SAN DIEGO -- The 2011 Padres, in many respects, will look little like the team that won 90 games in 2010, surprising all of baseball and finishing within one victory of qualifying for the postseason.
Gone are veterans David Eckstein, Miguel Tejada, Yorvit Torrealba, Jon Garland and, of course, three-time All-Star Adrian Gonzalez, who was shipped off to the Red Sox in early December for four players.
The influx of players who figure to play prominent roles in 2011 is substantial: outfielder Cameron Maybin, second baseman Orlando Hudson, shortstop Jason Bartlett and pitcher Aaron Harang.
To be sure, it's been a busy winter for Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, who was able to get some young pieces for the future in the Gonzalez deal while also strengthening the team up the middle for 2011, finding a new shortstop, second baseman and center fielder.
"The strength of our team is always going to be pitching and defense in this ballpark; our pitching got better with Orlando, our pitching got better with Jason and certainly with Maybin," Hoyer said.
"The stronger we can be defensively up the middle, and really at every position, the better our pitching staff is going to be. I think when you think about run prevention, you can't ever ignore that aspect of the defense on run prevention."
But for all the change the Padres' roster has undergone thus far, Hoyer wants to be clear that the message doesn't change and that the goal of competing for the National League West title on an annual basis remains the same.
"There's going to be changes to the team," Hoyer said. "What we have to maintain is the spirit we had in this clubhouse and try to replicate that, but we're not going to have the same players again."
That starts, Hoyer said, with not resting on the laurels of what the team accomplished last season.
"You can make a big mistake by thinking you have a magic team or caught lightning in a bottle and think that group is going to do the same thing," Hoyer said. "That's not reality. Every summer is different, momentum and chemistry is different every year."
1. How on earth do you replace Gonzalez?
You can't. Expecting any one player to replicate Gonzalez's production, offensively and defensively, is simply too much to ask. That's what happens when you trade a three-time All-Star. The Padres will find a free agent to play first base in 2011 before likely turning the position over the Anthony Rizzo, one of the players obtained from the Red Sox. The Padres think a lot of Rizzo, a left-handed hitter and a sure-handed defender.
2. What's the rotation going to look like?
We now have some clarity to the rotation after the recent additions of Harang and Dustin Moseley. But don't forget, there's six weeks of Spring Training for players to win jobs. Left-handers Wade LeBlanc and Cory Luebke will make a run at rotation sports in Arizona. As of now, you're looking at Mat Latos, Clayton Richard, Tim Stauffer, Harang and Moseley.
3. Can the Padres surprise everyone again?
Hoyer struck gold with a handful of pickups in January last year -- Garland, Jerry Hairston and Torrealba -- and he hit on just about every move. That could be tough to duplicate in 2011. The Padres will again be about run prevention, pitching and defense. It was very difficult for them to score runs with Gonzalez. Losing him could make scoring monumentally tough. The additions of Hudson, Bartlett and Maybin could help soften that blow.
4. What kind of player will Maybin be?
Maybin, who will turn 24 on April 4, hasn't produced at the Major League level like he has in the Minor Leagues. But there is no disputing his raw skills, and he has shown flashes of playing well in the Major Leagues. He could benefit from a change in scenery and knowing that the center-field job is his. He will be fine in center field but can't let spacious PETCO Park get in his head when it comes to offense.
5. Which players from the Gonzalez deal will we see first?
Aside from utilityman Eric Patterson, the player to be named later in the deal, I think we will see Rizzo first, and that will likely come in 2012. Pitcher Casey Kelly, the player the Padres had to have in the deal, is coming off his first full Minor League season as a pitcher (he was originally a shortstop) and he needs more time and refinement. That said, some believe Kelly could move quickly.
6. Will the back end of the bullpen stay intact?
For now, yes. It appears the Padres will open the 2011 season with Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams and two-time All-Star closer Heath Bell at the back of their bullpen. The bullpen, of course, was one of the Padres' biggest strengths in 2010 and it had the lowest ERA among relief corps (2.78). Hoyer received plenty of hits on all three this winter, though he resisted in moving them. If the Padres ever opt to trade Bell, Adams looks like a fit to close.
7. What will happen with Aaron Cunningham?
Cunningham was the other player obtained from the A's last January in the trade that sent Kevin Kouzmanoff to Oakland. Scott Hairston didn't pan out in the deal, but the Padres are high on Cunningham, who is an athletic outfielder with good speed and has doubles power, which pegs to be a nice fit at PETCO Park. However, the outfield is crowded as it is and the Padres want to see Cunningham have success in Triple-A.
8. How important is being "strong up the middle?"
Playing in PETCO Park, a ballpark that suppresses offense unlike any other, it means everything. Having an athletic center fielder that can not only cover ground and take smart reads and angles on balls is important. The Padres feel Maybin will do that. Having a sure-handed middle-infield duo in Hudson and Bartlett will benefit the Padres pitchers. Also, catcher Nick Hundley has progressed to the point where the Padres feel strong about him catching the majority of the games.
9. What current player is set for a breakout season?
How about right fielder Will Venable? Granted he wasn't very good against left-handed pitching (.154), but Venable is one of the best athletes on the team and is on the verge of becoming a very good defensive outfielder. He also offers a power-speed combination not seen often throughout the Major Leagues. He had 13 home runs and 29 steals in 2010. He was very good in September (.347 average, .372 on-base percentage). I think he will build off that in 2011.
10. What can we expect from Latos in 2011?
The Padres would certainly take continued growth from Latos, who won 14 games as a 22-year-old last season. What will the 23-year-old do for an encore in 2011? It's hard to say, though the Padres feel the sky is the limit for him. He nearly threw the first no-hitter in franchise history in May and was in the Cy Young conversation until he faded late, losing five of his last seven starts. Still, Latos looks like a staff ace for years to come.