This was the third year in a row, and the fifth in the last six, that the Padres lost more than 85 games. Not that I'm blaming him for the club's performance, but it's remarkable that Bud Black doesn't get mentioned as being on the hot seat.
Diagnosis: Phantom Limb Syndrome
Our bodies can be truly disturbing. If you lose part of one, occasionally, the nerves that used to run to that part of your body will fire and you'll feel pain, pressure, itching, or even just the presence of a limb that was lost long ago. This, thanks to their ballpark, is essentially the Padres' problem. It looks and feels like they have arms that they really don't.
If you looked at the Padres' team ERA, it looks relatively normal. It's below average, but not terribly so. However, Petco Park, which the Padres have called home since 2004, continues to be the most extreme pitcher's park in the majors, making guys like Eric Stults and Jason Marquis look like passable pitchers. For years, the Padres have coasted along with pitchers who were simply "good enough, " supplementing legitimately good starters like Jake Peavy and Mat Latos with the likes of Kevin Correia, Chad Gaudin, Jon Garland, Wade LeBlanc, Tim Stauffer, Aaron Harang, Clayton Richard, and Edinson Volquez (one of the 25 least-effective pitchers to throw 800 or more innings in history). Indeed, according to Fangraphs, the Padres haven't had more than one pitcher worth in excess of three wins above replacement since 2007, when, not coincidentally, they won 89 games in Bud Black's first year at the helm.
To be clear, I'm not saying the Padres are too dumb to understand that the marine layer is effectively masking the fact that their pitching has been little better than that of the Astros over the last couple years. Instead, I think they understood the marine layer would help keep the score down at Petco, foresaw an inability to compete on the open market for premium free agent starters, and were hoping their offense would hit enough to catch up. Moreover, I'm not necessarily critical of the Padres' strategy, as some of the problem could have been mitigated if pitchers like Casey Kelly, Joe Wieland and Cory Luebke (and Dustin Moseley and Tim Stauffer, etc., etc.) had managed to avoid catastrophic arm injuries.
Using glorified filler in the rotation is not a terrible strategy when it's just one or two starters and you're a bad club just looking to get through a season, but when injuries, stalled development, and the rising cost of free agent starters force you to fill out the bulk of your rotation, they're officially a liability.
Key Stat: 102 OPS+ by non-pitchers
The Padres scored just 618 runs in 2013, 12th out of 15 teams, and just 16 runs out of 14th. That doesn't sound all that great until you take into account the Padres' extreme ballpark. While OPS+ is a rough tool that doesn't tell us the whole story of their offensive performance, it does adjust for that context, and tells a vastly different story about the Padres' offensive last year than the conventional stats suggest. The average OPS+ in the National League was 94 in 2013, and the Friars actually finished the year tied for fifth in OPS+ by their non-pitchers.
That's actually pretty impressive for a club that lost first baseman Yonder Alonso to a wrist injury, catcher Yasmani Grandal to a PED suspension and subsequent knee injury, center fielder Cameron Maybin to wrist and knee injuries, and Carlos Quentin to knee surgery, second baseman Jedd Gyorko to a groin strain, and shortstop Everth Cabrera to the Biogenesis scandal. With those players, and Jedd Gyorko, on the field for the majority of 2014, the Padres would actually have a formidable-looking lineup that could make noise in the top-heavy NL West.
Breakout:, Everth Cabrera
Did my love letter to Will Venable have anything to do with his tremendous 2013, in which he hit .268/.312/.484? I'd like to think that it did. Venable stayed healthy, started 120 games, uncharacteristically hit lefties well, hit nine more homers than in any previous season, and played solid defense according to most advanced metrics. At 30, this was probably the best he's ever going to be, especially since you can't count on his success against lefties to hold after a career hitting .233/.299/.354 off of them, but the Padres have two more years of control and he should continue to be an immensely valuable player before they trade him or let him walk.
Before he got popped in the Bioogenesis scandal, Cabrera was having a great season, holding down the leadoff spot with a .355 on-base percentage, stealing a ton of bases, and providing adequate defense at short. He's never done anything like this before, so what changed for Cabrera? Almost the entire difference is due to him cutting his strikeouts by more than one-third in 2013, and all that extra contact simply resulted in more hits. So long as that he continues to put the ball in play, Cabrera will be one of the few great Rule 5 draft success stories of recent times.
Breakdown: Carlos Quentin
When he was healthy in 2013, Quentin hit the snot out of the ball (.275/.363/.493). But he was only on the field for half the season, marking the third year in a row where he's played fewer games than the year before. At 31, Quentin's ability to stay on the field isn't going to improve going forward. He already has zero mobility in the field and a historic predilection to get hit by pitches (again, probably in part due to his lack of mobility). The Padres still owe him at least $20.5 million over the next two years, but with Maybin on the rebound and Reymond Fuentes ready to graduate from the minors, the Padres would be wise to make Quentin some American League team's problem.
Prescription: Bubble wrap for everybody!
In all honesty, I don't know what we can expect from the Padres in 2014. If their health improves, the offense is strong enough to push this club toward the top of the division and into playoff contention. They could be above-average at six of their eight positions and could also see a major upgrade in the starting rotation if Josh Johnson can start at least 25 games for just the fourth time in nine years. None of that is anything close to a sure thing, however. Johnson and Quentin's problems are chronic, and no one seems to be quite sure when Grandal's knees will be healed enough for him to resume catching.
Despite this uncertainty, if I was approaching Chase Headley's walk year with this roster, I'd push all my chips into the middle of the table rather than deal him for a diminished return.
Assuming encasing everyone in bubble wrap when they aren't on the field isn't a realistic option, the next best solution is to build up the club's rotation depth, especially in light of Johnson's injury history. Of course, according to Baseball-Reference, the club will pay players about $10 million more in 2014 than they did last year, which would be the club's highest payroll of all time. As such, San Diego doesn't have anywhere to go at the moment to pursue the likes of Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, or seriously bid on Masahiro Tanaka. Johnson, Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Cory Luebke with a whole lot of "health permitting" thrown in is a step in the right direction (Matt Wisler, when/as/if he comes, is as yet an unknown quantity), but it doesn't get them all the way there without that kind of high-cost intervention.
With the rise of Reymond Fuentes, the Padres have an in-house candidate for left field whose power won't be sapped by the marine layer, whose defense will save them several runs, and who they can presumably count on to be on the field. In Joaquin Benoit, the Padres have a candidate on hand to supplant Huston Street on the back end. Quentin and Street would both be interesting targets for the Mariners or Orioles given the seemingly high cost of acquiring Nelson Cruz in terms of money and draft picks and the lack of quality closers on the market. Both would come considerably cheaper, and with less of a commitment of years than anyone of their caliber on the market at the moment.
The Orioles have already burned bridges with Grant Balfour and are seemingly desperate to upgrade the back end of their pen, and would love a DH to slot in behind Chris Davis. Meanwhile, the Mariners fetishize corner OF/1B/DH bats, seem to think they need a replacement for Kendrys Morales, and would prefer not to go into 2014 with Danny Farquhar closing.
No doubt top young pitchers like Kevin Gausman and Taijuan Walker would be off the table for Quentin and Street, but a guy who strikes out a lot of batters and gets a ton of fly balls like Bud Norris? Or James Paxton and one of Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, or Dustin Ackley? Those seem like reasonable, and cheaper, returns for players who will have more value to other organizations and it would potentially free up money to pursue more pitching on the open market. That way, the Padres can have some real, working arms in the organization again, and not rely on their ballpark to make Eric Stults look like a real major league starter.