Reshaped Padres could sneak up on NL West

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
Reshaped Padres could sneak up on NL West
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Josh Byrnes enters his first season as San Diego Padres GM having already dealt two of the team's top …

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the San Diego Padres.

2011 record: 71-91
Finish: Fifth place, NL West
2011 final payroll: $45.6 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $53 million
Yahoo! Sports' offseason rank: 21st
Hashtags: #sleepers, #greatoffseason, #Q, #petcopower, #deepfarm, #alwaysbetonblack, #ownernamedmoorplusesorad, #badhustonstreetpuns, #kotsayaliveordead, #unfortunatenicknames

Offseason action

For a team whose one free-agent signing came more than two months ago in the form of a 36-year-old outfielder who figures to get perhaps 100 plate appearances – that would be Mark Kotsay, who, yes, is still around – the San Diego Padres have reshaped their roster enough that surprise contention isn't terribly far-fetched.

There was the mondo trade, of course, that sent starter Mat Latos to the Cincinnati Reds for a grab-bag of talent: catcher of the future Yasmani Grandal, first baseman of the present Yonder Alonso, potential shutdown reliever Brad Boxberger and, like Latos Lite, an inconsistent if talented starter, Edinson Volquez.

Shuttling off Latos with four years of club control remaining took the sort of cojones general manager Josh Byrnes showed in his previous gig in Arizona, where he remade a downtrodden roster into a playoff team before getting fired. In addition to the Latos haul, Byrnes added the Padres two highest-paid players, closer Huston Street and outfielder Carlos Quentin, for next to nothing, and dealt pitcher Wade LeBlanc for the third John Baker in baseball history. He is a backup catcher. The other two are better known as Home Run Baker and Dusty Baker.

[ Fantasy: Four Pressing Question for San Diego Padres ]

While the Latos deal could serve as the touchstone for the success of Byrnes' busy offseason, the outcome of the Anthony Rizzo-for-Andrew Cashner swap could linger as well if:

a. Rizzo, a first baseman, blossoms with the Chicago Cubs.
b. Alonso becomes the latest victim to Petco-itis, a malady through which Rizzo himself suffered last season.
c. Cashner's iffy shoulder acts the fool.

Any of the above, though particularly the last one, could send the Rizzo deal to the loser column. The wisdom ultimately may lie in Cashner's role. He's expected to throw 100-mph gas out of the bullpen this season before considering a transition to the rotation. An everyday player – even a first baseman – for a reliever is almost always a losing proposition. An everyday player for a starter with one of the hardest fastballs known to man may make a bountiful offseason even better.

Reality check

Two seasons ago, the Padres lived the surreal: a magical summer that saw an undertalented, overachieving team nearly crash the playoffs. The only crash, it turned out, was the end of their season. It was full and epic and painful.

While this version of the Padres lacks Latos, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and closer Heath Bell, enough promise exists on the current roster that the surfeit of talent on its way makes for a potentially exciting present and awfully promising future.

The Padres have one of the deeper farm systems in baseball, rich with potential major leaguers if not stars. It's not just the booty from the Latos trade. Former GM Jed Hoyer, for whom Byrnes served as a right-hand man, plucked a pair of control-and-command rock stars, left-hander Robbie Erlin and right-hander Joe Wieland, from Texas in the Mike Adams deal last July. They took advantage of a surplus 2011 draft picks, landing infielder Corey Spangenberg, pitcher Joe Ross and catcher Austin Hedges. They're active in Latin America (outfielder Rymer Liriano and third baseman-for-now Edinson Rincon) and have done well in previous drafts (third basemen Jedd Gyorko and James Darnell, outfielder Jaff Decker and pitcher Keyvius Sampson).

Erlin and Wieland could arrive this year, along with right-hander Casey Kelly, who along with Rizzo was a main piece of the Gonzalez deal. With a deep rotation already – Tim Stauffer the ace, Corey Luebke the potential breakout left-hander, Clayton Richard and Dustin Moseley coming off good years, too – the Padres are pitching rich, a necessity for a team trying to contend on a small budget.

It's the right place to do it. Among manager Bud Black, pitching coach Darren "Bals" Balsley and Petco Park's crazy-friendly dimensions, the Padres might be the best team to pitch for in the major leagues. Whether any of their minor league hitters can unlock the secret of Petco could make the difference between a team that couldn't even crack the 600-run mark last season and one that actually contends.

[ Big League Stew: Is this the week Prince Fielder signs a deal? ]

Pieces do exist for it. Center fielder Cameron Maybin, who has talked with the club about a contract extension similar to the five-year, $28 million deal Byrnes gave Chris Young in 2009, is one strong season away from stardom. Quentin should be good for some pop. The Padres could use the same from Alonso and third baseman Chase Headley.

The pieces are there, or at least near. The Padres are a team to watch, yes. They just need to summon up some of that 2010 magic without any of the bitter aftertaste.

Savior

While they're building the sepulcher for Frank McCourt's ownership of the Dodgers at the moment, his tortured time in Major League Baseball long will have ramifications beyond him. Take Jeff Moorad trying to seal the long-awaited deal on his ownership of the Padres. Baseball quivers at another situation like McCourt's or Fred Wilpon's with the Mets, in which an owner's cash flow is insufficient to run a team to MLB's standard. Ultimately, the deal should get done and Moorad soon enough should use a new TV contract to increase the Padres' payroll to the $70 million-plus figure he promised. Still, the transfer from John Moores to Moorad turned ugly enough that Moores was the only owner who didn't vote for commissioner Bud Selig's contract extension. The collateral damage for Selig is worth it; better to be careful and anger the outgoing guy than have a repeat of Los Angeles and New York.

Padres in Haiku

New wave of prospects
Here's some advice: Fish tacos
Are like crack. Beware

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