SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: Ian Kennedy #22 of the San Diego Padres pitches during the second inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park on September 25, 2013 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Last year the Friars went to Peoria wondering who would be in the starting rotation. This time around, the staff is not a question mark; it's an exclamation point.
"We noticed last year, towards the end of the year, I was like, if we can come back healthy, starting-wise, we're going to have the 1-2-3 starters that will give us a chance to win a series every time," said Nick Vincent, a Padres relief pitcher and Ramona native.
Before the All-Star break, the Padres staff allowed 4.5 runs per game. After the break, they cut that number to 3.9 runs per game.
A year ago, Clayton Richard, Edinson Volquez and Jason Marquis were in the starting rotation with Eric Stults and a green Tyson Ross.
Richard was hurt, Volquez was ineffective, Marquis had season-ending surgery, Ross missed time with an injury, and the bullpen paid the price.
"Last year that was our problem," said Vincent after working out at Petco Park recently. "Starters would go two innings and the bullpen would have to suck it up a couple times. But, I think we're going to have a real good chance this year, pitching-wise."
Stults is back, the solid lefty who threw 203 innings after having never broken 100 in any big league season.
Now, Vincent's optimism must be cautious, for it relies on a few large unknowns:
Will Ian Kennedy continue the improvement he showed after a late July trade?
Will Josh Johnson be able to overcome injury problems and reclaim his All-Star form?
Will Tyson Ross be able to improve on his breakout second half after having surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder in October?
Will Andrew Cashner build off his stellar second half, where he averaged nearly seven innings a start while striking out 7.3 batters per nine innings?
As long as the Padres have "The Pitcher Whisperer," they have a better-than-average chance to the answer to all those questions will be "YES."
Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley has overseen the resurrection of many a pitcher's career.
"Balsley's one of the best, I think, in the Major Leagues," says Vincent. "With the scouting reports, mechanics, the stats. He knows his stuff. He sees guys. He watches. He doesn't talk much, but if he sees something that needs to be fixed, he'll tell you."
Jon Garland and Aaron Harang are recent examples of guys who had fallen on hard times, had a bounce-back year under Balsley, then seen their numbers dip again after signing big free agent contracts elsewhere (and by elsewhere I mean Los Angeles).
Kennedy's improvement under Balsley is a great example. Kennedy had struggled in Arizona, but in September, after working with Balsley for just five weeks, Ian had his best month of the season.
Strikeouts were up, walks were down, and his ERA dipped under 4 for the first time in a year. Kennedy should keep getting better as Balsley turns his attention to Johnson.
One guy Darren won't need to tinker with is the new setup artist. Joaquin Benoit jumped in to the 9th inning role last year in Detroit, saving the Tigers' season. He's back in his 8th inning spot with the Padres, setting the table for Huston Street.
"That's like having, pretty much, two closers in your bullpen," said Vincent, who, along with Dale Thayer, Tim Stauffer, and young lefty Alex Torres (plus one more arm TBD, likely Robbie Erlin or recent Rule 5 draftee Patrick Schuster) will be tasked with getting the ball to Benoit.
All the new additions will push the Padres payroll over $80 million, the highest it's even been on Opening Day.
"Bringing in Johnson, bringing in Benoit," said Vincent, "it shows that they want to win."
Now, nobody is under the illusion that the Dodgers are not the team to beat in the N.L. West.
"Yeah, they are, they're still going to be top dogs. They've got, like, four or five guys with double-digit contracts.," said Vincent.
But, Nick thinks anyone who sleeps on San Diego does so at their own peril.
"With that starting staff, we're going to surprise a lot of people. I think we're going to kind of fly under the radar this year and, my thing is, make playoffs. Be second in the N.L. West and have a chance to make the playoffs."
Now, this has nothing to do with the Padres' other big issue, which is a lineup that, at times, seems allergic to scoring runs. But, that's a story for another day.
Plus, as we've seen in recent years, all a team needs is a chance. Because in the playoffs, anything can happen.
Pitchers and catchers report on February 13.