Posted September 03, 2013

Will Venable’s extension shines light on rare bright spot for Padres

San Diego Padres, Will Venable
Will Venable, Padres

Will Venable is in the midst of a career year for San Diego. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

Very little has gone right for the Padres this year. At 61-76, they’re bound for their third straight sub-.500 season and fifth in their last six years. Nonetheless, Tuesday gave them a chance to highlight one of their bright spots, as they announced that outfielder Will Venable had agreed to terms on a two-year, $8.5 million extension.

The 30-year-old Venable, who has made 58 starts in rightfield and another 43 in centerfield, is having a career year, hitting .273/.315/.503 with 20 homers and 15 steals in 427 plate appearances. The 20 homers isn’t just a career high, it’s more than he’s hit in the previous two seasons combined (18), and it puts him in select company. Since pitcher-friendly Petco Park opened in 2004, only 14 times has a Padres hitter homered 20 or more times in a season. Adrian Gonzalez did so five times, with a high of 40 in 2009 and Mike Cameron did it twice. Seven other players, including Venable, have each done it once.

Furthermore, Venable has already tied Gonzalez’s 2008 record of 14 homers at Petco, and has nearly four weeks to surpass it. He’s hit a robust .277/.330/.559 at home this year, compared to .268/.300/.444 away. While his cause may have been helped by San Diego shaving 11 feet off the fence distances in rightfield — where most of the pull-happy lefty’s home run balls end up — prior to this year, it’s not the entire reason for his surge. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, 11 of his 14 Petco homers would have gone out in at least 24 of the majors’ 30 ballparks, while only two traveled less than 366 feet and took advantage of the park’s distinctive notch in the rightfield corner. That said, Venable hit just .228/.301/.373 at home from 2010-2012, compared to .273/.343/.446 elsewhere, so the park’s new configuration may be helping him somewhat.

Venable’s season hasn’t been without its faults. His unintentional walk rate, which was nothing special in the first place (7.7 percent through 2012), has fallen to a career-worst 4.7 percent this year, with his 4.9 strikeout-to-unintentional walk rate also a career worst and more than double last year’s mark (2.4). While he’s become a full-time player thanks to improved performance against lefties, his line against them (.270/.293/.528 with six homers in 92 PA) is still rather unbalanced, and would look a whole lot worse if not for the flurry of homers.

Still, including his solid defense in the outfield — particularly in center, where he, Alexi Amarista and Chris Denorfia have split time filling in for the injured Cameron Maybin — Venable has produced 2.9 Wins Above Replacement, not only a career high but tied with the suspended Everth Cabrera for the team lead. Given that he’s averaged 2.5 WAR per year from 2010-2013, the two-year extension, which covers the remainder of his arbitration eligibility (he’s a Super Two), should easily be worth the money.

If only the Padres had been so lucky at other positions, they might have built on last year’s strong second half (42-33) and inserted themselves into the thick of the postseason races. That has not been the case, however. Catcher Yasmani Grandal was limited to 28 games due to a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and then a torn ACL and MCL that required surgery. Cabrera was among the players suspended for 50 games due to his connections to Biogenesis clinic. Third baseman Chase Headley, who bashed 31 homers last year and led the team’s second-half run, broke his thumb in spring training and has hit just .240/.331/.368 with eight homers. Leftfielder Carlos Quentin, the team’s top slugger and highest-paid player, overcame a dreadful start and an eight-game suspension for his part in the Zack Greinke brawl to hit .275/.363/.493 with 13 homers, but he played in only 82 games before going on the disabled list in preparation for his third surgery on his right knee since March 2012. Maybin played in just 14 games due to wrist impingement and a torn posterior cruciate ligament, though at least he’ll avoid surgery. Outfielder Kyle Blanks missed six weeks due to tendinitis in his left Achilles.

While the offense’s raw average of 3.82 runs per game and .247/.309/.381 batting line don’t look impressive, its 98 OPS+ shows that after adjusting for Petco, it’s been been more or less average. The same can’t be said for the pitching staff, whose 4.49 runs allowed per game is the league’s second-worst mark even with the favorable venue. Opening Day starter Edinson Volqurez was torched for a 6.01 ERA (58 ERA+) in 27 starts before being released. Casey Kelly, a key prospect from the Gonzalez trade to Boston who made six starts late last year and figured to be part of this year’s rotation, will miss the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. Jason Marquis made 20 starts with a 4.05 ERA (85 ERA+) before undergoing Tommy John surgery in late July. Clayton Richard was rocked for a 7.01 ERA in 12 appearances before needing his second shoulder surgery in as many seasons. Lefty Eric Stults (28 starts, 3.81 ERA) appears to be the only starter who will make it through the entire season in one piece, though in a rotation with the league’s worst ERA (4.49) and second-worst strikeout rate (6.5 per nine), those bragging rights are minimal. The bullpen has been better (3.46 ERA, sixth in the league), though the value of closer and trade candidate Huston Street hasn’t been helped by allowing 2.0 homers per nine.

The Padres have had a few bright spots other than Venable. Rookie Jedd Gyorko (.247/.291/.429 with 16 homers) has been modestly productive while putting a claim on the second base job. The development of Andrew Cashner (3.45 ERA in 151 1/3 innings) and Tyson Ross (2.45 ERA and 10.2 strikeouts per nine over eight second-half starts), the swipe of Ian Kennedy from Arizona at the trade deadline, and the emergence of the 33-year-old Stults as a rotation regular give general manager Josh Byrnes pieces to build around heading into next season. As positive developments go, Venable’s season and modest extension can stand with any of them; alas, that’s as much an indictment of the team’s poor season as it is a compliment to his.

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