My, how much can change in just 18 months.
On Oct. 2, 2007, exactly one and a half years ago, former Colorado Rockies' outfielder Matt Holliday snuck past Padres' catcher Michael Barrett in the 13th inning of the season's 163rd game. The electric play earned the Rockies a wild card berth in the 2007 playoffs and eventually their first National League Championship, and sent the dejected Padres home.
The Padres as a whole haven't been the same since that night. The 2008 season was a dismal display: 99 losses, ranked last (30th) in runs scored, 28th in batting average, 27th in OPS, and 25th in ERA and batting average against (BAA).
Ace Jake Peavy had a disappointing year amidst swirling trade rumors, pitcher Chris Young missed extended time, and shortstop Khalil Greene was in free fall before a self-sustained hand injury ended his season, and his career as a Padre.
The bullpen was a mess, no pitcher won more than 10 games, and only one starter batted above .300. So needless to say, the Padres can't go many directions other than up. Or so they hope.
The 2009 squad is about to boast the club's worst spring training record in history, and despite Jake Peavy not allowing a single run this spring, the team's spring ERA is a league-worst 7.07. True, it's only exhibition, but it's clear that pitching will be the prime area of concern, especially given the improved batting lineup.
Former top Indian prospect Jody Gerut came into his own last year and should provide the team with a reliable leadoff hitter with power and solid center fielder. Newly acquired 2B David Eckstein has been on fire this spring, and his tenacity and work ethic should really rub off on his young teammates.
The middle of the lineup (Giles, A. Gonzalez, Kouzmanoff) finally looks formidable again, provided they can be more patient at the plate and avoid huge amounts of strikeouts. I'm looking at you, Kooz.
With any luck, much-hyped youngsters Chase Headley and Nick Hundley can contribute on a daily basis, and Cliff Floyd will provide a big bat off the bench.
Indeed, in 2009, the difference must be made on the mound.
For any chance at moderate success, Peavy must be stellar, start 30-35 games, and remain on the team all season. Chris Young has to win 15 games, and the team must find reliable options for spots 3-5 in the rotation. Cha Seung Baek will begin the year on the DL, which obviously is a step in the wrong direction.
The bullpen, anchored by new closer Heath Bell, must display greater stability than they have thus far in Spring Training, meaning Cla Meredith and Duaner Sanchez must establish themselves as reliable stoppers in late innings. General manager Kevin Towers continues to search for pitching help, so it's likely the roster of arms won't look this weak for much longer.
But let's check all optimism at the door. The Padres are a low-payroll club that is undergoing massive internal changes, and as a result the on-field product is going to suffer for the time being.
San Diego will field a more competitive team this upcoming year, but other division rivals have made greater improvements, and for a team that still struggles to score runs in a spacious ballpark, success will ultimately hinge on whether the arms can hold up.
The bottom line: San Diego probably won't even sniff a play-in game this year. Prediction: 72-90.