- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
When Vicente Padilla signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in August 2009, I immediately considered it a surprisingly good move, and one with the potential to aid fantasy baseball owners. No, Padilla had not pitched well for the Texas Rangers, and I saw way too much of the guy when he pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies, but I view pitchers calling Dodger Stadium home in a far more positive light. Padilla was an upgrade for the sliding yet playoff-bound Dodgers. At the time, the other big NL signing was John Smoltz heading to the St. Louis Cardinals, and since he possesses that Hall of Fame name, much of the fantasy baseball world praised the move. At the time, I noted (with fingers crossed) that Padilla would be the better fantasy option.
Alas, Padilla pitched reasonably well for the Dodgers and certainly helped fantasy owners, compiling a 4-0 record and 3.20 ERA in eight games (seven starts). Smoltz had similar but not quite as good numbers, winning just once. Padilla's 8.7-per-nine-inning strikeout rate, albeit in a small sample size, trumps anything he'd ever done in his career, and for those who needed a big outing on the final day of the season, Padilla fanned 10 Colorado Rockies in five innings and won. Maybe he's one of those players you automatically avoid on first reaction, but that wasn't such a wise move in September 2009.
None of this ensures that Padilla will recapture this effectiveness over the course of an entire season, but the Dodgers have not only brought him back for 2010, but manager Joe Torre has named the right-hander his Opening Day starter. This honor doesn't mean Padilla will outperform Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley or Hiroki Kuroda, but it does speak to the degree in which Torre trusts him. Maybe Torre, like myself, read this weekend blog from our ESPN.com TMI (The Max Info) pals, which paints Padilla in a different (positive) light from what most fantasy owners might believe.
The TMI blog notes that Padilla thrived as a Dodger when ahead in the count, and he used his fastball to generate a higher strike percentage. I read this, and it doesn't surprise me; I would think it stands to reason that any pitcher without dominating stuff -- let's be honest about Padilla here -- would prefer hurling half his starts in spacious Dodger Stadium as opposed to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Colleague Tristan Cockcroft ranked the latter stadium second in his power rankings, which is bad news for pitchers, while Dodger Stadium was 24th. I mean, look how Jon Garland (2.72 ERA), Jeff Weaver (3.65 ERA) and Eric Milton (3.80 ERA) performed as Dodgers in 2009!
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To me, this change in ballparks explains the difference between a year ago and now, Padilla going from being one of the last starting pitchers I would ever consider rostering to now being someone who makes my list of deep-league or NL-only sleepers. It's all about the stadium, especially if I'm in a league in which I can avoid (with a flick of the mouse moving him to the bench) those tougher starts at Coors Field, Citizens Bank Park or similar bandboxes.
I'm not expecting a Cy Young season from Padilla by any means, but double-digit wins, an ERA in the ballpark of 4.25 and 130 strikeouts would make Padilla worth owning in a 12-team league. I participated in the well-known Tout Wars mixed draft Sunday (15 teams) and had spent $259 of my $260 allotted on 22 players, leaving room for one pitcher slot. I brought up five pitchers for bidding, and in each case someone went the extra buck or more to acquire them, leaving me out. Then I said, almost in exasperation, as if any of the other 14 owners would be mad to trump this bid, Vicente Padilla, one dollar. I got him.
That's not the ultimate reason for my relative optimism in Padilla -- I own some players I don't project positively as well -- but numbers are numbers, regardless of name, and it just appears he is viewed differently by most. I just want the numbers, I'm not having dinner with him. Among those I saw selected in a recent deep-league draft that I don't feel will either outperform Padilla or differentiate themselves statistically include Brett Myers, Chris Tillman, Derek Lowe, Paul Maholm, Justin Masterson and Kenshin Kawakami. That's what matters, on Opening Day and beyond.