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What To Watch For in the Season's Final Weeks

What September 2013 tells us about 2014 and beyond

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

2013 has been an up-and-down year for Padres fans.  The team that looked to be in shambles during the season's first month has since put together long stretches of quality play broken up by periods of prolonged helplessness, leaving the team's future uncertain.  The club that initially planned to compete for playoff spots in earnest starting in 2014 thought for a time that their playoff window might have come early by midseason, only to have their hopes dashed by poor play and the surging Los Angeles Yasiel Puigs.  Still, the team has managed a 24-24 record since the season's midpoint and look to finish strong while evaluating both new and current talent.  Although the playoff push may not come this season, there are still plenty of players to get excited for with respect to 2014 and beyond.  A lot of guys are playing with chips on their shoulder, and these may be the most interesting among them.  Here are 14 Padres to watch closely at season's end, along with a goal each player might seek to accomplish as they finish the season.

Yonder Alonso

2013 has been a struggle for the former hurricane. He's battled injuries, including the semi-mysterious hand injury that is currently keeping him off the field. Scans reported no structural damage but Yonder hasn't been able to swing the bat. No player wants to finish the season with an injury, especially a guy who showed promise by hitting .281 before his first DL stint, and never found his rhythm upon his return. Alonso has always been a hitter with a great approach, but without overwhelming physical abilities. He's always going to want to get as many reps in as possible.

Key to success: Getting enough at bats to develop a consistent rhythm and make adjustments to his approach

Chase Headley

As we all know, Chase has had a very frustrating season. He's been derailed by injuries from the beginning and like Alonso, has never gotten himself in rhythm. Fortunately, the second half of 2013 has been a moderate return to form for Chase. He's hit .272 and turned in a slugging percentage of .424 since the all-star break. Coupled with his typically excellent defense and patience at the plate Headley is looking like an above average regular once more. He's been on a tear so far this month and continuing his good play should help him regain the confidence you want in a middle of the order hitter.

Key to success: Regaining the confidence that made him Chase G*****n Headley in 2012

Jedd Gyorko

Its been an up and down year for the Padres top rookie. He scuffled out of the gate to start the year and battled a month long midseason slump where he went 5-for-50 and didn't draw a single walk. Being able to consistently draw walks has been the most conspicuously absent part of Gyorko's game so far this season, walking about half as often as he did as a minor leaguer. The good news is that in spite of all this, Jedd has looked like a quality MLB regular. Since struggling in the April, the WVU product has altered his approach to be more aggressive in early counts so that pitchers can't abuse him with breaking stuff out of the zone. This approach has helped him tee off on early fastballs, but we've still yet to see Gyorko showcase his patience as an offensive weapon. It'll be interesting to see whether he continues to be aggressive to close out the season or reverts to the more patient approach he has used before his mini-breakout.

Key to success: Staying aggressive in early counts without chasing pitches out of the zone.  Also keeping the Jerkstore well stocked.

Logan Forsythe

He's had a tough go of things this season. After delaying his season debut until June due to plantar fasciitis, the Aristocrat started off swinging a hot bat, looking like he was picking up where he left off at the end of 2012. The rest of his season has been incredibly disappointing. Though he's provided a lot of positional flexibility, capable of playing corner outfield in addition to all the infield spots, he just hasn't been able to hit the ball in any consistent and meaningful way. As a utility Jerry Hairston Jr.-type, its important for Logan to hit with an exploitable platoon split. Although he's a career .286 hitter against lefties, he's managed only .194 this season. If he finishes the season unable to mash lefties, then he's going to have a much more difficult time making the opening day roster next season. If the entire team was healthy there would be almost no reason to play him over Alexi Amarista, who is a stronger and more flexible defender.

Key to success: Punishing mistakes against left-handed pitchers

Will Venable

Much has been written about Max Venable's basketball playing son and his quasi-breakout year. We've seen Will play like an all-star for long stretches before, only to fizzle out and completely forget how to approach an at bat for dozens of games. He's cooled considerably since the start of September since an unconscious July-August stretch, but if he were to finish strong it would represent the longest stretch of above average play in his 5 seasons with the team.

Key to success: Maintaining an immaculate hairline and assertive approach at the plate

Tommy Medica

is he a prospect? Can he stick on a big league roster without a position? The 25 year old former catcher with two bad knees and one bad glove already reminded us why he deserves a September audition - he can flat out hit.  His wRC scores through the AA level indicate a guy who produces nearly 2/3rds more runs than the average hitter in the potent Texas League.  He does this with a healthy combination of power and patience.  Unfortunately for him, he's old for a prospect and his offensive numbers may not be as strong as you'd like for a guy who is basically a one-way player at this point in his career.  Still, if he manages to bring his productive offensive game to the big club he could challenge Jesus Guzman for a spot as a pinch-hitting bench bat.  Typically guys like that carve out a niche by being able to cream good fastballs, or mash lefty relievers.  Its too early to know what kind of a hitter Medica will be, but he's going to get a few chances to show everyone over the next few weeks.

Key to success: Staying alive in tough counts and punishing pitcher's mistakes

Reymond Fuentes

Carlos Beltran's cousin has burst back onto the scene this year after nearly falling off the prospect map in 2012. Fuentes came back in a big way, earning himself a September call-up and a lot of opportunities with the Padres missing their regular CF. He's flashed a decent speed and defense combo so far, but those were never in question when he was a prospect. The major corner he turned in the minors this season was improving his ability to make consistent contact and drive the ball - cutting down on strikeouts while preserving a respectable walk rate. He's going to need to continue to improve his contact skills and ability to hit the ball with some level of authority. In honesty, a few September ABs aren't going to tell you a whole lot about a 22 year old former first-round pick, but if he is able to put some spank against MLB-caliber fastballs he can do a lot to quell the fears that he will turn out to be another Luis Durango.

Key to success: Flashing the talent that made him promising enough to deal with Eric Patterson

Huston Street

With his well-documented early struggles this season, Street has been digging his ERA out of a hole since the all-star break. The good news is that Street has been dominant since the ASB. He's shutting hitters down with a 0.47 ERA in the second half of the season, and more importantly he's allowed just one home run, versus the 10 long balls he served up in the first half. Street Is a heavy user of a hard-breaking slider. When the slider is working, Street has put a stranglehold on opposing hitters. When he doesn't have a feel for the slider, his accurate-but-not-overpowering fastball is not enough to put away hitters, especially when he's facing late game pinch-hitters who tend to be fastball-hitting specialists. With all the small sample size caveats that go along with evaluating relievers, it will be encouraging for next season if Street is able to continue his dominant run and renewed comfort with his out-pitch.

Key to success: Continuing to throw the slider with confidence

Anthony Bass

Bass has pitched like the Will Venable of pitchers this season. He flashes excellent stuff, with a hard slider and a fastball that touches the mid 90s, but he's been maddeningly inconsistent. Along with his inconsistency the knock on Bass has been his lack of an MLB-quality third pitch. The spotty nature of his changeup has kept him out of the starting rotation and it seems both Erlin and Smith have leapfrogged him in the organizational depth chart. He will probably also be buried behind prospects Joe Wieland and Casey Kelly next season unless he turns a corner with his third pitch. Let's see if he starts mixing it in more this season or in winter ball. If we don't see a lot of changeups it's probably a safe bet that the team is grooming him to be a reliever.

Key to success: Continuing the develop his changeup and changing his intro music to the D.O.C.'s "Let the Bass Go"

Robbie Erlin

After being shuttled back and forth for much of 2013, Erlin is finally getting an extended look without fear of being demoted after a bad outing. Erlin is a crafty, deceptive lefthander in the vein of an Eric Stults or Sterling Hitchcock type. The keys to his success are limiting the free passes, painting the corners, and keeping hitters off balance with his off-speed repertoire. Like Stults, pitch sequencing and location are absolutely critical for Erlin's success. Erlin has a plus changeup that is said to be a potential swing-and-miss offering, but the young southpaw hasn't been getting in enough two-strike counts to showcase the pitch. As mentioned before, lefthanders that rely on deception to get outs tend to have a much slower development path than pitchers with dominant fastballs. Cliff Lee, Al Leiter, Sterling Hitchcock, Kenny Rogers, Chuck Finley, and even our own Cory Luebke and Eric Stults were relatively late bloomers by starting pitcher standards. The precarious part of Erlin's position is that a lot of control-and-deception lefties tend to fizzle out. Major league hitters are often too good to fall for the smoke and mirrors. Fortunately for Erlin his velocity is a cut above many other pitchers in his mold and he appears to have a very high pitching acumen. He's got his work cut out for him, but given his youth, skillset, and potentially long development path, it's going to take more than a few poor September starts to write him off as another Wade Leblanc.

Key to success: Showing the "pitchability" factor that got him noticed as a prospect

Burch Smith

Smith is basically bizarro Robbie Erlin. He's had a meteoric rise through the Padres farm system and made his major league debut with only around 200 professional innings under his belt. More of a "thrower" than a pitcher at this point, Burch relies on a low-to-mid 90s fastball with incredible movement. He also mixes in a change and curveball to set up his fastballs. Many feel he was rushed to the show, though it is possible that the organization wanted to do some trial-by-fire to force Smith to trust more in his secondary offerings as MLB hitters can square up on most anybody's heater when you allow them to sit on a fastball. The encouraging news is that he is still getting whiffs, despite general ineffectiveness - 13.2% swinging strike rate shows potent stuff, even in a small sample.  If his additional offerings never fully develop there is a good chance that he has a future as a high-leverage relief pitcher.  Smith is not ready to contribute yet and the odds of him making the rotation out of ST next year are pretty slim, but this is an interesting teaser and showcase of his talent. I will be looking to see if he can work through the jitters and exhibit enough confidence to work in his secondary offerings enough to keep hitters honest. It could be an incredible opportunity for growth and development.

Key to success: Exhibiting more confidence in his secondary pitches to set up his fastball

Tyson Ross

Ross has shown a lot to love in the last several weeks. Arguably, no Padre has more to gain from finishing strong than Ross. He's consistently flashed the mid-90s fastball and incredible slider that made him an early draft pick in 2008 and an intriguing prospect ever since. At 26 years old, he's having his longest stretch of success as a major leaguer. Crediting Bud Black and pitching Coach Darren Ballsley for refining his unorthodox pitching motion and re-focusing his fastball repertoire Tyson has made the most of his extended audition in the starting rotation. As a guy who has been on the cusp of contributing for so long, Ross is probably going to need to be dragged off the field once this season is over. At this point the thing to watch for in Ross' starts is whether he starts to implement his rarely-used changeup more, as hitters could adapt to his reliance on hard stuff in the future. Other than that, it feels like we're watching a guy figure things out for the first time in his mid-20s.

Key to success: For the love of god, don't get Tommy John Surgery

Andrew Cashner

Although Cashner hasn't looked as dominant as some hoped for this season, he has quieted a lot of doubters with his unexpected durability. For September, Bud Black has gone to a 6-man rotation in hopes of getting Cashner some extra rest and getting more reps for Erlin and Smith. The interesting part of this is that it opens up the opportunity for him to go deeper into games and be less ginger with his fastball. Early in the season Andrew credited Darren Ballsley for helping him preserve his fastball velocity deeper into games. Though he wasn't throwing in the triple digits with any regularity, the big Texan was able to save some of his bullets for late innings. In his last two starts (with extended rest) Cashner has been able to dial up the heat a little bit higher than we've been used to seeing this season, and he's still taking the rock deep into games. It will be interesting to see whether he can keep up this combination of velocity and stamina to close out the season. The other point of interest in Cashner's season is that he's been throwing far fewer sliders in "out" counts than he has in the past. Although he's left the pitch up in a few bad outings recently, Cashner has shown a lot more comfort with the changeup since his transition to the rotation. This is a good sign, since the change is thought to put less stress on a pitcher's elbow and doesn't have as significant of a Left/Right platoon split as a hard slider, though one would think that Cashner's strikeout number would increase if he goes back to using the slider more on two-strike counts.

Key to success: Improving his 2-strike offerings and promising to never shave his beard again

Brad Boxberger

The oft-forgotten piece in the Mat Latos trade, Boxy is funky, deceptive reliever with closer potential. He's always struggled with command and control, but his strikeout numbers are hard to ignore. So far, Major League hitters have also had a hard time picking up the ball out of his hand and the changeup has been working for him, leading to an impressive whiff rate. Other than late-career Trevor Hoffman there isn't much precedent for a changeup specialist with middling fastball velocity having success in a late-inning role, but Boxberger's unorthodox delivery and great ability to hide the ball might give him a slight advantage against hitters who aren't used to seeing him. He's playing for a full time bullpen role next season, but to earn that he's going to have to continue to limit the walks and show how hard he is to hit.

Key to success: Being around the plate enough that hitters chase the offspeed pitches that actually are out of the zone