When the San Diego Padres extended both Huston Street and Carlos Quentin this summer, they effectively signaled an intent to contend in the NL West in the near future. The organization felt that future was imminent enough to forego acquiring additional young talent via the trade market and instead committed valuable resources to injury-prone (though productive) assets who play non-premium positions.
All this from a team who owned a 34-53 record at the All-Star Break this season. Needless to say, the moves ruffled a few feathers and caused some to question whether the organization was truly intent on building a World Series contender or simply staving off an inevitable attendance decrease that normally accompanies mid-season fire sales.
If the Padres’ recent performance proves to be a believable measuring stick for its future, though, the front office in San Diego understood something that the vast majority of baseball fans did not. Their team was ready to start winning ballgames much earlier than expected.
Since the All-Star Break, the Padres have compiled a 37-24 record thus far in the second half, highlighted by an eight-game winning streak in late August. And one of the perennial question marks in San Diego, the offense, has been brilliant as of late. In the past 30 days, the Padres have the second-highest wOBA in all of baseball at .349.
Third baseman Chase Headley has carried the bulk of the offensive production throughout the year, but he has found some help in recent weeks. Our own Jeff Sullivan wrote about the resurgence of Cameron Maybin, but Logan Forsythe, Will Venable, and Yasmani Grandal have also established themselves at the plate over the past month. Almost everyone in a Padres uniform is hitting on all cylinders right now. Even the light-hitting Everth Cabrera has compiled a .322 wOBA in the past 30 days.
Of course, we should not assume recent offensive production will necessarily carry over to next season. After all, it’s a small sample size of only 30 days, and the Padres are benefitting from a .360 BABIP. This recent stretch, however, could be a sign that the youngsters are collectively turning a corner.
Left fielder Carlos Quentin is currently the oldest player in the Padres’ everyday starting lineup. He’s just turned 30 years old last month. Otherwise, Will Venable and Jesus Guzman are the veterans at 29 and 28 years old, respectively. It’s a young lineup that was built to grow up together and find success together. Every one of their starting position players are poised to return next season with another year of development under their belts.
Even if they’re due for regression based upon the random variation of BABIP, it seems likely we’re going to see more of the second-half Padres’ offense rather than the first-half variety simply based upon their age and the expected trajectory of development of young players.
The offense is currently carrying the team to its current good fortunes on the field. The starting rotation has been mediocre, and the bullpen hasn’t been anything to write home about with a 3.88 FIP in the last 30 days.
Much of the struggles surrounding the pitching staff, however, can be attributed to injury. The starting rotation has been without Cory Luebke and Tim Stauffer for much of the season, after both went down with elbow injuries, and the bullpen has been functioning without their closer, Huston Street. Not to mention Dustin Moseley and promising-prospect Joe Wieland are both on the 60-day DL, and big right-hander Andrew Cashner has fought injuries for the majority of the season.
The pitching staff has a chance to be much improved next season. Many of the injured pitchers should return, and the stability of the position players should allow GM Josh Byrnes to focus his energies on acquiring quality pitching. Cot’s Contracts calculates that the Padres have only $27.98M committed in payroll next season, aside from raises due to arbitration (and Chase Headley is going to get paid handsomely after this season), which suggests the organization could have money to spend on the free agent market to acquire a number two or three starter. Someone like Anibal Sanchez or Edwin Jackson could significantly upgrade the rotation and neither currently project to break the bank.
Josh Byrnes could go a different route, however. He could focus his attention on the trade market. The Padres have a talented and deep farm system — one that Keith Law rated as the best in the league coming into the 2012 season — which could be utilized to acquire quality pitching. We witnessed the Milwaukee Brewers dramatically overhaul their starting rotation prior to the 2011 season via the trade market, and the Padres have a much deeper farm system from which they could deal without mortgaging the future of the organization.
As a whole, the San Diego Padres are perched on the precipice of contention. Their young, cost-controlled core of position players have shown signs this second half of collectively putting it together. The starting rotation and the bullpen have been decimated by injuries this year, but the organization has the resources — both in payroll space and prospects — to upgrade the pitching staff to be more competitive and compliment the promise of its offense.
And in a cavernous home ballpark such as PETCO, it’s much easier to upgrade a pitching staff than it is to upgrade a team’s offensive production. The Seattle Mariners serve as a worthwhile comparison in that regard.
Though far from a guarantee, the Padres could be a much improved team coming into the 2013 season. Their young position players seem to have turned a corner in their collective development and could provide above-average production throughout the year, and the organization is in good position to upgrade a pitching staff that needs a couple of pieces to be above average, as well. If the pieces fall into place this winter and the second-half improvement proves legitimate, the San Diego Padres could be threatening for a postseason berth much more quickly than most predicted coming into this season.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).