Joaquin Benoit, Josh Johnson Signings Have Made Padres Surprise 2014 Contender

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IDecember 18, 2013

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After years of futility, the San Diego Padres have put themselves in position to become a possible contender in 2014. 

Led by general manager Josh Byrnes and manager Bud Black, the Padres will have a new look when spring training begins in February. By acquiring two veteran pitchers, starter Josh Johnson in November and reliever Joaquin Benoit, per Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, the team has added enough to a core of young, ascending talent to compete during the 2014 season.

This past season, the Padres were predictably poor. Over the last six years, dating back to the 2008 season, the franchise has averaged 75 wins per year. Considering the random, unsustainable success of 2010, when 90 victories and an NL West pennant race commenced in San Diego, the average win total looks even worse. 

If we remove the 2010 season from San Diego's ledger, the team has averaged 72.2 wins per year since the 2008 season. The 2013 campaign represented a second consecutive 76-86 season. Without completely bottoming out to the 55-60 win range, the team hasn't been in position to choose top talent in the annual June draft. 

Over the last five years, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Gerrit Cole have been selected within the top two picks of the annual draft. San Diego hasn't picked higher than No. 3 in any given season.

Drafting limitations aside, the Padres have quietly built up a young nucleus of talent.

According to MLB Depth Charts, San Diego's projected infield for 2014 all range from the ages of 25-29, placing the quartet of Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera and Chase Headley in their respective primes. If the outfield, comprised of a slew of versatile candidates, including the recent acquisition of Seth Smith, can complement each other, the offense could boast an above-average performer at every position.  

Projected 2014 Padres Lineup
1SSEverth Cabrera27
2CFWill Venable31
33BChase Headley29
4LFCarlos Quentin31
51BYonder Alonso26
62BJedd Gyorko25
7RFSeth Smith31
8CNick Hundley30
MLB Depth Charts

Led by the 25-year-old Gyorko, San Diego has ascending performers at many positions, but Headley's return to stardom is vital to a revival for a franchise that hasn't played in the postseason since the 2006 season.

During the 2012 season, few hitters in the sport were better than San Diego's third baseman. Among batters with at least 100 games played, Headley's 144 OPS-plus ranked 15th in all of baseball. Some of the names behind him on that list: Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols and Shin-Soo Choo. 

For the first time in a very long time, offense could be a strength for the Padres. At the very least, the team, with healthy campaigns from Headley and Cameron Maybin, should crack the top 20 in runs scored across MLB, per ESPN.

As noted above, the acquisitions of Johnson and Benoit have made the Padres into a different team for the upcoming season.

Due to a substantial strikeout rate and a move to the pitching-friendly environment of Petco Park, Josh Johnson is a great bet to revive his career as a ace. If he does, the pitching staff projects to have tremendous depth.

During a fan forum chronicled on the Padres official Twitter account, general manager Josh Byrnes expressed optimism in a pitching staff that ascended during the second half of 2013 and added Johnson to the fold. 

During the second half of 2013, Padres starters posted a 3.67 FIP (fielding independent pitching), good enough for the eighth best mark in baseball, per Fangraphs

According to Bleacher Report MLB Lead Writer Jason Martinez, the Padres staff has question marks but great potential.

"With the way that Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross pitched last season and the way Cory Luebke was pitching before Tommy John surgery sidelined him, the rotation has a chance to be very good," Martinez said in an email exchange this morning.

"Especially if Josh Johnson can be 75 percent of the pitcher he once was with the Marlins. Ian Kennedy's performance had also fallen off before the Padres acquired him from Arizona. Five starting pitchers that could be great, but all are question marks." 

Projected 2014 Padres Rotation
Ian Kennedy28R
Andrew Cashner27R
Josh Johnson29R
Tyson Ross26R
Cory Luebke28L
MLB Depth Charts

After subtracting star reliever Luke Gregerson in a trade to acquire Seth Smith's left-handed power, the Padres have replaced his innings with the free-agent signing of Benoit. Despite his former team, Detroit, showing little interest in retaining his services, Benoit profiles as one of the best relievers in the sport.

Over the last four seasons, spanning Benoit's time in Tampa Bay and Detroit, he's posted a 2.53 ERA in 259.1 innings pitched. How good is that number? Unless we're talking about David Robertson, Grant Balfour or Brad Ziegler, it's better than any other reliever in baseball (with at least 250 IP) over that span, per Baseball-Reference.

If the Padres offense can score runs for an underrated starting staff, the team has a proven, durable reliever available at the end of games.  

Projected 2014 Padres Bullpen
CLHuston StreetR30
SUJoaquin BenoitR36
SUDale ThayerR33
MIDEric StultsL34
MIDNick VincentR27
MIDPatrick SchusterL23
LRTim StaufferR31
MLB Depth Charts

In the National League West, contention goes through Los Angeles. After emerging from an early season slumber, the Dodgers dominated baseball for most of the summer en route to a 2013 postseason berth and eventual trip to the NLCS. If Matt Kemp returns to his 2011 MVP form, Yasiel Puig provides a spark for a full season and Hanley Ramirez can stay healthy for 140-plus games, Los Angeles can crack the 100-win plateau in 2014.

Yet, the rest of the division should give fans in San Diego hope for a run at a wild-card berth and the top spot behind the front-running Dodgers.

Outside of Los Angeles, not one team in the division finished 2013 with more than 81 wins. Arizona, the de facto second-place club, improved this winter by adding Mark Trumbo and Addison Reed but can't be counted on to play better than average baseball next season. 

After re-signing Tim Lincecum, San Francisco brought in Tim Hudson and Mike Morse to supplement a team that won the World Series just 14 months ago. Lately, the Giants have been a boom-or-bust franchise. Another uninspiring, 80-plus loss season isn't out of the question. Of course, neither is a trip to the postseason and run when they arrive. 

Colorado is perpetually confusing, unwilling to spend enough to become a major contender yet willing to unload $16.5 million for a left-handed reliever like Boone Logan. They are more likely to tear down their nucleus and rebuild before becoming a winning club.

Clearly, it won't take much for the Padres to become the second-best team in the NL West. With a young, capable and versatile offense, runs will finally arrive to Petco Park. An improving starting rotation, enhanced by a bounce-back season by Josh Johnson, will limit runs. Finally, Benoit's arrival as a late-game anchor will help hold leads and secure victories.

It's not quite time to print the playoff tickets in San Diego, but interesting and potentially meaningful baseball in August isn't out of the question.

Agree? Disagree?

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