The San Diego Padres have seemingly been the joke of the NL West.
Even in the years they ended the season as the Western Division champions, there were still people who didn't take the Padres or the NL West seriously. Some even said the Padres shouldn't be allowed in the playoffs due to how weak the division was.
But in 2010, all that has changed. The entire division, from top to bottom, has become both younger and stronger.
The Dodgers seem to be the odds on favorite to win the division, probably for no other reason than they are the Los Angeles Dodgers. There's no question they have the talent on their pitching staff. But do they have the offense to sustain a long run to the division crown?
For the San Diego Padres, it's time to close up shop at their spring training spot in Peoria, AZ and return home to San Diego to get ready for the 2010 season. What they lacked last season and what they lost to injury they will need to put behind them. They can put the doubters to rest if they can put everything together.
The Padres will begin their first season since 2002 without Jake Peavy, who had been the ace of their pitching staff. The Padres bid farewell to Peavy prior to the 2009 trading deadline, sending the right hander to the Chicago White Sox.
Taking over the reigns of the team ace will be 6'10" right hander Chris Young, who hasn't been healthy in each of the past three seasons. If the Padres are going to have success next season, it starts with their new ace. Without him, the pitching staff isn't as strong as it could be.
Along with Young are veteran right hander Kevin Correia, left hander Clayton Richard who was one of the players the Padres received in the Jake Peavy trade, and veteran right hander Jon Garland.
Next to those four pitchers the Padres have gotten impressive outings during spring training from young left hander Wade LeBlanc who struggled with the Padres last season. He's making the Padres' decision difficult on whether they should opt to bring him to San Diego, or get him a few starts in Portland. He's battling for the fifth spot in the rotation with young phenom right hander Mat Latos, who impressed Padres' brass in his first five starts of 2009.
The starters will go in to the 2010 season knowing that they have arguably the two strongest closing tandem in the division. Right handers Mike Adams and Heath Bell provided stability in the back of the bullpen that San Diego will desperately need this season.
For awhile during the 2009 season, there were questions as to whether this bullpen could even hold the leads to hand it over to Adams and Bell. This season, the bullpen isn't filled with household names, but they can get the job done.
Luke Gregerson, Edward Mujica, Joe Thatcher, and possibly Tim Stauffer will be the guys that will be the take the ball from the starters and be the stop-gap relievers to get the ball to the shutdown duo of Adams and Bell.
Offensively, the Padres have more youth on this club than they've had in quite some time. Their short stop, Everth Cabrera is 23 and in his second season with the Padres. Chase Headley, the Padres' 25 year old third baseman will be in his fourth season.
As for outfielders, Kyle Blanks is 23, Tony Gwynn Jr is 27, and rising star and right fielder Will Venable will be 28 in October. These are arguably the youngest and most talented outfielders this franchise has had in quite some time.
Blanks showed off his power after the all star break last season after struggling through the first half of the season. He showed the kind of potential the Padres knew he had. After the trade that sent Kevin Kouzmanoff to Oakland, it allowed San Diego to move Chase Headley to his normal position of third base and it gave Kyle Blanks the left field job all to himself.
Along with the youth on defense are a couple of wirey veterans that give this team the knowledge it takes to teach the young guys how to handle certain situations whether it be at bat or how to shade over to cover a certain hitter.
David Eckstein, Adrian Gonzalez and the brothers Hairston bring that veteran presence to the ball club and also bring the talent on both sides of the ball.
Eckstein brings speed on the base paths and one of the better sacrifice bunters on the team. He can turn a routine ground ball into a tough play for a defending infielder. He can also teach the young guys how to prepare for the veteran pitchers in the big leagues, guys he's faced many times before.
Adrian Gonzalez could be one of the most feared hitters in not only the national league but in all of baseball. He hits for power to all sides of the ballpark. He'll take an inside fastball and pull it over the right field fence or take an outside pitch and lace it over the left field fence.
The problem with Gonzalez last season was the lack of protection in the lineup around him. So much so, that teams would pitch around him because they weren't afraid of facing what was lurking before or after him.
This season, with guys like Blanks, Venable, and Headley hitting around Gonzalez, pitchers will be less likely to pitch around him. Not that they'll be throwing meatballs to himbut he's more likely to see better pitches than he did last season.
For the San Diego Padres, their season will depend on the health and consistency of their pitchers. If they can get at least 30 starts from Chris Young, Jon Garland, and Kevin Correia, they should be in good shape.
The biggest question of this upcoming season is the trade rumors surrounding closer Heath Bell and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The Padres' front office has to know that they're not going to able to afford what Gonzalez is going to be looking for in a new contract. Knowing that, do they trade him at the deadline even if the team is in contention in the division, or do you capitalize on his services while you still can?
There will be tough decisions to make come the end of July. For right now, the Padres are staring at Opening Day with optimism and a renewed faith that they can contend in the NL West.
And they do believe they have the talent to do just that.