143 wRC+ along with a 2.1 fWAR in just 84 games last season. As we can see below, PECOTA projects Grandal to be a 2.2 win player in 2014, Maybin a 2.7 win player, and Cabrera to be worth 2.5 wins. Steamer and Oliver both place a 3.4 WAR tag on 2B Jedd Gyorko. If all comes to fruition, the Padres could have an above average offense.

Pos Name Projected 2014 WARP
SS Everth Cabrera 2.5
RF Will Venable 2.6
3B Chase Headley 1.6
1B Yonder Alonso 1.3
LF Seth Smith 1.4
2B Jedd Gyorko 2.7
C Yasmani Grandal 2.2
CF Cameron Maybin 2.7

When looking at these PECOTA projections, it's worth noting they are often light on total value. It's quite unlikely Chase Headley will be a below average player next year, ditto Yonder Alonso. While PECOTA projects mostly optimism for the rest of the lineup, they don't seen Chris Denorfia as a regular in the lineup. It's worth noting when the most syndicated projection model projects the team's previously most valuable player as a bench player.

After spending most of his career as a reserve outfielder, Denorfia received 520 plate appearances in his age-32 season, posting a 3.9 fWAR. With fans throughout the sabermetric community, Denorfia had always been regarded as useful player. While Denorfia’s 2013 numbers reflect an above average player, the models’ projected 2014 regression is warranted. Despite Denorfia’s two win jump, his offense was actually significantly worse in 2013. His wRC+ shrunk from 123 to 108 and his wOBA dropped to .323. His defense, regarded as average previously, was rated as well above average by the metrics in 2013. His UZR/150 jumped from -11.7 to 21.8, his first signs of being a good fielder. It is quite likely that Denorfia’s defensive ratings will regress back to his previous mean in 2014, deflating his value. However, manager Bud Black attributed his defensive improvements to hard work, saying that he believed the improvements were real.

Denorfia is truly the archetypical player for the 2014 Padres. He has shown a glimpse of great value in his 2013 season while also showing significant red flags such in his peripherals such as the inflated defensive value. He is a volatile player in that his value will likely either keep constant at a high level or see a significant regression. The Padres too will likely go one of two ways. Nearly everyone in the Padres lineup has shown signs of playing at an above average level; however, most everyone in the lineup has significant has had significant injury and production problems in the past.

The same holds true for the pitching staff, which has already lost LHP Corey Luebke for the second straight season. Eric Stults threw 203.2 IP in his first full season as a starter, posting a 3.53 FIP. Health will be the focal point for right-handers Andrew Cashner and Josh Johnson, two immensely talented power arms. If those two stay healthy, Stults maintains his 2013 production, and RHP Ian Kennedy can bounce back to anything close to his 2011 form in which he posted a 72 ERA-, San Diego could actually have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

The Padres season is going to be an interesting one. They possess the talent to become a contender; however they also numerous red flags. With injuries as the bane of their playoff hopes, luck is going to be a vital dynamic in their 2014 campaign. The Padres went 76-86 in 2013 despite a 71-91 Pythagorean rating. PECOTA projects them to break even in 2014 with an 81-81 record. Contending would be quite a leap from 2013 without much shakeup, however it’s not unprecedented. If the Padres can maintain health, get a few bounce back years, and play to their true talent level, they could put pressure on the NL West and wildcard slots. It’s a large "if," however that’s the risk that comes with volatile rosters.

***

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.

Daniel Schoenfeld is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanielSchoe.

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