By Marc Normandin
The Padres entered play on Wednesday night 6.5 games back in the National League West, with a 23-28 record. That doesn't sound all that impressive, but back on April 23, they were 10 games under .500, with a 5-15 record. They've managed a winning record in May to this point, helping to keep them closer than it looked like they would ever be to a playoff spot a month ago. Still, you wouldn't see much of a reason to think highly of them as a sub-.500 club in a division with plenty of talent to contend with.
That's the thing, though. The Padres have talent, too. Some of it is just new, or unknown, or yet to debut in 2013. That doesn't mean they're going to march into October baseball, of course, but their chances of making noise and putting together a stronger season than what it looked like they were heading toward are better than many think.
Let's start with the rotation. It doesn't take much effort to see that it's terrible. Jason Marquis has been their second-best starter, because his ERA+ is a below-average 95. Andrew Cashner is the only starter with an ERA better than the league-average, but he began the year in the bullpen. Then you've got Clayton Richard, who has been hurt and pitching like someone who is hurt when he's on the mound, Edinson Volquez, who makes a better reliever than a starter but is still in the former role thanks to the aforementioned injuries, and then Eric Stults, who is also in the rotation because there is just no one else. Where are all the other options? Well, Cory Luebke (the team's best pitcher) and Joe Wieland (one of their top pitching prospects) are both recovering from Tommy John surgeries performed last year, top prospect Casey Kelly is out for the season after TJ performed near the season's Robbie Erlin, is just 22 years old with 40 innings in Triple-A to his credit.
It's tough to build a rotation when you've got three-fifths of one sitting on the disabled list and another piece maybe too inexperienced to be up just yet. Maybe they should have signed someone, but Kelly's elbow wasn't an issue until it was a bit too late for that. Regardless, you have Erlin, who could force his way into the rotation once the Padres give up on one of the arms they've already got in there, Luebke returning after the All-Star break (so long as he doesn't suffer any further setbacks in his recovery), and Wieland likely returning before the season's end. If they can continue to push towards .500 in the meantime, then a rejuvenated rotation could help them in the season's second half.
That's kind of a significant "if," however, as it's a bit amazing that the Padres are even where they are considering their non-Cashner starters have been terrible. The lineup is pretty solid, though, and has room to improve as well.
Yasmani Grandal returned from a 50-game suspension earlier this week. He's the catcher of the future, but also the catcher of the present, and he hit .297/.394/.469 as a 23-year-old rookie in 2012. Remember, though, that he had to contend with the incredibly pitcher-friendly Petco Park while getting to that level: His OPS+ of 142 ranked third among all catchers with at least 60 games played. As Padres' catchers have hit just .233/.294/.341 this year as a unit, Grandal's return is nearly a guarantee for improved offense, even if he doesn't quite reach last season's levels.
Chase Headley, who finished fifth in the NL MVP vote last year, didn't start his season until April 17 thanks to a fractured thumb. Like Grandal, Petco helps betray the quality of his line -- he's at .259/.365/.415 since his return, but that's 22 percent than the league average. You'd expect his power to improve a bit as he gets further away from the thumb injury, but even if not, he's still been a highly productive hitter this season, as he has been since 2011 when he first became the focal point of the team's offense.
They've also missed Carlos Quentin in the lineup, as he's played in just 35 games due to injury, but he's back and hitting once more -- good thing, too, as left field is the only spot where the Padres have had worse production than behind the plate this season, and that's with Quentin performing roughly as well as Headley. Then there are Will Venable and Chris Denorfia, who haven't been able to platoon as much as the plan had them down for, thanks to Cameron Maybin missing most of the season with a wrist injury. He's currently on a rehab assignment tearing up the minors, though, so he'll be back soon, improving both the lineup and the club's defense in the process.
When Maybin returns, the Padres will finally have their planned lineup on the field. Headley, Quentin, Maybin, Grandal, Yonder Alonso and, lest we forget, rookie Jedd Gyorko will finally all be together. Gyorko deserves more than his spot as footnote at the end of that list of players, of course. The 2010 second-round draft pick is 24 years old, and in his rookie season. He's hitting .270/.335/.438 for a 120 OPS+ that leads all qualifying rookies, and is also tops in hits, second in doubles, second in homers, and leading in walks. Again, considering the horrible hitters' environment he has to deal with, that's all the more impressive.
So, the Padres are expecting -- or in some cases, have recently received -- all kinds of cavalry. The lineup has been basically average despite all the holes in the lineup caused by injuries, and should be much better than that now that those holes are plugged. The rotation remains a problem, but getting Maybin back in center should help the defense a bit, and if the pitching can just hold on a little longer, there will be some new faces in the form of prospects and Tommy John recipients. If they're hanging tough in what could very well remain a wide-open division by mid-season, then maybe there is a trade to make to improve the rotation beyond what they already have on board.
All of this isn't meant to say that the league needs to watch out for the Padres. It's more that they can't forget about them, as they've managed to rebound from a terrible start caused in large part by injuries, and their lineup and defense are finally going to be in the productive form they should have been all along very shortly. If they can fix the rotation before it's too late, either from within or by bringing in someone(s), then the Padres' season could end much differently than it started.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written forBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.