Welcome to Tucson! The Padres say goodbye to the Rose City and hello to a place considerably hotter. The biggest question might be will AAA fans show up for a new team who only plans on staying there for a few years? Either way the Padres’ AAA affiliate really can’t get much worse than last year when they finished 59-85. The Beavers pitching wasn’t the biggest culprit as they finished in the middle of the pack in nearly all pitching categories. However, outside of the bullpen, no pitcher had anything close to a good year. The good news is that many of the “organizational depth” pitchers that have come through AAA in the past few years are slowly being replaced by legitimate prospects. The interesting thing in terms of predictions will be which “organizational depth” pitchers the Padres keep, and which ones are released during spring training (for instance Josh Geer, Nathan Culp, and Will Inman are all still part of the Padres organization).

The rotation:
1) Simon Castro RHP (AA, 7-6, 2.92 ERA, 129.2 IP, 107 H, 36 BB, 107 K). Castro was last years #1 prospect in the Padres farm system, and also got the honor of being the starter for the world team in the MLB Futures game. At 22 it is hard to say that those numbers were disappointing, but most of us expected to see a bit more from this breakout Dominican pitcher. Anyone who is reading this already knows anything and everything about Simon Castro so I don’t need to say much else.
2) Cory Luebke LHP (AA/AAA 10-1, 2.68 ERA, 114 IP, 83 H, 29 BB, 88 K). Luebke will be given a shot to win the 5th starter spot with the Padres, but my guess is that when the dust is settled Luebke will at least begin the year in AAA. After a horrendous 1st half in 2008 that saw Luebke go 3-6 with a 6.84 ERA in Elsinore, Luebke has turned things around and become the pitcher the Padres thought he could be when they drafted him in the supplemental 1st round. Luebke is extremely smart, knows how to pitch, and keeps the ball down. He will probably begin the year in AAA but don’t expect him here for long. Lueke may not have the ceiling of Castro, Kelly, or a few of the other Padre pitching prospects, but a #4 type starter + left handed + Petco = double digit wins and a 3.6 ERA.
3) Jeremy Hefner RHP (AA 11-8, 2.95 ERA, 167.2 IP, 156 H, 51 BB, 115 K). Hefner is the pitcher who has been called, on multiple occasions, “the forgotten man.” For the past few years he has been stuck in a rotation featuring top prospects such as the 2 above him, Wynn Pelzer (now with Baltimore) and Corey Kluber (now with Cleveland). Luckily the Padres did not forget him when they added him to the 40 man roster during the offseason. Unspectacular but constantly efficient Hefner has an opportunity to prove the 2010 was not a fluke by putting up solid numbers in Tucson. At best Hefner is a #4 MLB starter, at worst he should be a 4A starter. Either or means that we should see a good season from Hefner.
4) Erik Davis RHP (A/AA/AAA 14-3, 3.52 ERA, 143.1 IP, 134 H, 48 BB, 133 K). There is a chance Davis starts the year in San Antonio, but when you go 4-0 with a 2.75 ERA, in 7 starts in AA I think he will get a long look at cracking the AAA staff. Add the fact that Davis has led the organization in wins 2 years in a row now (16-6 in 2009). Think of Davis as a right handed Wade Leblanc. The change isn’t as good, but the rest of his pitches are slightly better. He might end up fitting into the mold of a Josh Geer but definitely deserves a shot at either San Antonio or Tucson.
5) Will Inman RHP (AAA, 2-4, 3.61 ERA, 62.1 IP, 54 H, 27 BB, 52 K) Poor Will Inman. 4 years ago he was voted as the top pitcher in all of class A (by milb.com) after going 10-2, with a 1.71 ERA, and 134 K compared to 24 BB in 110 IP. Inman was the cornerstone of the Linebrink deal, and while we knew his stuff wouldn’t equate to all star MLB pitcher we all thought that he would end up being more than we have seen. Inman was actually posting his best year in the PCL before the flu and an elbow strain ended his season. Inman has always gotten by with great deception and a plus curve, however in AAA an average fastball can still be belted a long way with or without deception. Combine that with non fluid mechanics and the walks have soared. This might be Inman’s last year with the Padres. If he can’t put up the numbers he will be wearing another uniform by the end of 2011.

Others of note: Josh Geer is still hanging around. Sam Deduno will bounce between starting and relief, he will be talked about later. Casey Kelly will be in AAA by the all star break. Then there are the “others” that will pop up and make an appearance.

Closer: Craig Italiano RHP (AA, 4-6, 2.58 ERA, 52 IP, 43 H, 27 BB, 36 K). Those stats are somewhat misleading as Italiano returned from an injury too soon and wasn’t the same. His 4-1, 0.72 ERA, 16 SV in 17 chances is more telling. The injury cost Italiano a spot on the 40 man roster, but luckily no one claimed him and he resigned with the Padres. If healthy and back to form Italiano is a HARD throwing righty who throws the ball from a very low ¾ giving him great downward action and making it extremely hard to hit. Combine a mid 90s fastball, trick arm angle, a sharp slider, and an ok change and you have the Texas Leagues top closer in 2010 (as voted on by BA)

8th inning: Evan Scribner: RHP (AA, 4-5, 2.79 ERA, 66 IP, 51 H, 15 BB, 81 K) Great command + + 12-6 curveball, low 90s FB with good sink, deceptive delivery, and you have all the makings for a solid back end of the rotation pitcher and either AAA or the majors. Scribner doesn’t have the heavy heat of Italiano, but he will join Frieri, Webb, and Gregerson in a long line of great young Padre relievers.

7th inning: Luis Perdomo: RHP (AAA, 4-6, 3.40 ERA, 82 IP 76 H, 34 BB, 49 K). Mid 90s FB, good slider, solid change. Perdomo has all the makings of a solid back end of the rotation pitcher. The problem is, and always has been control. When Perdmo is on his game he is nearly unhittable. When he is off he misses, and badly. IF Perdomo ever gets the command that they know he is capable of, he can be a big asset in San Diego.

Others: LHP Aaron Poreda (1-2, 3.83 ERA, 54 IP, 64 BB, 47 K) has arguably the best stuff of any pitcher in Portland, he also has the least control. Thought is always that if he can ever come close to spotting his pitches he can be a #2 MLB starter or a top 5 MLB closer. But the chances of that are getting less and less likely. Mike DeMark struggled early in Portland but became one of the Beaver’s best pitchers with a 2.89 ERA, 18.2 IP, 19 K post all star break. Bryan Oland has great stuff but is often lost in such a deep pen. Finally Sam Deduno is old for the PCL at 27, but has averaged 10 K/9 and has 2 legit strikeout pitches. He will probably be the long man in the pen, and has another opportunity to shine and hopefully get back to the majors.