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Why the Padres will win the pennant

Denis Poroy

SB Nation 2014 MLB Preview

It bears repeating because it happened twice: 76-86. 76-86. Back-to-back years of identical records. The 2012 season was handicapped by bad pitching brought about both by the trading of the team’s best pitcher and injuries. The 2013 season was ruined by injuries to almost everyone and suspensions. The only position on the field where the projected Opening Day starter did not spend time on the disabled list was right field. When these players were healthy they played well, but when they were out of the lineup the team’s depth was stretched. Going into 2014, the assumption is if the team is healthier, it can compete.

If the Padres had stood pat this offseason, even with improved health they probably wouldn’t stand a chance. They didn’t stand pat. General Manager Josh Byrnes, perhaps learning from the previous offseason’s inactivity, made a few gambles to get his team over the hump. He added veteran pitchers with above-average track records in Josh Johnson and Joaquin Benoit, traded for a sorely needed left-handed bench bat in Seth Smith, and brought a high-upside arm to the bullpen in Alex Torres, in addition to Ian Kennedy at last year’s trading deadline. These are not Angelic contracts to Josh Hamilton or Albert Pujols, but they addressed needs.

Still, double-digit increases in the win column require more than a couple key moves and healthier players. The team will need young players to take steps forward or build on the steps they took in 2013. Everth Cabrera was the team’s lone All-Star last year, though his season was cut short with a PED suspension. Two young pitchers, Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, spent time in the bullpen last year before moving to the rotation and looking ace-like at times, and a full season of continued success as starting pitchers would buoy the team’s playoff chances. Rookie standout 2B Jedd Gyorko led the team in home runs, and considering he’s just 25, there’s reason to believe he can get better. Local product Nick Vincent emerged from a cavalcade of bullpen candidates to show he could be counted on in late innings, and with a 1.98 ERA over 72 games in the last two seasons, he is ready to be relied on for a full season. Finally, there’s the ultimate wild card in 25-year-old Yasmani Grandal. His 2013 was cut short by both injury and suspension, but he has occasionally looked like an important piece of the offense. With his suspension over and knee on the mend, he has the chance to be a catalyst for a Padres playoff run.

Another key to a Padres’ postseason run is for solid veterans to produce. Players like Chris Denorfia, Will Venable, Huston Street, Eric Stults, Tim Stauffer, and Dale Thayer were all valuable parts of the 2013 team, and all are returning for 2014 and will be 30 or older this year, though they don’t seem obvious candidates for imminent decline, Denorfia, Venable, Stults, and Thayer logged more time in 2013 that they had in any previous season and shone in their respective roles.

The final piece to the puzzle is depth. Even with all the previously listed reasons for optimism, things will go wrong. Some of the players mentioned earlier will be part of that depth, but the team has even more options. Starters Robbie Erlin and Burch Smith made their debuts and had some success in 2013. By getting their feet wet last year, they can be counted on in 2014 to fill in where needed this season. Casey Kelly and Joe Wieland should recover from Tommy John surgery and be ready to contribute at some point this season, too. The Padres’ top pitching prospect Matt Wisler will be logging innings in the upper minors and could be called upon to help the big club.

The club also has a good helping of MLB-ready backups who can fill in as needed. When healthy, Kyle Blanks has pop. Alexi Amarista has versatility. Ryan Jackson has a good glove. Nick Hundley has been a reliable backstop. Tommy Medica has bat, will travel, and Reymond Fuentes is ready to run. None are starting material, but they, along with Seth Smith, make up one of the better benches the Padres have had in recent history. The hope is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Josh Byrnes has done what he could to leave no glaring weakness on the team. By no means does that guarantee success, but it gives the team a puncher’s chance at the postseason.