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No. 22 Padres: A club with the potential to surprise

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
Los Angeles Dodgers v San Diego Padres
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The Padres need star-level production from Chase Headley. (Getty Images)

Editor's note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the San Diego Padres.

2013 record: 76-86
Finish: Third place, NL West
2013 final payroll: $74.2 million (26th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $85 million
(19th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 22nd
Padres in six words: Want a sleeper? Pretty good choice

OFFSEASON ACTION
In reality, only 125 miles separate Petco Park from Dodger Stadium. In baseball, the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers live and operate in entirely different worlds, and their chasm illustrates just how different the sport's haves and have-nots operate.

This week, the Dodgers signed Clayton Kershaw to a contract that will pay him more than $30 million a year for the next seven years. About two weeks earlier, reliever Joaquin Benoit signed a two-year, $15.5 million deal with Padres. It was the richest free-agent contract they've ever given a player.

[Also: No. 23 Rockies: The team that is stuck between winning and losing ]

Now, the Padres regularly find themselves near the top of Forbes' annual list of teams with the highest operating income, which means, yes, they could and should spend more. This falls on ownership, from John Moores (whose tabloidy divorce presaged his selling the team) to Jeff Moorad (who never owned full controlling interest in the team) to Ron Fowler (who's in charge now and has bumped the payroll as close to nine figures as it's ever gone).

Between Benoit, the nifty one-year deal to bring in Josh Johnson and arbitration raises, the Padres may see a $20 million bump by year's end. It's a sign the Padres believe they're on the cusp of winning, and absent a dreadful mid-June stretch last year, they'd have done just that with a lesser team than they'll field in 2014.

Clutter is the Padres' big curiosity, though an optimist might call it extreme depth. When they dealt setup man Luke Gregerson for outfielder Seth Smith, the Padres saved enough salary to bring in Benoit and added a strong left-handed platoon bat off the bench. Question is, how much will Smith play? Keep in mind that the Padres' highest-paid player is outfielder Carlos Quentin, their longest-term deal is for outfielder Cameron Maybin, their two most productive players last season were outfielders Will Venable and Chris Denorfia, and their biggest potential power source is – you guessed it – an outfielder, Kyle Blanks. That makes six players for three spots. It does not take a mathematician to figure out two teams' worth of outfielders doesn't fly on one team.

Johnson's deal overloads the Padres with starting pitching, which actually is the sort of surplus teams desire. San Diego knows pitchers get hurt – Cory Luebke, Casey Kelly and Joe Wieland all are returning from Tommy John surgery – so to go 10 deep gives them significant flexibility. Especially intriguing is Johnson. If he's good and the team is good, perfect. If he's good and the team isn't, he's a huge trade chip – or the sort of pitcher to whom you consider tendering a qualifying offer, even with the budgetary constraints. Should he get hurt and make fewer than seven starts, his contract features a clause allowing San Diego a $4 million option for 2015. It was a keen bit of negotiating from the Padres and smart play by Johnson to get into a ballpark bound to make him look good.

REALITY CHECK

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Will Venable is just one of the Padres' many outfielders. (Getty Images)

Perhaps more than anything, the Padres' games-played ledger in 2013 tells the story of this team. Venable led the team at 151. Alexi Amarista, a utilityman, finished second at 146. Denorfia, who never held a full-time job until he came to San Diego, came next at 144. And while from there some more familiar names show up – Chase Headley and Jedd Gyorko – the Padres' distinct lack of anything resembling a star is the sort of weakness that keeps them toward the bottom third of the league.

It's true: Teams can win without stars, can summon the will and strength of the collective and turn it into magic. The margin for error happens to be far smaller, though, when a team needs to rely on a number of pieces and parts to make up the sum another bopper could provide all by himself.

If that piece is going to come from anywhere, it's the pitching staff, and it's likely in the form of Andrew Cashner, who last season more than justified the Anthony Rizzo trade with a breakout year in which he finally stayed healthy, threw 175 innings and logged a 3.09 ERA. He still doesn't strike out enough hitters for being among the hardest-throwing starters in the major leagues – the top three (Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez) all struck out more than a batter an inning, while Cashner couldn't even crack seven per nine innings – but the stuff is all there to dominate.

Gone, mercifully, are Edinson Volquez, Jason Marquis and Clayton Richard, who combined to post an ERA of somewhere in the neighborhood of infinity. The rotation for now is loaded with mid-level to back-end sorts, a couple of whom are young enough to maintain breakout potential. Tyson Ross, funky delivery notwithstanding, thrived in the rotation. The Ian Kennedy Reclamation Project could pay dividends. Eric Stults, of all people, threw more than 200 innings last season. And then there are the kids – Luebke, Kelly, Wieland, Robbie Erlin and Burch Smith – not to mention prospect Matt Wisler, who ultimately may be better than all of them.

The bullpen is deep, too, as it has been historically for the Padres. Following an early bit of homeritis, Huston Street popped a 0.92 ERA over the final three months of the season. Benoit can set up or close. Dale Thayer and Nick Vincent are steady. The biggest issue is left-handed relief. It could fall on Patrick Schuster, the No. 1 overall pick in the Rule 5 draft who hasn't pitched above A ball. Or they could slide Luebke or Erlin into that role. The Padres have enough pitching, frankly, where if Stults struggles he could wind up in the bullpen as well.

As is perpetually the case in San Diego, success ultimately depends on whether the Padres can overcome their ballpark to score enough runs. Gyorko needs to get on base at better than a .301 clip. Venable needs to build on his breakout year. Maybin is just 26, but this is a make-or-break year for him after he played just 14 games last season. Same goes for Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal, the bulk of the return in the Mat Latos trade and, to this point, relative disappointments.

The Padres intrigue other executives because breakouts from these players aren't far-fetched. The talent is there. The money, though not Kershaw dollars, is at least better. The manager, Bud Black, is among the best. There may be something here. Even in a different world.

SAVIOR
In 2013, Chase Headley hit .250/.347/.400. Doing so off a season in which he garnered MVP votes rendered him perhaps the most disappointing player in baseball. Here's the thing, though: Before 2012, here was Headley's career line: .269/.343/.392. Never has Headley faced a more important season – not with the Padres trying to transition into relevancy nor with his impending free agency and a hitting market primed to be absolutely barren. The Padres' dance with Headley has been amusing to watch, whether it's saying maybe they want him to be around, then definitely but not at post-2012 prices, then hedging after his relative 2013 flop (which, let's not forget, looks worse than it was because of the Petco Park factor). Chances are, good season or bad, it's Headley's last in San Diego.

HAIKU
Cubs should have scrapped Clark,
Traded for Swinging Friar;
He's the freaking best

Previous teams
No. 23 Rockies
No. 24 Marlins
No. 25 Brewers
No. 26 White Sox
No. 27 Mets
No. 28 Twins
No. 29 Cubs
No. 30 Astros

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