San Diego Padres
It’s probably not a bad thing that each and every one of the clubhouse lockers inside the Padres’ new Spring Training facility in Arizona has name plates above them. The Padres returning players, the many new faces and the coaching staff figure to need them during their six-week stay in Peoria after the team underwent a dramatic transformation this winter.
General manager Josh Byrnes essentially reshaped the Padres’ roster with hopes of helping the team reach the postseason for the first time since 2006. The Padres bumped their payroll considerably, spending big on two notable free agents. They made several trades, including a seven-player, blockbuster deal with the Rays in January. They jettisoned several players who didn’t figure in their short-, or long-term plans. Where exactly did that leave the Padres on the cusp of the 2014 season?
“It’s probably the best collection [of players] I have been around since I’ve been here,” said Padres’ outfielder Will Venable. After consecutive 76-86 finishes in the National League West, the Padres, a team hit hard by injuries, slow starts and underperformance at times, will attempt some upwards mobility in what has become one of baseball’s most competitive divisions. It won’t be easy, because it’s never easy. That’s why Byrnes and his baseball operations staff spent so much time during the offseason working on deals, free agent and trades, to improve the roster. To be sure, this is a far cry from the previous offseason where the team was close on many deals that never were consummated.
“Last year, I know that Josh tried hard on a number of fronts, trade and free agency, but for whatever the reason was, the other clubs didn’t consummate the trades,” Black said. “This year, it was a little bit different. He got it done with JJ [Josh Johnson], he wanted to be a Padre. Joaquin Benoit wanted to be a Padre. The trade with Tampa, he worked for months on.”
The Padres signed free agent pitcher Josh Johnson to a one-year deal, hoping he can return to the form that allowed him to win 15 games with the Marlins and lead the league in ERA (2.30) in 2010. Johnson comes to San Diego after a miserable season in Toronto where he battled injuries. “[Johnson] has led the league in ERA and has been a dominant pitcher, and we had the opportunity to sign him,” Byrnes said. “We know there's risk, but we're very excited about the upside about what he can bring.”
Johnson adds another big arm to the rotation that already includes two pitchers – Tyson Ross and also Andrew Cashner – who can miss a lot of bats. The rotation figures to be the deepest since Bud Black became manager before the 2007 season. Cashner shined in his first full season as a starter, going 10-9 with a 3.09 ERA in 31 games (26 starts). He got better as the season went on, posting a 2.25 ERA in August and a 0.76 mark in the last month of the season, which included a near no-hitter against the Pirates. Overall, Cashner ranked 10th in the National League in ERA (3.04) among starters with at least 25 starts. On Sept. 16 at PNC Park, Cashner threw his first shutout, allowing one hit with no walks to go with seven strikeouts. He retired the first 18 batters he faced before Jose Tabata singled to start the seventh inning. All told, Cashner faced the minimum 27 batters. “That was one of the coolest games of my life,” Cashner says. “Throwing a no-hitter is definitely a goal of mine.”
Johnson, Ross and Cashner will anchor the rotation with Eric Stults and Ian Kennedy also part of what has become a deep stable of starting pitchers, especially when you consider that Casey Kelly and Joe Wieland are both returning from Tommy John surgery. Young pitcher Robbie Erlin and also Burch Smith, who impressed at times in 2013, are also in the mix. “There’s no reason, if healthy, why we can’t have one of the top staffs in baseball,” says pitching coach Darren Balsley says. “It’s up to them how they execute and perform. But they are guys who have had success in the past.”
The bullpen will look different as well in 2014. The Padres signed Benoit to a two-year deal, traded for lefty Alex Torres and jettisoned a number of pitchers who didn’t fit in the team’s long-range plans. Benoit spent the last three seasons with the Tigers, compiling a 2.89 ERA over 205 games. He had a 2.01 ERA in 66 games last season with 24 saves. Since missing the 2009 season after having surgery on his rotator cuff, Benoit has a 2.53 ERA and a 164 ERA+ over that span. “We were looking for a quality guy who has shown he can pitch effectively in these [late-game, high-leverage] situations. He embraced that and embraced coming here,” Byrnes says. “For a guy who has been in the postseason four years in a row, he believes he can help us take our next steps as a team.” Benoit will step into the eighth-inning role vacated by Luke Gregerson, who was traded to the A’s for outfielder Seth Smith. But Benoit can also close if need be, though Huston Street (33 saves) has been awfully good for the team the last two seasons.
Torres fills a need (left-handed reliever) the Padres had coveted all winter. But he’s more than simply a specialist. He had a 1.71 ERA in 39 games for the Rays last season, allowing 32 hits in 58 innings with an ERA+ of 224. Left-handed batters hit .175 against him with right-handers hitting a scant .149. “He has the pitches and the track record where he's shown he can get lefties and righties out,” Byrnes says. “Hopefully, he's more than a specialist.”
Offensively, the addition of the left-hand hitting Smith fills a void as the team was looking to improve its production against right-handed pitchers. “When we were at our best offensively, from the middle of 2012 to the middle of 2013, we had a balance of left and right, guys who could move around, who had power and speed,” Byrnes said. ”Seth Smith has done that very well, and hopefully he can do that for us."
Smith will join a lineup the Padres hope will be productive and healthy in 2014. Carlos Quentin and also Chase Headley, two of the top hitters on the team, are coming off respective knee surgeries. Headley is hoping to get back to the hitter he was in 2012, when he led the league in RBIs. Quentin made changes to his stance to alleviate pressure on his knees.
The Padres are looking for big things again from second baseman Jedd Gyorko, who hit 23 home runs during his rookie season and showed well on defense. Gyorko became just the fifth Major League second baseman to hit 20 or home runs in a single season in 2013. Venable had a career year at the age of 30, hitting a career-high 22 home runs while also knocking in a career-best 53 runs. “Maybe 30 years old is considered old for some players, but maybe not for Will,” Byrnes says. “He's a unique story with his [Princeton] basketball background through college. He's obviously been a good player for a number of years. He took it to a higher level.”
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