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Health will be Padres' top concern in 2014

Health will be Padres' top concern in 2014

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Health will be Padres' top concern in 2014

SAN DIEGO -- They can hope for wins, strong performances offensively, defensively as well as on the mound. But in order for any of that to happen for the Padres in 2014, and for them to make a move north in the National League West standings, something else has to occur.

Good health.

There were any number of reasons why the Padres were 76-86 for the second time in as many years in 2013 -- underperformance, another slow start in April. But another round of debilitating injuries, a lot like in 2012, did more than just test their depth. It made upward mobility nearly impossible.

"I think a lot of the pieces are here but we haven't had a lot of health the last two years to see how all those pieces fit together," said Padres general manager Josh Byrnes.

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Byrnes and the Padres hope that changes in 2014. The additions of free-agent pitcher Josh Johnson and landing outfielder Seth Smith in a trade to help their hitting woes against right-handed pitching were two moves they feel, with their returning player group, could lead to bigger things.

Outfielders Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin, each coming off surgeries, will be ready for the start of Spring Training. Pitchers Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland, who missed all of 2013 coming back from Tommy John surgery, are also set to return.

"The lineup ... we feel pretty good about it," said Padres manager Bud Black, who will be entering his eighth season.

While the Padres are optimistic they'll finish better than they did in 2013, they, like the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball, enter a new year with their share of questions. Here they are (in no particular order):

1. Can this team find some semblance of good health?

The injuries are too many to count at this point. But over the last two seasons, the Padres have had a total of 43 disabled-list moves with four pitchers needing Tommy John surgery -- Wieland, Jason Marquis, Luebke and Casey Kelly. The entire infield was on the disabled list at some point in 2013. For the Padres to move forward -- and move up in the NL West -- they need to have some better luck in the health department. The myriad injuries they've incurred have tested their depth greatly.

2. What can we really expect from pitcher Josh Johnson?

Good health, for one. The Padres believe they got a bargain of sorts early in the offseason when they signed Johnson -- a two-time All-Star who once led the league in ERA -- to a one-year deal for $8 million. Johnson struggled last season with the Jays but had bone spurs/chips removed from his right elbow in October and has already started his offseason throwing program. He has a chance, in a big ballpark no less, to rebuild his credentials and, again, when healthy, offers the kind of top-of-the-rotation stuff the Padres could use. Pair a healthy Johnson with Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross and you have three guys who could miss a lot of bats.

3. Will this be the year we find out who Cameron Maybin is?

In some respects, the Padres already feel they know what they have in Maybin. Look to his first season with the Padres in 2011 when he hit .264 with nine home runs, had 40 stolen bases and posted an 8.4 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) in center field. At this point, the Padres would gladly take that again. But after he slipped in 2012, Maybin missed all but 14 games in 2013 with nagging knee and wrist issues. He had his chronic right wrist operated on in September but he'll be ready to go for Spring Training with no restrictions. Can he replicate -- or better -- his 2011? Can he remain healthy? The Padres are about to find out.

4. Coming off knee surgery, what can we expect from Carlos Quentin?

Quentin has been limited to 168 games -- and 660 plate appearances -- in his first two seasons with the Padres and has had three surgeries on his right knee in an 18-month stretch. But the latest surgery, he feels, will help keep him on the field more in 2014. He changed his stance to take more pressure off his knees and saw immediate success last season. Quentin owns a .268/.368/.498 line with 29 home runs and has a wOBA (weighted on-base average) mark of .378 and .372 his first two seasons. He'll continue to get days off occasionally to rest his knees, but it's clear the Padres need him healthy and on the field more than he has been.

5. How is the bullpen going to set up in 2014?

The Padres have jettisoned several relievers since the end of the regular season, meaning the bullpen in 2014 will have a different look to it. What won't change is the closer, as Huston Street returns. The Padres went big in landing free-agent reliever Joaquin Benoit, who appears to be getting better with age. He'll handle the eighth inning and can fill-in as closer if needed. Look for Dale Thayer and Nick Vincent to get a lot of late-inning looks. Vincent looks ready to handle more high-leverage situations, especially after posting a 1.98 ERA in his first 72 2/3 big league innings. Don't be surprised at all if the team decides that Burch Smith or Robbie Erlin makes the team as a long reliever. And don't forget Tim Stauffer, who has a 3.31 ERA in his last 343 innings.

6. Why again did the Padres trade for Seth Smith?

The Padres needed to find a left-handed bat this winter, especially after ranking 25th in baseball with a .241 average against right-handed pitching and 29th in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage, .668) against righties. They inquired about David Murphy and Nate McLouth, but were unwilling to go more than one year on a deal (both players got two-year deals). So the Padres dealt from a position of strength (pitching), sending Luke Gregerson to the A's for Smith, who has a career .279/.357/.487 line against right-handed pitching. He'll likely get plenty of at-bats in the outfield and off the bench and, coming from a big ballpark, won't be scared off by Petco Park's dimensions.

7. Can Chase Headley regain his 2012 form?

Headley had a monstrous second half in 2012 and ended up leading the National League in RBIs. But he got off to a rough start in 2013, suffering a fractured thumb in Spring Training, and was never quite right offensively. He played the year on a bum knee that required surgery at the end of the year, so there is no telling how much that affected his swing. Headley scuffled for five months but had a nice run during September (.305 average, five home runs). There's no question that he was pitched differently in 2013, but he also admitted to chasing more pitches out of the strike zone.

8. Will Cory Luebke and/or Joe Wieland be part of the rotation?

This is a big question for the Padres, who are optimistic that Luebke and Wieland -- who didn't throw a single pitch last season after each had Tommy John surgery in 2012 -- will return to claim spots in the team's starting rotation. Each has had setbacks during his rehabilitation but, to date, both appear on target to be ready for Spring Training, though Luebke might be brought along a little slower than the other pitchers in camp. Remember, Luebke has a 3.25 ERA in his first 188 1/3 big league innings. If he's healthy, the rotation will benefit greatly.

9. Will Venable had a career year at 30. Can he do that again?

Venable enjoyed a breakout season at age 30, which landed him a two-year contract extension that will keep him in San Diego through 2015. Venable has always shown a speed-power component as well as very good outfield defense in his time in the big leagues, but he put it all together in 2013. He hit lefties better than before and his home run-to-fly ball ratio went from 9.8 to 19.8. Is that sustainable? Likely not, although there's no reason to think Venable won't continue to be a steady offensive contributor.

10. How will the catching situation look?

With Yasmani Grandal working his way back from reconstructive surgery on his right knee following a collision against the Nationals last season, the Padres will again turn to Nick Hundley to handle the bulk of the catching duties. The Padres were impressed with how well Rene Rivera handled the staff as well as his defense in his time in the big leagues last season. Once Grandal is healthy to return, and there's no timetable for that yet, then things could possibly change.

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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