PEORIA, Ariz. -- Deep in the second half of last season, a National League West general manager named the team in his division that he thought was playing the best baseball.
It was not the San Francisco Giants, who went on to win the World Series. It was not the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were adding big names and a big payroll. It was the San Diego Padres. And the general manager in question was not Josh Byrnes of the Padres.
Shaking off a dismal start, the 2012 Padres went 42-33 after the All-Star break. It may be true that the Padres cannot compete for the amount of media attention received by the Giants, who have been World Series champions two of the past three years, or the Dodgers, who are setting a record for player payroll. But that second-half performance has given the Padres reason to believe that on the field they can compete with the Giants or the Dodgers -- or anybody else, for that matter.
"Because of how we played [in the second half], we feel that we can do it again," Padres manager Bud Black said Monday. "And that's the challenge. Instead of doing it for three months, we've got to do it for six.
"That's what all teams that are good and contend do; they're consistent, from start to finish. We had a bad start, but we finished well. Now we have to do it for six months.
"And we're bringing the same guys back, especially on the position-player side. The same group; pretty much intact. We've added some pitching that might break through, whether it's Tyson Ross, he could break onto the staff. The key is for those guys to perform like they did in the second half. They need to do that out of the chute and continue on through the season."
Monday was a good day to be a Padres optimist at Peoria Stadium. The Padres defeated the Oakland Athletics, 10-0. The aforementioned Ross, a towering, hard-throwing right-hander obtained in a trade with Oakland, has not yet fared well in the Majors. But Monday he threw three scoreless innings and displayed very good stuff.
"Definitely, the stuff is there," Black said of Ross. "He's got a high ceiling. He was a high-profile guy out of college [University of California-Berkeley]; he's still in his mid-20s , with a lot of potential up-side."
The single largest strength of this club might be the bullpen, an exceptionally deep and talented group. Again, these pitchers may not be the biggest names in the game, but the games are not decided on the basis of name recognition.
"We have what we feel are very, very capable starting pitchers and a good bullpen," Black said. "The names might not resonate nationally like other pitchers in our division. But our guys have talent; we feel that they can pitch with anybody."
On offense the Padres got a breakthrough season in 2012 from third baseman Chase Headley. With left fielder Carlos Quentin, who missed the first 49 games of last season while recovering from knee surgery, the Padres have what should be reliable run production in the middle of the order.
While the Padres are almost automatically consigned to also-ran status by many alleged experts, for the San Diego club itself, the outlook is much healthier than that. This is no time for an inferiority complex, even as the Giants come off another triumphant postseason and the Dodgers spend record amounts on player payroll.
"We can't worry about what other clubs are doing," Black said. "We can't worry about any of that. We have to focus on what we do well as an organization, what we do well as a team. And our players know that. Our players know that if we play like we're capable of playing every night -- sound baseball -- we can't afford to slip in any areas. We have to pitch. We have to catch the ball. We have to perform offensively. And then we can play with anybody. We think we have enough talent here."
So what went wrong when the Padres started 20-41 last year? Whatever could go wrong, that's what. There were atypical pitching problems, there were position players who slumped, there were damaging injuries.
It should not happen again, because it should not have happened once. There was no one-size-fits-all explanation.
"There's no common denominator as to why guys get off to a tough start," Black said. "[Albert] Pujols got off to a tough start."
The manager is also a major asset of this club. Black, the NL Manager of the Year in 2010, is astute in all phases of the managerial craft, and he routinely gets the most out of the talent on hand.
It may be easy for people looking on from a distance to dismiss the Padres out of hand, given the much higher profile of two of their divisional opponents. But if the Padres continue to play the way they did in the second half of 2012, dismissing them will also be completely incorrect.