By Jeff Praught
Spring Training is a time of hope in Major League Baseball . Last year's standings are wiped clean and player rosters are tweaked or overhauled as 32 teams prepare for the 162-game grind of chasing a championship.
The San Diego Padres have done more overhauling than tweaking in the off-season, working to find a balance of youth and athleticism to supplement their already steady pitching staff as they battle four teams in the National League West .
Tasked with stocking the player inventory to match this philosophy is new General Manager Josh Byrnes, who won a 2007 division title in the same capacity with the Arizona Diamondbacks . Byrnes was promoted to the GM post by Pads Vice Chairman and Executive Officer Jeff Moorad (who was also his boss in Arizona) and inherits a richly stocked cupboard of minor leaguers-one that was recently voted the best in baseball by ESPN's Keith Law. Managing the players will be Buddy Black, back at the helm for his sixth season.
Byrnes wasted no time shaking things up. In January, he made a bold deal with the Cincinnati Reds , dealing away ace pitcher Mat Latos in exchange for four players. The centerpiece of that exchange was 24 year-old, sweet-hitting first baseman Yonder Alonso , whose line-drive swing seems well suited for the vast gaps at Petco Park. The lefty would likely rate as the top prospect for most MLB organizations, so getting him was a real find for San Diego. Hoping for a Petco-powered comeback after a couple injury-marred seasons, pitcher Edinson Volquez , a 17-game winner in 2008, also joins our home-team staff.
Another Padre looking to rebound is lefty pitcher Clayton Richard, who was able to make only 18 starts in 2011 before being shut down. The reliable innings-eater now claims his health problems are behind him. Rounding out the hurling staff are Tim Stauffer , second-year lefty Cory Luebke , and Dustin Moseley . If the starting five can produce along the lines of their career averages, this unit promises to be among the best in the National League .
Undoubtedly, closer Heath Bell will be missed for his outstanding contributions, both on the field and as a lovable team leader. Byrnes acquired Huston Street from rival Colorado to fill the vacant closer's role. Returning to anchor the bullpen are Luke Gregerson and Ernesto Frieri , who will be joined by flame-throwing newcomer Andrew Cashner .
This team won't need to score runs in bunches to be successful, but it will need to improve upon its meager 2011 production. Chase Headley (third base) returns after setting career highs in batting average (.289) and on-base percentage (.374). Jason Bartlett (short stop) and Orlando Hudson (second base) will anchor the middle of the diamond again, and catcher Nick Hundley hopes to remain healthy enough to build on a strong campaign where he hit nine homeruns a .288 average in just half a season. John Baker , acquired from Florida for Wade LeBlanc , will back Hundley up and is a major upgrade for the Friars.
The outfield discussion must begin with centerfielder Cameron Maybin, the team's most electrifying player, who elevated his game in 2011, his first opportunity as a full-time starter after coming over from the Florida Marlins. The 24-year-old made highlight catches the norm all season, while showing his speed by stealing 40 bases. Jesus Guzman , who carried the offense during the second half of 2011 (driving in 44 runs in just 76 games), will get the chance to start in a corner spot. Joining Alonso as a major offensive upgrade is Carlos Quentin , who has averaged 28 homeruns and 81 RBI over the last three seasons with the White Sox .
On paper, the Padres should score a little more, pitch just as well and perhaps enjoy better luck with injuries after a brutal 2011 season in the infirmary. Will that be enough to help them shock the baseball world as they did in 2010? This remains to be seen. The so-called "experts" likely will not pick the Padres to win the NL West this year-Arizona seems to be the heavy favorite, while San Francisco's rotation makes them a formidable alternative choice. But these same experts failed to pick the Giants in 2010 or the Diamondbacks in 2011.
Whatever happens in 2012, with strong leadership in place and a farm system stocked with reinforcements for years to come, the Padres look to be beginning another strong run.