(From left) Starters Nick Hundley, Will Venable, and Cameron Maybin are the nucleus of a young team hungry for wins.
At the beginning of every season, the standings are fresh and the teams are ready. Every team has a chance to win—except maybe the Orioles—and the teams that capitalize on opportunities are the teams ahead in the standings by years' end.
In 2012, the San Diego Padres have the chance to enjoy the weather and play good baseball. Here are seven reasons why.
New first baseman Yonder Alonso has the potential to be the ever-evasive lefty slugger for the Padres.
Even prior to the departure of Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres have always had issues with hitting home runs at PetCo Park. In 2011, the team was dead last in the National League in home runs, with a team total under 100 bombs. Ryan Ludwick led the team in dingers with 11, and he was sent to Pittsburgh at the All-Star break. Nobody caught him by season's end.
However, new General Manager Josh Byrnes has made a myriad of moves that have given him some punch in the lineup. First baseman Yonder Alonso was acquired from Cincinnati as part of the Mat Latos trade, and he proved that his sweet lefty swing yields results, even outside of the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark.
Byrnes also snagged outfielder Carlos Quentin from the Chicago White Sox, who hit 24 homers in 118 games in 2011. Quentin's banner year came in 2008, when he batted .288, hit 36 home runs, and drove in 100 runs for the White Sox.
With Alonso and Quentin projected to hit back to back in the Opening Day lineup, the Padres seems to have gotten the much needed boost in the middle of the order.
New closer Huston Street has big shoes to fill in San Diego.
The bullpen pitching has been the one thing that the Padres have done better than any other team in baseball. They posted the lowest bullpen ERA in 2010, and had a similarly outstanding year in 2011.
But gone are closer Heath Bell and setup stud Mike Adams. Seventh inning specialist Luke Gregerson was a shell of the dominant arm he was in 2010. Lefty Joe Thatcher was plagued by a throwing shoulder injury for the greater parts of two seasons.Young guns Anthony Bass and Josh Spence have plenty of developing left and could not be depended on just yet.
The closer role would have been a hole too big to fill with an in-house name, and Josh Byrnes went fishing. Byrnes knew, as every Padre fan does, that strength lies in pitching at PetCo. He traded for closer Huston Street from Colorado. Street is a front line closer who can be stellar when he finally gets away from Coors Field.
He also made the tough and unpopular decision by traded charming prospect Anthony Rizzo, boyish smile and all. He received relief pitcher Andrew Cashner, who dons a gruff beard and can bring it consistently at or around 100 mph. After the Padres had Alonso, Rizzo was expendable, and Byrnes dealt Rizzo before his value had a chance to drop.
As for Joe Thatcher, he's back in Spring Training and feels better than ever. After recovering from shoulder surgery, he's looking forward to bolstering the Padres 'pen in 2012. Luke Gregerson also feels optimistic, and he will be counted on to return to his former self in the seventh and eighth innings.
Other arms like Ernesto Frieri and Josh Spence could add to bullpen depth, and Anthony Bass must compete with newly acquired Micah Owings for the long-relief job.
The Padres also have veteran right-handers Jeff Suppan and Matt Palmer in the system. Neither figure to make the team, but they are valuable pieces to have in case of injury.
Cameron Maybin will keep catchers on their toes in 2012 after nabbing 40 bags in 2011.
MLB.com annually ranks the top 100 players in baseball before the season. The only Padre to make this year's list was center fielder Cameron Maybin, scooting in at No. 98. The website noted his rare blend of power and speed as qualities of a potential star, and the Padres certainly agree.
Maybin was acquired from the Marlins in 2010, the return piece of the trade that sent relievers Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb to Florida. He was given a chance to finally play every day in center field without the inordinate sense of pressure that was applied to him in Florida. Manager Bud Black stands by his outfielder, and the Padres feel that he has the ability to be a franchise player.
Maybin hit .240 in 136 games for San Diego last season, but showed flashes of power by hitting nine home runs, one of which was a blast to dead center in St. Louis on Opening Day. His true prowess, however, lies in his feet. His ability to patrol center field in PetCo is invaluable. His knack for tracking down balls in the gap with ease and laying out for sinking liners allows him to successfully play in the expansive outfield.
He also stole 40 bases for the Padres in 2011, indicative of not only San Diego's aggressiveness on the base paths, but Maybin's quickness as well.
2012 could be the breakout year for Maybin. Projected to hit low in the order, this will allow him to see more strikes and be selective at the plate. A .280 BA/25 HR/45 SB season could be right around the corner.
Bud Black enters his fifth season as the manager for the Padres.
If there's anything that can cause turmoil in a dugout, it's when the front office does the manager shuffle. Firing a manager mid-season and appointing an interim is akin to waving the white flag and mailing in the remainder of the season. When a manager knows what he's doing and does it well, he needs to stick around.
Bud Black certainly knows what he's doing. He pitched in the Major Leagues for 15 seasons, and has managed the Padres for the past four. San Diego has shown flashes of competitive fire under Black, and have always maintained their specific brand of baseball.
The Padres pitch well in PetCo Park, and the staff in San Diego is one of the best when it comes to developing young pitchers. Pitchers Mat Latos, Mike Adams, Tim Stauffer, and Heath Bell all developed into strong and solid pitchers under the watchful eye of Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley. The Padres have plenty of new faces in the rotation and the bullpen in 2012, but the coaches and their ability to produce able pitchers hasn't changed.
San Diego has also been able to steal bases under Black's tutelage. Speed demons like Cameron Maybin and Will Venable can be counted on to swipe bases with consistency, but the Padres aggressive style of play has movement on the basepaths at all times. Infielders Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson will get the steal sign often, and even catcher Nick Hundley will have the green light on occasion.
The Padres have worked hard over the winter to get the right pieces to compete, and have kept Bud Black at the helm, where he belongs.
Lefty Cory Luebke and the Padres rotation look for another solid season.
The Padres may be without a tall blonde kid, but they won't miss him much.
Mat Latos departed for Cincinnatti in December as the prize for the Reds, who sent four players to San Diego. The Padres received their starting first baseman, one of the best catching prospects in baseball, another stud prospect who has dynamite stuff, and a guy named Edinson Volquez.
Not only did the Padres get the Reds farm system, but also a virtual replacement for Latos. Volquez has pitched well in the past, but has been a victim of first inning control issues since. It also doesn't help that he played in Cincinnatti, where a routine fly ball somehow lands in the Ohio River. Getting into the hands of Black and Balsley will help iron out Volquez's control issues, and thick marine air in PetCo envelops even well-hit fly balls.
Tim Stauffer returns as the front line starter in San Diego. With Aaron Harang now in Dodger blue, Stauffer will be looked upon to be the innings eater of the staff. He tossed 185.2 innings in 2011, and the Padres hope he can at least repeat the performance.
Lefty Clayton Richard will make his return in 2012. After exiting the staff in mid-July for arthroscopic shoulder surgery, Richard spent the off-season recovering, and has returned to camp with a clean bill of health. Richard has thrown multiple bullpen sessions since arriving in Peoria, Arizona, and recently threw live pitching off the mound for the first time. Richard says he feels 100% and is ready for April 5.
Cory Luebke is a promising pitcher at least, and a future ace at best. After filling the hole in the rotation left by Richard, Luebke went 6-10, but posted a 3.29 ERA and a 9.8 SO/9 ratio. Padre fans can easily look beyond his marred record and see that Luebke has high ceilings.
Rounding out the rotation is veteran Dustin Moseley. Moseley could quietly be the most dependable pitcher on the Padres staff, akin to Kevin Correia and his stint with the Padres a few years ago. Moseley started 20 games, and was credited for only three wins, despite a 3.30 ERA.
With good pitching almost a foregone conclusion, all it takes is some offense and the wins will come.
How Aubrey Huff hit so well down the stretch in 2010 still baffles some.
The Padres are close to being synonymous with futility to those who don't follow the team. But it cannot be forgotten; the Padres had baseball scratching its head in 2010.
Few remember the year the Padres were having in 2010. They were running away with the division, having led for nearly the entire season. They had surprised everybody, and doubters were about to rescind. And then they lost. They lost Jerry Hairston Jr., an apparent linchpin in the Padres lineup. Then they lost games. They dropped three in a row. Then six. Then finished their tailspin with 10 straight losses, while the San Fransisco Giants surged from eight games back.
The season finale series was a Padres-Giants showdown, the Padres needing a sweep to clinch, and win two of three to force a deciding 163rd game. They won once.
The Giants went on to ride that magic carpet all the way to a World Series ring. Led by aces Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and the bat of Aubrey Huff—Aubrey Huff—the Giants finished off the Rangers in five games.
Needless to say, the Giants found it difficult to repeat the bliss of 2010 when the big stick Huff realized who he was and stopped hitting.
Some of the pieces from the 2010 team have gone: Adrian Gonzalez, Jerry Hairston Jr., Jon Garland, just to name a few. But the young core remains. Cameron Maybin, Nick Hundley, Tim Stauffer, Chase Headley, Will Venable and others remember the pain of 2010, and are ready to fight for 2012.
Andre "Distraction" Ethier is already asking for a trade. Oh boy.
The 2012 season looks oddly familiar in the National League West. It's winnable.
The Arizona Diamondbacks were the division representative in the 2011 playoffs. Manager Kirk Gibson stepped in late in the season and piloted a young and talented franchise to their first playoff berth since 2007. Outfielders Chris Young and Justin Upton have franchise player potential; Upton may already be there.
By no means is Arizona a powerhouse, though. They would need another outstanding season from pitcher Ian Kennedy, and Young and Upton have to carry the team back to October. While they remain a favorite to win the division again in 2012, unseating them is not impossible.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were lucky when they received monster seasons from Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, otherwise they may have been entirely in the toilet. When a team has a Cy Young Award winner and a MVP finalist, they're always a contender.
But the Dodgers are funny. Starting pitching looks good enough, but the bullpen is a wreck. The lineup scares both opposing pitchers and manager Don Mattingly. If Kemp slows down and Andre Ethier continues to diva around, the Dodgers will stall.
The Giants and the Colorado Rockies are always hanging around. When the Rockies decide they would like to win, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez light up the pitcher. The problem with the Rockies is that they never know when to decide. The Giants have Lince-Cain, and not much else. Offense remains a problem ever since the Huff fiasco.
So that leaves the Padres. While they've gotten comfortable in the cellar, the door is open. The division is always competitive, mostly because it's a bunch of mediocre teams beating up on each other. It is now San Diego's job to join the scrum.