For the first time since Bud Black's first season at the helm in 2007, the San Diego Padres began reporting to spring training with hopes of reaching the playoffs.
The 2010 Padres won 90 games and lost shots at both the National League West title and a wild-card berth on the final day of the season. However, that squad caught everyone by surprise.
These Padres might be different.
On paper, the 2014 Padres look to be the best San Diego team assembled since Petco Park opened in 2004.
The biggest question facing these Padres is health, and that is not a new subject. San Diego's hopes for improvement in each of the past two seasons were derailed by injuries. The Padres finished 76-86 each year.
This new year is already off to a slow start. Left-handed starter Cory Luebke learned that he will need a second Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in a span of two years. It will sixth Tommy John surgery on a Padre or a Padres prospect since 2012.
Four Padres had their 2013 seasons shortened by injuries -- catcher Yasmani Grandal (ACL surgery on his right knee last August), left fielder Carlos Quentin (who was limited to a half-season each of the past two years around three surgeries on his right knee), center fielder Cameron Maybin (who played only 14 games last season before having right wrist surgery) and first baseman Yonder Alonso (who was never the same after being hit by a pitch on his right hand on May 31).
Beyond questions about those four, right-handed starting pitcher Josh Johnson, an offseason free agent acquisition, opens spring training rehabbing from surgery to remove chips and spurs from his surgically rebuilt right elbow. Also, outfielder/first baseman Kyle Blanks has yet to play a full season without being injured.
For the first time in years, the Padres go into spring training with a fairly set Opening Day roster.
If everyone stays healthy, the only questions will be the final spots on the bench and in the bullpen.
Although Quentin, when healthy, is the only big bat in the middle of the lineup, the Padres feature a flexible roster that gives Black plenty of options. The team brass believes the lineup flexibility will result in more runs to back an improved pitching staff.
The regulars include three switch hitters (catcher Grandal, third baseman Chase Headley and shortstop Everth Cabrera), and the rest of the roster is almost perfectly split behind right-handed and left-handed hitters. Black will have the potential of starting eight right-handed hitters against a left-handed starter and seven left-handers against a right-handed starter.
Black has five outfielders -- right-handed hitters Quentin, Maybin and Chris Denorfia and left-handed hitters Seth Smith and Will Venable (the 2013 team MVP) -- who could get 400 plate appearances this season. The addition of free agent Smith makes it easier for Black to routinely rest Quentin to save his knees.
And the rotation is not only set entering spring training, but it is deeper than it has been in years. Andrew Cashner looked to be emerging as an ace at the end of last season. He will be followed by Johnson, Tyson Ross, Ian Kennedy and Eric Stults, with the likes of Matt Wisler, Burch Smith, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland waiting in the wings.
In addition, the bullpen was re-energized with the addition of setup relievers Joaquin Benoit and Alex Torres in front of closer Huston Street.
--C Yasmani Grandal was expected to miss the start of the 2014 season after he had surgery to rebuild the ACL in his right knee last August. But Grandal has said -- and the Padres are now optimistic about the possibility -- that he will be ready by the start of the season. If he is, that would be a big boost to the team both offensively and defensively. Grandal's presence could change the look of the Opening Day roster. Might the Padres keep three catchers to lessen the load on Grandal? Either Grandal or Nick Hundley could also serve as a pinch hitter, while Padres pitchers love working with Rene Rivera.
--LHP Cory Luebke will miss the 2014 season, as he is due for a second round of Tommy John surgery. Luebke, 28, last pitched in April 2012, when he had a 3-1 record and a 2.61 ERA in five starts shortly after signing four-year contract extension. The late Dr. Lewis Yocum performed the original Tommy John surgery on Luebke on May 23, 2012. Luebke was shut down three times last year during rehab and encountered more pain in January when he started preparing for the 2014 season.
--SS Everth Cabrera is anxious to get started after missing the final 50 games of the 2013 season due to a BALCO-linked suspension. Until the suspension, the switch hitter was batting .283 with a .355 on-base percentage, 37 steals and 54 runs in 95 games. "He's what got us going," manager Bud Black said.
--LHP Alex Torres' arrival to his first Padres spring training camp was delayed by visa problems in Venezuela. The issue was not believed to be major. Torres, 26, was acquired in the January trade that sent INF Logan Forsythe to the Rays. He went 4-2 with a 1.71 ERA in 39 appearances for Tampa Bay last year.
--Time Warner Cable agreed in mid-February to carry Padres games this season, ending a two-year impasse that kept the Padres off a large segment of the televisions in San Diego County. Even with many Padres fans in the TWC cable area switching to satellite carriers last season, 22 percent of the county was blacked out of the Padres' signal. A day after the Padres-TWC impasse ended, it was announced that TWC was merging with Comcast.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think on the pitching side, the upside is the potential of some big and powerful arms. That is very exciting. There is a lot of balance in the lineup of youth and experience. We have speed and some power. We're going to be better balanced against right-handed and left-handed pitchers." -- Padres manager Bud Black.
RHP Andrew Cashner
RHP Josh Johnson
RHP Tyson Ross
RHP Ian Kennedy
LHP Eric Stults
Cashner came within a seventh-inning single of throwing the first no-hitter (and perfect game) in Padres history last Sept. 16 in Pittsburgh. He took giant steps forward toward developing into a staff ace. Cashner (3.09 ERA) and Ross (3.17 ERA) both emerged as quality starters in 2013.
The key to the rotation's success could be Johnson, who had an operation last October to remove particles from his surgically rebuilt elbow. When healthy, Johnson has top-of-the-rotation stuff.
Kennedy and Stults are competitive innings-eaters at the bottom of the rotation. The Padres will have four solid starting prospects in minors in RHPs Matt Wisler, Burch Smith, Joe Wieland and Casey Kelly and LHP Robbie Erlin. Wisler and Smith have the highest ceilings.
RHP Huston Street (closer)
RHP Joaquin Benoit
LHP Alex Torres
RHP Dale Thayer
RHP Nick Vincent
RHP Tim Stauffer
The free agent signing of Benoit gives the Padres two potential closers. If not closing, Benoit is the perfect setup replacement for RHP Luke Gregerson, who was traded to Oakland for left-handed-hitting OF Seth Smith.
Torres is more than a situational left-hander. He has the stuff of a late-inning setup man, a fact that could open the last spot in the bullpen to another left-hander (Rule 5 acquisition Patrick Schuster or Zach Braddock). The veteran Stauffer is the perfect long man, and he also has the stuff to make an emergency start.
Thayer is durable. Vincent was an unsung hero the past two seasons.
1. SS Everth Cabrera
2. OF Will Venable or OF Chris Denorfia or OF Seth Smith
3. 3B Chase Headley
4. LF Carlos Quentin
5. C Yasmani Grandal
6. 2B Jedd Gyorko
7. 1B Yonder Alonso
8. CF Cameron Maybin or Denorfia or C Nick Hundley
The Padres used 145 starting lineups last season due to injuries and suspensions. Even if they are healthy this season, they could come close to matching that figure. The reason is roster versatility. The Padres have three switch hitters: Grandal, Headley and Cabrera. Manager Bud Black could field a starting lineup of eight right-handed position players against a left-handed pitcher and seven left-handed hitters against a right-hander.
Black will have five outfielders to choose from, giving him ample ways to rest Quentin's tender right knee.
Aside from Quentin, the Padres have few proven power hitters -- although Gyorko hit 23 homers as a rookie in 2013 and Headley had 31 homers in 2012. Given Cabrera's ability in the leadoff slot and Quentin's presence when healthy in the No. 4 slot, the offense should be improved this season from one through eight.
Black believes all five of his outfielders -- Quentin, 2013 club MVP Venable, Denorfia, Smith and Maybin -- are capable of 400 plate appearances this season.
TOP ROOKIES: OF Rymer Liriano probably will open the season at Double-A San Antonio after missing the entire 2013 season following Tommy John surgery. The 22-year-old is still viewed as the top outfield prospect in the system, and he could be promoted to Triple-A El Paso and the major leagues by the end of the season.
RHP Matt Wisler, 21, was a combined 10-6 with a 2.78 ERA at Class A Lake Elsinore and San Antonio last season. He could be inserted into the major league rotation when needed this year.
--RHP Casey Kelly (Tommy John surgery in April 2012) was rehabbing as spring training opened. His return is scheduled for mid-May in the minor leagues.
--RHP Josh Johnson (arthroscopic right elbow surgery in October 2013) had chips removed from his surgically repaired elbow. He will be on a restricted throwing program at the start of spring training.
--C Yasmani Grandal (right knee surgery in August 2013) had a torn anterior cruciate ligament repaired. He aims to be ready by Opening Day.
--LHP Cory Luebke (Tommy John surgery in May 2012) will undergo another elbow operation. He will miss the entire 2014 season.