As predictions for the 2014 season begin to trickle in, you can hear some noise starting to build for the Padres as a sleeper NL playoff team. With two wildcards still in play and the Padres a team on the way up (health permitting) while others have to fend off decline or regression, you can kind of see why people are hopping on the bandwagon. Part of the reason some are jumping on board is because of the Padres' starting rotation. The lineup will remain roughly the same, but the Padres have added Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson since the start of last season, having two rising stars in Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross and plan to have many of their young starting pitchers with major league experience return from injury.
Why do pundits like this rotation? You can start with the first two I have already mentioned: Kennedy and Johnson. Our 35th and 36th presidents, I mean the most experienced pitchers in the rotation. 2011 was not so long ago that memories of Kennedy's 20 win season (and 4+ WAR) are still in play. His 15 win season (2+ WAR) in 2012 is even fresher and not too shabby itself. Johnson was the ace of the staff once for the Florida Marlins and was still a reliable guy on the staff as recently as 2012. Both are established, both are proven in a way.
Coming in behind those two are the dynamic duo of Chicago Cubs and those that stuck around for his move to the Padres remained curious about what kind of performance he could muster if ever healthy. Well, a healthy 2013 gave those followers reason to think he could be dependable, if not an All Star, in 2014. Ross does not have the same kind of history, but anyone that has seen his prototypical build and wipeout slider can also project big things. Especially after getting a taste of it in 2013.and . Many have paid close attention to Cashner since he was a 1st round pick for the major media market
Eric Stults was a workhorse in 2013 and while some may project him to do the same in 2014 others will point to the talent knocking at the door that could supplant him if he does not repeat. Cory Luebke, Joe Wieland and Casey Kelly all return from injury and haven shown promise before. Robbie Erlin and Burch Smith have MLB experience and are like by scouts. Matt Wisler is one of the top 25 pitching prospects in baseball. The reasons to believe that the Padres will make a great leap forward from their 2012-2013 pitching doldrums abound.
However, in this possible strength is also potential weakness. Kennedy and Johnson are the two highest paid pitchers on the staff. In both 2012 and 2013, the Padres were very patient with their previous two top earning hurlers. Clayton Richard and Edinson Volquez got plenty of starts despite their performances never being worthy of leading a rotation. If Kennedy and Johnson both stay healthy, but can not find the form that they had in years past then the Padres will struggle in many of their starts. That could have a lasting impact throughout the season. This scenario is certainly possible given that history is littered with pitchers that can get back to their past glories, especially after injuries. Many already doubt that Johnson has the stuff he once had and many others have always doubted Kennedy's smallish frame and low velocity repertoire.
Even the two guys on the rise, Cashner and Ross, are not sure things. Both have had issues locating their pitches as recently as 2012. Just as above when I talked of Kennedy and Johnson finding their past form, Cashner and Ross could fall back to theirs. Only in this case their past form would mean trouble for the Padres. If walkathons are in these two guys' future, then playoffs probably are not in the Padres'. Even a small stretch or two of bad starts by both could be catastrophic when the reasonable goal is that last wildcard spot.
I already touched on the idea that any Stults struggles could be reason for a youth movement, but as mentioned many of those guys are coming off injury. None of the returning triumvirate of Luebke, Kelly or Wieland has thrown yet as a starter in a professional game during their rehabs. It is possible that they may not be ready in time. As for Erlin and Smith, they are just two guys and may not be enough to plug all the holes not to mention that they are not sure things themselves. And finally Matt Wisler is still just 21 and only got to AA last season. He just is not quite ripe yet.
Hope is not lost, and it is not misplaced either. The Padres are not the Dodgers or even the Giants and can not throw hundreds of millions of dollars at their pitching problems. Given that starting point having a group of guys, a large group of guys, that have some upside is a good thing. It does not mean the only way to go is up, but it does mean that it is a realistic hope. Basically, the Padres are giving the fans something to root for and the pundits picking them as sleepers are dreamers not prophets.