PEORIA, Ariz. -- What I like, and don't like, about the Padres:
• In closer Heath Bell and set-up men Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams, the Padres return the cornerstones of the majors' best bullpen in 2010 (2.78 ERA). Bell recorded a season-high 47 saves, and his 94 percent save conversion percentage led the majors. Gregerson's 40 holds established a major-league record and Adams compiled a 1.76 ERA in 70 appearances. Ernesto Frieri and Joe Thatcher return as well, and though Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb were dealt to Florida (in the Cameron Maybin deal), the Padres added veteran Chad Qualls.
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• The up-the-middle moves will be intriguing at the least, and could be impressive at best. The Padres will have a new shortstop (Jason Bartlett, acquired from Tampa Bay), new second baseman (Orlando Hudson, signed as a free agent) and a new center fielder (Maybin). "Last year, offensively, we really struggled up the middle until we made the trade for Miguel Tejada," general manager Jed Hoyer says. "Until then, we were among the last in the league in all three spots. That was something we really needed to upgrade. Especially losing Adrian Gonzalez, we really needed to try and recover some lost offense. And [losing] a player like that, you can't do it through one guy, so you've got to do it through balance."
• The San Diego running game. Last year's Padres swiped 126 bases -- second in the NL to the Mets -- and in the 71 games in which the Padres successfully stole a bag, they went 55-16. Speed is essential in big Petco Park, and it is vital when you don't have a big home run hitter in the lineup. Manager Bud Black gives every one of his guys the green light, and within that, there are times when he'll give the steal sign when he wants them to go in a specific situation. Cameron Maybin could be a key ingredient. "He's a guy who can create tension on an opponent, both defensively, running balls down, and offensively, in getting good leads and having a desire to steal with every pitch," Black says.
• Better depth. Last year, third baseman Chase Headley was ground down in the season's final six weeks, and it showed (.215 batting average, .282 on-base percentage in season's last month). He played more games (158) and total innings (1,407 2/3) than any NL third baseman. Having signed veteran Jorge Cantu, Black now has the option to use Cantu at third periodically to give Headley a rest, and at first to give Brad Hawpe a blow.
• There will be no replacing traded first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, period. Combining his 101 RBIs and 87 runs scored, Gonzalez accounted for nearly 24 percent of the Padres' offense last year. That's significant, and no matter how well things go, it's hard to see a repeat of 90 wins again in 2011 without a presence in the middle of the lineup like Gonzalez.
• One man who could -- and should -- help fill the middle-of-the-order void is outfielder Ryan Ludwick. This is a big year for him in that he was disappointing in the second half of last season after the Padres acquired him from St. Louis. Ludwick hit just .211 with six homers and 26 RBI in 59 games for San Diego. Obviously, that needs to change. "Guys get traded at midseason it can go either way, and he pressed," Hoyer says. "He came in camp in awesome shape. I think he's ready to have a good year. He didn't play as well as he expected and he wants to improve." Ludwick came into camp heavier this spring, but with less body fat. The signs indicating a better summer are there.
• Mat Latos was San Diego's best starting pitcher last summer, which is no small compliment because the Padre rotation was instrumental in the team ranking second overall in the NL with a 3.39 ERA. Latos won 14 games and compiled a 2.92 ERA. So, what's not to like? Not a lot, but there is this: He stumbled down the stretch, especially late (1-5, 5.66 ERA in seven starts over the last month) and at times continued to struggle with maturity issues. He's only 23 and could have a fantastic future. But he's got to keep his emotions under control all the time. He does that, it could be lights out.