2014 Team Preview: The San Diego Padres are not the most talented team in the NL West

Justin K. Aller

Truth be told, the 2014 Padres look like a last place team. That said, there is a reason they play the games.

Maybe it's their location, but the San Diego Padres seem like one of the more forgotten franchises in baseball. Unlike the Seattle Mariners -- baseball's other franchise tucked away in a western corner of the United States -- the Padres have not sported the type of star power that garners headlines. Sure, they have a distinguished history that includes one of the best pure hitters of all-time, but even Tony Gwynn did not receive the type of fanfare that was bestowed upon peers with lesser talent and numbers.

In recent seasons, the "forgotten" aspect seems to have permeated further. The team has not made the playoffs since 2006 and has not won a playoff series since 1998. They only have two winning seasons during Bud Black's tenure and do not seem to be any closer to contention in 2014.

Manager: Bud Black (8th year)

2013 record: 76-86, t-3rd in NL West

SB Nation blog: Gaslamp Ball

Other Padres coverage: U-T San Diego, MLB.com

First series vs. Tigers: April 11-13 @ Petco Park

Lineup

The Padres were a decidedly below average offensive squad in 2013, finishing in the lowest third of the National League in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging average, and wOBA. While this is nothing new for a team that makes its home in spacious Petco Park, Chase Headley's precipitous drop-off in the middle of the lineup did not help matters. Headley's .747 OPS was his worst mark since 2010, but an early season thumb fracture limited his effectiveness. He hit .280/.371/.458 in the second half, indicating that 2012 was not a one-year spike in production. On Headley's left will be shortstop Everth Cabrera, who made the first All-Star appearance of his career before being suspended as part of the Biogenesis scandal. Cabrera has 81 stolen bases in 210 games over the past two years.

Second baseman Jedd Gyorko flew under the radar in 2013, but his .249/.301/.444 line and 23 home runs in 525 plate appearances would have won him the Rookie of the Year award in most seasons (or the American League). Both Steamer and Oliver project him to put up over 3.0 WAR in 2013, a conservative estimate if his batting average improves. Rounding out the infield is first baseman Yonder Alonso, who the Padres received in the Mat Latos deal two years ago. Alonso turned heads by hitting .273/.348/.393 with 39 doubles in 2012, but fractured his hand in late May of 2013 and put up a .655 OPS afterward. He won't ever be the power threat that Adrian Gonzalez was before him, but a few more home runs would help. Massive individual Kyle Blanks will see time at first and in the outfield, but a slugging percentage north of .400 is a necessity for him to hang around this year.

If the injuries don't let up soon, a return to the cellar could be in store for the Padres in 2014.

Former Tigers prospect Cameron Maybin was expected to anchor the outfield in center, but suffered a biceps injury when making a diving catch on Sunday. The underrated Will Venable will see a healthy amount of time in center, just as he did when Maybin missed time in 2013. Venable put up a career-best .796 OPS and 22 home runs last year, largely thanks to a torrid two months in July and August. Alexi Amarista saw more innings in center than Venable did in 2013, but a healthy Carlos Quentin and Chris Denorfia -- among others -- will shuttle Amarista into a utility role. Quentin put up an .855 OPS last year, but only logged 320 plate appearances. Denorfia put up his fourth consecutive above average offensive season (according to OPS+) and led the team with 3.9 WAR. Former Oakland A's outfielder Seth Smith may not force a strict platoon with Denorfia, but this offense needs another productive lefty bat -- something that Smith can be for stretches, but has not proven consistently.

Nick Hundley handled most of the catching duties in 2013, and will likely be the Opening Day starter again in 2014. He is a serviceable backup, but his abilities are stretched as a full-time starter. Luckily, he will have help this year. Yasmani Grandal is recovering from a late season ACL tear (and subsequent surgery) last year, but should be ready to go early in the season. The Padres need him to produce 2012-esque numbers offensively, but staying on the field for an extended period of time would be a solid start. Rene Rivera will be in the picture until Grandal is healthy enough to return.

Rotation

Left-hander Eric Stults was the only Padres starter to log over 200 innings in 2013, and one of three returning players to have pitched over 100 innings. His 2.6 WAR led the team, but he struck out fewer than six batters per nine innings and allowed a 3.93 ERA. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are the other two returning starters, though Ross may continue to be used as a swingman. He did put up the best FIP on the staff, at 2.92 in 94 innings as a starter. He also has the strikeout potential that neither Stults nor Cashner have, fanning over a batter per inning in 2013.

Rounding out the rotation will be a pair of (relative) newcomers in Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson. Kennedy was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks at the trade deadline last year and allowed a 4.24 ERA in 57 1/3 innings. He is quickly distancing himself from his excellent 2011 season, having posted consecutive years with an ERA and FIP above 4.00. Both his walk and home run rates have risen in each of the past two years. Johnson is also a rebound hopeful, but has a few more factors working in his favor. His 2013 season was awful on the surface, but he still struck out a batter per inning and put up a 3.58 xFIP. Getting him out of the homer-happy AL East and into a pitcher's park could result in a return to his productive days with the Marlins.

Despite losing Luke Gregerson and his career 2.88 ERA, the Padres' bullpen looks like it could be an above average unit in 2014. Right-hander Huston Street will be joined by former Tiger Joaquin Benoit to form one of the more experienced setup-closer combos in baseball. Street shirked his homer problems to post a 2.70 ERA and 33 saves in 2013. Lefty Alex Torres will look to prove that last year's 1.71 ERA and 2.32 FIP were no fluke. Nick Vincent and Tim Stauffer will be pushed down the totem pole despite productive seasons last year. Stauffer's ERA was not quite as pretty, but his 3.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio and homer troubles indicate that improvement could be in store.

The Walking Dead

No team has been bitten by the injury bug as hard and often as the Padres so far this spring. Cory Luebke received the worst news of the bunch; after recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2013, Luebke will need a second surgery on his pitching elbow. He is out for the entire season. Cameron Maybin will also miss significant time -- two to three months is the current estimate -- after rupturing a biceps tendon. Huston Street pulled a groin, Chase Headley strained a calf, and prospect Max Fried was shut down with forearm soreness. Yasmani Grandal and Casey Kelly are recovering from ACL and Tommy John surgeries, respectively. For good measure, Alex Torres is having visa issues and has not yet reported to camp. But hey, at least they could have had that floating stadium, right?

Player to watch: Andrew Cashner

Cashner was a bright spot for the Padres in 2013, allowing a 3.09 ERA and 3.35 FIP in 175 innings. Acquired from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Anthony Rizzo prior to the 2012 season, Cashner missed most of the 2011 and 2012 seasons with shoulder problems. He throws too hard for someone who only struck out 6.58 batters per nine innings in 2013, but features a legitimate out pitch in his slider. His career 52.1% ground ball rate and Petco Park's ample dimensions will also help. If he can stay healthy, expect Cashner to put together another great season.

Outlook

There does not seem to be a large difference between second and fifth place in the NL West, but the Padres arguably have the furthest to go to reach the upper echelon of the division. They posted the worst pythagorean win-loss record in the West last year and are already behind the eight ball in 2014 with their extensive injury report. They don't have the game-changing talent of the Rockies, Giants, or Diamondbacks, and therefore need more to go right in order to contend. The pitching staff isn't bad, but the lineup is a big step away from being league average, let alone a true asset. If the injuries don't let up soon, a return to the cellar could be in store for the Padres in 2014.

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