Vin Scully does a straight-shot commercial during Los Angeles Dodgers games, promoting the team’s official partnership with 76, the gas-station chain, It’s a long-standing relationship, but if the people who run that company really want a committed partner, they might want to shift their allegiances south. The San Diego Padres have finished 76-86 in each of the last two seasons; they’re already giving the corporation free publicity.

The 2013 season was a nightmare for the Padres. Nothing could have gone much worse. Winning 76 games in their circumstances was probably a small victory in itself. Catcher Yasmani Grandal and shortstop Everth Cabrera, two of the team’s very good young position players, served 50-game suspensions for testing positive for human growth hormone and for simply being tied to the Biogenesis scandal, respectively. Center fielder Cameron Maybin missed the first half of the season with a wrist impingement, then missed the second half with a sprained knee ligament. It’s just about impossible to survive losing your three premium up-the-middle players for that long.

It becomes completely impossible to win when, along with those issues, you lose three pitchers on whom you had hoped to count, for the whole season, and when you also lose your top outfield prospect to an injury (a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery) that usually afflicts pitchers.

Clusters of bad luck like that usually don’t repeat themselves. Two Padres hurlers, Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland, had Tommy John surgery in mid-2012 and missed all of 2013. They should be back next spring, although there’s no guarantee of full recovery. Maybin is proving injury-prone, but his right wrist, which he sprained late in his breakout 2011 season, was a nagging and worsening problem throughout 2012, and he finally had surgery to clean it up in September of this year. I asked Will Carroll about the prognosis for Maybin, and said that generally, an operation like that will resolve the issue permanently.

That’s great news for San Diego. Really, there’s plenty of solid prime-aged talent on the club, and a healthy Maybin would lengthen their lineup nicely. This will be an interesting winter, with the potential for either some major forward motion, or a franchise-altering set of mistakes. Here’s how this roster works.

When the Padres are at bat

Here’s the position-by-position lineup for the Padres, if the 2014 season began tomorrow:

  • Catcher – Yasmani Grandal (25) (S)
  • First Base – Yonder Alonso (27) (L)
  • Second Base – Jedd Gyorko (25)
  • Shortstop – Everth Cabrera (25) (S)
  • Third Base – Chase Headley (30) (S)
  • Left Field – Carlos Quentin (31)
  • Center Field – Cameron Maybin (27)
  • Right Field – Will Venable (31) (L)

In the wings, they have second-base prospect Cory Spangenberg, who bats lefty; the aforementioned Liriano as insurance against another Quentin injury; and a slew of fairly solid bench players, like catcher Nick Hundley, infielder Logan Forsythe and outfielder Chris Denorfia.

If you know me as a baseball fan, I probably don’t have to tell you how much this collection of positional talent appeals to me. There are a lot of players in their primes. There are two lefty batters and three switch-hitters in the everyday lineup. There are guys with speed and guys with power, and most importantly, there isn’t a single sinkhole.

It’s possible, with some offenses, to fall too much in love with league-average hitters. League-average hitters have value, but that value is dependent upon the position they play, the other dimensions of their game that stand out and the shape of their production. Offenses made up of league-average hitters can be prone to slumps and slides, like those into which the Tampa Bay Rays occasionally fell this season, or to the persistent dysfunction of the 2013 Padres.

I don’t think, though, that 2013 really reflects the Padres’ offensive character. I think they’re better than that. Adjusting for their home park, several Padres batters were not average, really, but 10 percent or so better than average. The injuries and suspensions took their toll, and the team rarely fielded its best top-to-bottom batting order, but if they did, it would be a deep one, with balanced skill sets up and down.

Quentin outslugs his defensive deficiencies in a way his backups could not, while he was on the shelf for half the season. There really was no backup center fielder in place, which led to way too much Alexi Amarista. With Liriano healthy and presumably nearing readiness in the minors next spring, and with Reymond Fuentes—a center-field prospect the Padres got in a trade from the Red Sox—having attained the high minor-league levels, though, they could better withstand the same issues in 2014. So long as Cabrera and Grandal stay on the field, this is a strong offense.

Seven National League teams hit more home runs than San Diego last season. Seven hit fewer. In PETCO Park, even with the fences moved in, that’s significant pop. They also drew walks at about the average rate, and stole more bases than all but one other NL team, the Brewers, and the Padres were much more efficient. Because they could get extra bases that way, they bunted less than all but two other NL teams.

They hit the ball on the ground a lot. This will continue. They’re a team predicated on creating parades of hits, not waiting to launch a homer. They do need their depth in order to sustain success. The volume of talent, though, and the fact that none of these guys is 35 or 21 years old, helps insure them.

When the other guys are at bat

Another nice thing about having a solid group of players on the right side of 30 is that the team defense should be solid. In the Padres’ case, though, stopping the opponent is going to require better help from the pitching staff. Only four teams in all of MLB walked a higher percentage of their opponents last season, and only four struck out a lower percentage of them. Injuries might mitigate the burden of responsibility the pitching staff carries, but they can’t completely excuse it.

Andrew Cashner has some nice raw stuff, and even commands it okay, at times. He’s become a trendy name for fantasy players, but even more than that, for scouts and baseball junkies. No one can get past his great fastball-slider combination. When he gets his changeup under control in a given outing, people positively begin to drool.

Then you look at his numbers, and unless you’re very stubborn or very stupid, the excitement dissipates. He faced 707 batters in 2013, walked 48 (that’s actually unintentional walks plus hit batsmen) and struck out 128. Throwing as hard as he ever will, with that slider once viewed as a weapon, Cashner struck out just 18.1 percent of opposing hitters. That just isn’t a dominant big-league starter.

This is the story everywhere you look, up and down the Padres’ pitching staff. Guys who look like potential studs, or who have a plus pitch and seemingly just need to use it, or who would be great if they could just stay healthy, pepper the roster. They just aren’t actually good pitchers. That’s why only two NL teams gave up more runs in 2013.

Now it gets interesting.

I think this offseason will define the Padres, for better or worse. They have a strong positional core in place, but not a championship core. They’ve built a farm system with tremendous depth, if little star power, and they’ve made some savvy trades of late.

What the Padres need is patience. They need the courage to add a front-line starting pitcher, like Matt Garza, but the restraint not to surrender a first-round draft pick in order to sign one—taking Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana out of the equation. They need to stay the course. This team is a year away from truly contending, so they should listen to offers for Chase Headley, who’s under team control for just 2014 and is going to be expensive if kept.

The shape, age and general circumstance of the roster is such that, if they had an elite prospect in the vein of Wil Myers, I would worry that this team is headed for the same mistake the Kansas City Royals made last winter. The Royals traded Myers, 21, one of the game’s elite power-hitting outfield prospects, for James Shields, the ace they thought would put them over the top and back into the playoffs for the first time in over 25 years. Sheilds pitched well, but the Royals fell short. They just weren’t a good enough team to make that bold move, and it’s already backfiring. They’re locked into an expensive final season with Sheilds, and will lunge after a playoff spot again, while the Rays—who actually reached the playoffs, in part thanks to Myers’s bat—control the long-term asset.

The Padres don’t have a player like Myers, so they can’t easily go make a mistake like acquiring Shields. That’s a blessing in disguise. The Padres need to focus on improving the middle and bottom of their pitching staff, as much as the top of it. They’re not quite ready to take on the Dodgers in the NL West, and trying to rush the process could set it back years.

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