It is extremely difficult to compare the San Diego Padres and the Arizona Diamondbacks due to their polar opposite ballparks. Chase Field has become one of the most hitter-friendly venues in Major League Baseball, while PETCO Park suppresses scoring more than any other ballpark around, bar none. As a result, many solid San Diego hitters appear to be liabilities, while league-average Diamondback pitchers seem very hittable indeed.
Let us attempt to sift through the smoke in our position-by-position analysis:
Josh Bard enjoyed a phenomenal offensive 2006 season splitting time with Mike Piazza. But Neither Bard nor his backup Ryan Bowen has displayed a throwing arm significantly better than Piazza's much lamented sling. Stolen bases are a big part of any offensive attack at PETCO Park, and the Padres may have trouble preventing them, perhaps negating the plus offense that Bard provides.
The Diamondbacks' catchers are more well-rounded. Montero and Snyder are solid on both sides of the ball, but spectacular on neither.
Conor Jackson and Adrian Gonzalez are two similar players who can be considered among the game's most promising young hitters. Jackson was born only the day before Gonzalez was, and both men stand at a solidly built 6'2" tall. The Friars' first baseman bats left-handed with more power, while Conor Jackson hits from the right side and shows better strike zone judgment.
Comparing each of their first full seasons in a vacuum, the two are about even. But taking into account those home ballparks, the power that Gonzalez displayed was simply incredible.
Marcus Giles has steeply declined both offensively and defensively since 2003. As primarily a line drive hitter, PETCO Park should not devastate him, but it's difficult to see Giles completely turning his career direction around.
And face it, Padres fans - Giles would need to approach that 2003 performance to hold steady with Orlando Hudson, one of the best all-around second basemen today.
Kouzmanoff joins the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki and the Diamondbacks' Chris Young as favorites to win the Rookie of the Year Award from the NL West. PETCO plays into a huge handicap for the Padre third baseman, but since Kouzmanoff led all of the minor leagues in slugging last season, he may still be up to the task.
Chas Tracy once carried the same promise as Kouzmanoff, but appears to be headed for an early decline. His body is struggling to cope with the rigors of manning third base as opposed to right field or first base. The D'Backs are set at those positions; they need Tracy to prove that he can handle the hot corner on both sides of the ball.
Did you know that Greene has 32 career homers in 708 at bats away from PETCO? With his above average defense, he would be a major star in nearly any other ballpark (particularly Coors Field, were he has clubbed 11 dingers in 109 at bats).
Stephen Drew hits well for average, but slugged just .391 outside of Chase Field and doesn't draw walks anywhere. This is probably the comparison most affected by those park factors. Even if Drew were able to make huge strides on offense this year, Greene would still beat him with the glove.
Alberto Callaspo is an incredible utility player, but what happens if he, Drew, Tracy, or Hudson gets injured? Suddenly the Diamondbacks look razor-thin. Mark Reynolds had a breakthrough season last year, and could be a dynamite role player by 2008, but probably isn't ready right now.
Conversely, the Padres have a well-stocked bench of extremely versatile players. Walker and Branyan are good enough hitters to start for many ballclubs.
The Padres had a world-class outfield defense last year, which ought to degrade slightly with the loss of Dave Roberts and the aging of Brian Giles. Some people believe that the addition of Marcus Giles could revitalize Brian, and if that happens, these Padres would be awesome. But because of the Jose Cruz Jr. signing - one of the offseason's best deals - the Padres have that insurance in case everything doesn't go perfectly.
With three first-year starters, the Diamondbacks run an even greater risk of having things go wrong, and this has already begun with Carlos Quentin's small Labrum tear. Their insurance policy is dodgy, with Jeff DaVanon likely to begin the season on the DL and disgruntled Scott Hairston also lacking a history of success at the majors. Diamondbacks have more upside, Padres have more stability.
Going pitcher-by-pitcher, we can gauge potential Cy Young winners Brandon Webb and Jake Peavy as rough equals. Future Hall of Famers Maddux and Johnson appear about even, as The Big Unit should dominate a bit more, while Mad Dog should throw more innings. Hensley, Hernandez, and Davis are nearly equivalent innings-eaters, though Hensley will post a better ERA in his pitcher-friendly ballpark. It is fly ball specialist Chris Young who outclasses whomever you try to match him up against from the Diamondbacks staff.
The home ballparks will make the front four appear to be a huge advantage for the Padres, when it's really just a moderate edge.
Pitching depth is an area of concern for San Diego. The franchise considers a possible July return from Shawn Estes to act like a welcome midseason acquisition rather than a probable burden. There's no telling how many starts the team can get out of Wells before he ceases to fit through the clubhouse doors. Mike Thompson has perhaps the worst stuff in a pitching staff laden with control artists.
Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks have several options that could pan out as even better than the solid pitcher that most teams want from their fifth starter's slot. They are also far better equipped to handle injuries here than the Friars are.
The Diamondbacks boast a fine bullpen, but some of the best in the business reside in San Diego. You know that Trevor Hoffman is one of the greatest closers ever, and almost certainly the most consistent. Scott Linebrink also has closer's stuff, and actually works more effectively against left-handed batters. This is key, because Bud Black opens the season without a southpaw in his pen, as he did for several seasons back in Anaheim.
If you could have one pitcher on the mound to get a tough right-hander out, you should choose Cla Meredith. Meredith's unorthodox delivery helped him hold righties to just 12 hits in 107 at bats last year (.107).
There are a lot of nods to the Padres in this analysis, but other than the bullpen, these are narrow advantages, not glaring ones. One thing both of these teams lack is a bona fide leadoff hitter, but that is likely to hurt the Padres more, since they'll need to rely on small-ball tactics in their home ballpark. Their defense can't possibly be as effective as it was last season, either. The team has mostly added pop to the squad; it is not well-built for its environment.
But this is a talented enough team to win a ton of games on the road this year. They should be able to fend off the upstart Diamondbacks for one more season, unless every one of the Diamondbacks' young players hits his stride this year.
Next Week: Diamondbacks vs. Dodgers and Predicted Division Finish