It seems like an eternity since the San Diego Padres were contenders in the National League West, at least in the minds of the “Friar Faithful,” who religiously attend games at beautiful PETCO Park. They are frustrated by the fact their cheers are frequently drowned out by fans who follow the opposing team. And they are weary of Padres players who continue to be bitten by the injury bug.
Truth be told, though, San Diego won 90 games as recently as 2010, the season that longtime skipper Buddy Black was named “Manager of the Year.” A lot has happened since then, including a new ownership group headed by the respected O’Malley family.
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After a year of evaluation, youthful San Diego General Manager Josh Byrnes got the go ahead to make a few conservative trades and free agent acquisitions that will complement the current cast of players. All-Star third baseman Chase Headley, who has been hobbled by a calf problem shortly after arriving at camp, is in the walk year of his contract and figures to be motivated to perform at a high level.
These developments have led knowledgeable media-types, like ESPN’s Buster Olney, to predict that the Padres could claim a wild-card berth and advance to the postseason. The loss of high-priced center fielder Cameron Maybin during an early spring training game could drop the Padres stock a bit. Nonetheless, this team is a lot deeper now than ever before, and fear of the unknown could work in its favor.
Injuries, as mentioned, and PED suspensions were not kind to the Padres last season, but the infield core is now back at full force. And the foursome of Headley, Everth Cabrera, Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso could be the most underrated in baseball.
Maybin’s mishap, a ruptured left biceps tendon, was unfortunate. The Padres outfield is still in good shape, however, with a mix of Carlos Quentin and Chris Denorfia swinging from the right side, while Will Venable and newcomer Seth Smith bat lefty. Even though the now-healthy Quentin says he feels great, it’s not realistic to expect the gimpy-kneed slugger to play more than 100 games. That means versatile Tommy Medica and the oft-injured Kyle Blanks will have to step it up in a reserve role. Pint-sized pepper pot Alexi Amarista, the former Los Angeles Angel and a huge fan favorite, will also see a lot of playing time.
Catching has been an area of depth for San Diego, although No. 2 prospect Austin Hedges is still at least a year away from the show. So for now, the club must put their trust in under-achieving Nick Hundley, in the last year of his deal, and backup receiver Rene Rivera.
The scenario will eventually change when Yasmani Grandal, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last July, is fit for duty. Even if the switch-hitting former University of Miami star can’t answer the bell on opening day, there’s little doubt he will emerge as the starting receiver until Hedges is ready.
The Padres made a mini-splash when they landed former ace Josh Johnson on a safe, one-year pact this winter, and he will only bolster a starting rotation that was pretty good anyway. The two-time All-Star has not been the picture of health in recent seasons, so he should feel right at home in San Diego. But the 6′-7″ Canadian, often a victim of the big fly, should gain some confidence back in a pitcher-friendly home yard.
Big Andrew Cashner was top dog in San Diego last season with a 10-9 record, while notching a tiny 3.09 ERA over 175 innings. Known for his triple-digit heater, the former Chicago Cub became the real deal in 2013, changing speeds more and learning to execute his secondary pitches. He will be joined by Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross, who came to San Diego via the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland A’s, respectively.
Eric Stults, the ex-Los Angeles Dodger and San Diego’s only lefty starter, threw a career-high 202 innings last year. But the 34-year-old veteran has a rubber arm and is expected to fill out the backside of the rotation.
The relief corps looks to be a strength again for the Padres, despite the fact that durable stalwarts like Luke Gregerson and Joe Thatcher are long gone. GM Byrnes surprised some rival clubs by aggressively signing former Detroit Tiger’s fireman Joaquin Benoit to fill a setup role. The two-year deal was a costly $15.5 million, but at least the Padres have some insurance just in case incumbent closer Huston Street happens to falter.
Additionally this winter, San Diego traded for young southpaw Alex Torres, who was brilliant in the Tampa Bay Ray’s pen in 2013. What’s more, the crafty Venezuelan has experience as a starter, albeit in the minor leagues.
Opening day lineup
1. Everth Cabrera, ss
2. Will Venable, CF
3. Chase Headley, 3B
4. Carlos Quentin, LF
5. Jedd Gyorko, 2B
6. Yonder Alonso, 1B
7. Chris Denorfia/Seth Smith, RF
8. Nick Hundley/Yasmani Grandal, C
The Padres have been forced to improve their big league team from outside the organization, since prospects from within the revamped farm system need additional experience. That said, quality talent isn’t too far away.
The previously mentioned Hedges, a homegrown kid drafted out of high school in 2011, is on a fast track thanks to his gifted defensive skills and rocket arm. The jury is still out, however, on his offensive progress.
I have often been critical of the Padres experiment in the Dominican Republic and its failure to produce a high percentage of advanced talent. That is not the case with Rymer Liriano, a five-tool outfielder who was sidelined with Tommy John surgery and missed all of last season. Still, the 22-year-old Liriano is now fully recovered and waiting for an opportunity to shine on the big stage.
Max Fried, a left-handed pitcher and the Padres most prized prospect, has been temporarily shut down this spring with forearm stiffness. The SoCal youngster is scheduled to start the season at High A Lake Elsinore.
Burch Smith, Casey Kelly and lefty Robbie Erlin are all guys with major league experience who could be promoted at a moment’s notice to aid the varsity pitching staff, if needed. A surplus of quality arms is definitely an area of strength within the Padres organization.
Starting with the O’Malley clan and their local spokesman, Ron Fowler, to GM Byrnes and manager Black, nobody has a clue how this enigma of a team will finish. I don’t have a crystal ball either.
What I can tell for certain, though, is that the San Diego Padres are a group of confident, primarily youthful players, not unlike the Oakland A’s or Tampa Bay Rays, and they have a chip on their shoulders.
So, if the dreaded injury curse doesn’t render them mortally wounded, this Padres bunch just might play more than 162 games this season.