At long last my preview of the minor league teams has come to an end.  The Padres AAA affiliate has been bad, and I mean REALLY bad, for a long time.  Their last winning season came in 2004 when John Knott, Xavier Nady, and JJ Furmaniak led the Beavers to an 84-60 record.  It was also the year when we lost top prospect Tagg Bozied, who was hitting .315/.374/.629, on that fateful walk-off grand slam (July 19th) where he ruptured his patella and was never the same.

Since then the Padres AAA affiliate has gone 385-478, capped by finishing 26 games under .500 last year.  Sure, some it can be blamed on bad luck and injuries (both in the minors and in the majors), but a lot has to be placed on the inability of KT and company to draft well.  Heck only one Padre is left from that 2004 Beavers team…Tim Stauffer.

While pitching hasn’t been great the biggest problem has been the hitting.  The PCL is known as a hitter friendly league, and yet the Beavers managed to finish 15th in league in RS (which was nearly 100 behind the league AVERAGE).  If the Beavers, now Padres, want to regain their AAA glory days they need to get better hitters and score more runs (I feel like John Madden with my analysis there).

Well, bring on 2011!!!  A new year, and a combination of a log jam in the majors, and Moorad and company draft picks (plus a certain 1B) are bound to help make Tucson at least a fun place to watch a game.

1) Everth Cabrera (SS) I don’t need to write much here.  We all know and love him, but he is young and needs to improve his offense to return to the Padres.  In 2008 Cabrera stole 73 bases in High-A… hopefully he can regain that.  Maybe being in a hitter friendly park and not having to face Lincecum and MLB pitchers will help him regain his form.  The Padres might bat him 8th or 9th and have Durango lead off, but seeing how E-Cab is the better prospect I would guess he would get most of the time leading off.

2) Cedric Hunter (CF) – Contact thy name is Cedric Hunter.  Hunter went from being the #1 Padre prospect after the 2008 season to almost completely falling off the map after struggling in 2009.  After a fairly strong 2010 Hunter put himself somewhat back on the map.  Add in the fact that in limited ST playing time he has hit .435/.481/.826 in 23 G this spring and Hunter is making an impression that the just turned 23 year old has finally turned the corner.   People have always said that he will “develop into power,” and while that still hasn’t really happened Hunter just needs to continue to play to his strength of contact and a high bating average.  Lets hope that working with Doc Roberts will also increase his SB numbers, he has the wheels but no numbers to show for it.

3) Anthony Rizzo (1B) – I originally had him penciled in as the starting 1B for the Missions, but after more recent reports, and watching him demolish ST pitching, I would be shocked if he wasn’t in Tucson to open up the season.  Rizzo is young, plays great defense, and has tremendous power potential.  Rizzo has never been a high average hitter and he strikes out more than you would like (average for a power hitter), but considering he was facing pitchers 3-4 years older than him makes it understandable.  Look for him to be in SD by the end of the year.

4) James Darnell (3B) – A top prospect, that felt the wrath of Nelson Wolff Stadium.  Away: .311/.382/.467 — Home: .223/.317/.352.  Darnell doesn’t have quite the power potential of Rizzo, but still led the Padres minors in HR in 2009.  Darnell has a career .298/.399/.490 and those numbers should improve hitting right in the middle of a very potent AAA lineup.  Darnell also has a good eye at the plate, and has maintained close to a 1:1 BB/K ratio which is great for any hitter, especially one who hits for power.  He is only 24 (as of Jan) and if Headley doesn’t turn the corner this year, he might very well be the heir to 3B in SD.

5) Kyle Blanks/Matt Clark (DH when applicable) – This one is interesting and will be the toughest decision the Padres have to make.  The Padres seem set that Rizzo will be the AAA first basemen getting most of the starts.  We know Blanks will be in AAA.  Does that mean he will in LF/DH or do they want to move him back to 1B?  Blanks might start the season on the DL or be relegated to DH until healthy.  Either way he is easily the most established hitter on the team.  Which brings us to Matt Clark.  The dude (also 24 like Blanks and Darnell) led all of the Padres minors in HR last year despite doing so in the horrendous Texas League.  He is what he is, a tremendous power hitter, okay defense, strikes out a lot, and will give you something around .275/.350/.490, which is great!  But with the addition of Rizzo he doesn’t have a position.  Do they leave him at AA another year?  Or does he try to squeeze ABs between Rizzo and Blanks (add in the fact that the PCL only has the DH about 50% of the time).  Tough call and poor Clark…

6)Logan Forsythe (2B) – Forsythe put up one of my favorite splits of all time last year in the Texas League.  .316/.449/.429 away vs .189/.300/.245 at home.  These splits dropped Forsythe considerably in most rankings, however spring training this year has reminded people why the Padres are so high on him (.292/.400/.583 in 18 ST games).  Forsythe doesn’t have the power numbers to stay at 3rd, but when he is on he can hit for average and get on base with the best of them.  If he can cut down on his K numbers (95 last year, 111 in 2009) he would be the ideal #2 hitter.  Right now we will put him at six.

7) Aaron Cunningham (RF) – I am a HUGE Cunningham fan.  He plays spectacular defense and showed last year that he belongs on the Padres.  Unfortunately with Dino and Eric Patterson he will start the year in AAA (again).  Maybe it was pushing too hard but Cunningham actually put up better numbers in SD than he did in Portland.  Cunningham hit only .251/.333/.413 last year which wasn’t horrible, though considering he hit .288/.331/.417 in SD it’s a bit of a head scratcher.  Hopefully hitting in a very balanced and deep lineup will help.

8 ) Mike Baxter (LF) – Its hard to write this but as of right now I have a guy who hit .301/.382/.517 and led the Beavers in almost every offensive category last year as the #8 hitter. Maybe he moves up to 6th or 7th and Hunter/Forsythe move down, but he is no longer the “big” hitter in the lineup.  By the way, Baxter also stole 22 basses last year and had 10 triples.   I don’t think the Padres want to see much improvement out of him as he has already proved a lot.  If he can repeat those numbers it will be a very good year for the Tucson Padres.

9) Luis Martinez/Kyle Phillips (C) – Like Baxter, both Martinez and Phillips hit in the middle of the order last year.  Martinez hit .282/.368/.349 in AA then hit .361/.415/.417 in the Arizona Fall League.  Phillips came over from Toronto and immediately gave the Beavers a spark last year hitting .324/.365/.432 in 55 G.   I think it is funny that because of depth these guys will wind up at the bottom of the order.  Defensively I don’t know much about Phillips, but Martinez has one of the best guns I have seen.

Others:  The one obvious name missing from the lineup is Luis Durango.  We all know he has tremendous speed and has about as much power as my 80 year old grandma (happy birthday!).  He will split time with Hunter, Baxter, and Cunningham but it is hard to see him getting to play 100+ games this year, unless Cunningham gets called up early.  Where is he going to find playing time if Blanks returns healthy and is playing LF every day?  Another OF is Sawyer Carrol. After an outstanding 2009 he fell off the map hitting only .240/.324/.345 in his repeat performance in AA.  Could he end up in AA for a 3rd year in a row?  Andy Parrino will undoubtedly be the super utility infielder playing 2B/SS/3B.  Craig Cooper is also still in the Padres farm system though I have no idea for how much longer.

No matter how you look at it the Padres will finally have a stacked lineup in AAA.  What might be even better is the fact that they have depth, so if one or two pieces get called up they have other talented prospects that can step into a starting role.  Unlike 2004 let’s hope that this AAA team not only wins, but has prospects that actually become quality major leaguers (unlike Nady and a bunch of 4-A players and poor Bozied).  I sure hope so as this lineup contains 2 players (Blanks and Hunter) that have previously been ranked #1 Padre prospects, 3 others that were ranked top 10 Padre prospects (Forsythe, Darnell, Rizzo), another player that is only a couple years removed from stealing 73 bases (Everth), plus a few other quality pieces.  Dang, I can’t wait for April 7th when either Luebke or Castro toe the rubber at Colorado Springs.  It will be an exciting year