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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Improved pitching and better health key for Padres

Club looking to contend if rotation lives up to billing, stars avoid injuries

Improved pitching and better health key for Padres

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The leadership of the San Diego Padres' baseball operations is convinced, and even convincing, on these two points:

Better health and better pitching would make the Padres a contending club in 2014.

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This is the view of both general manager Josh Byrnes and manager Bud Black, as expressed Thursday at Peoria Sports Complex.

These are not unreasonable expectations. There are good and valid and objective reasons to expect that San Diego's pitching will be better than it was in 2013.

The health is, of course, less predictable. But the Padres believe that they are due for a long bout of something resembling good health.

"The thing about the health, we've been at or near the top [in games missed due to injury] the last two years," Byrnes said. "So even an average health year would feel like a major improvement."

"Like all teams, we've got to keep our best players on the field for most of the season," Black said. "Too much time lost [in 2013] with [outfielder Carlos] Quentin, [first baseman Yonder] Alonso, [infielder Jedd] Gyorko. [Shortstop Everth] Cabrera missed 50. [Catcher Yasmani] Grandal missed 100-plus. We had a lot of guys miss time. Not excuses, reality. We've got to keep the guys who are our best players on the field."

Grandal and Cabrera, in addition to being injured, were suspended for 50 games each for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

The pitching offers more tangible hope for the Padres.

"We really had to scramble with our pitching the last few years," Byrnes said. "And now some of the guys have developed and have become more established starters; [Andrew] Cashner and [Tyson] Ross. We were able to get [Ian] Kennedy and [Josh] Johnson.

"Spring Training can be misleading in a lot of ways, but you do get to see the parade of arms. We like the prospect group behind these guys.

"If we're going to do what we need to do to play in October, our pitching has to be playoff-caliber. And it has a chance."

If Kennedy, 29, and Johnson, 30, can perform at something close to the better form they displayed not that long ago, the pitching staff would already be considerably better. They are young enough to regain stride. Kennedy had a 21-4 record with a 2.88 ERA for Arizona in 2011. Johnson led the National League in ERA in 2010 at 2.30 while with the Marlins.

Ross had a 2.95 ERA over his last 13 starts in 2013. Eric Stults established himself as a consistent starter. But Cashner, with an impressive second-half performance, offered the promise of even better work to come.

"There's no doubt that fundamentally with his delivery, his mechanics, his arm action, his stuff, there's a great foundation there for success," Black said of Cashner. "We all know that there's a lot more to it than that. But he's got a lot going for him right now. What he did in the second half last year was a snippet of what we think he can do long-term."

Black is convinced that San Diego has the pitching talent to make the forward move into contention.

"Based on what I saw in the second half [of 2013], I think that should occur," Black said. "We have a group of pitchers that we think are going to pitch well. I think we have the talent on the mound, through our 12 guys that are going to make this team."

The Padres' organizational attitude can fairly be characterized as scrappy and opportunistic. The NL West has only become more difficult in recent seasons. The Giants won everything in the last two even-numbered years, and the Dodgers have sent their player payroll soaring toward previously unknown heights.

But Byrnes, to his credit, when offered a chance to carp about the Dodgers' spending, did exactly the opposite.

"Any sport is going to have the superpowers," Byrnes said. "There are some big-market, brand-name teams, and we have to figure out a way to beat them. That's sort of the fun of it.

"Oakland and Tampa Bay set the bar high. It can be done. It's not trying to be the Dodgers. You've got to try to beat the Dodgers. … Now's the time."

In fact, Byrnes notes, the San Diego ownership has increased its own payroll, allowing the club to retain, for instance, Quentin and closer Huston Street, and to acquire Johnson and the highly reliable setup man Joaquin Benoit.

Far from singing the small-market blues, the Padres are looking on the plus side. Their pitching could very well take a long and collective step forward. And their hopes for a reasonably healthy 2014 don't seem all that outrageous, either. This is officially a hopeful cause.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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