SAN DIEGO -- As far as general manager Josh Byrnes is concerned, the Padres are reaching critical mass.
"Time is ticking," he told MLB.com in an interview at Petco Park on Saturday. "When you get a group together with arbitration, free agency and increasing cost, there is no pause button. At some point, hovering in the middle is not what we're out to do. Either we have to start closing in on playoff contention or assess that this group is not good enough to fight another day."
The Padres are 65-77 following a 76-86 season a year ago and haven't been to the playoffs since 2006.
After the first full season under new ownership, Byrnes said the baseball operations staff is now in full evaluation mode heading into the offseason. Byrnes is finishing his second season as GM and third with the club after a nearly five-year stint in the same position with the D-backs.
MLB.com: What's your synopsis of this season?
Byrnes: In some ways, it's similar to last year. We had the stretch where we played pretty well. It was pretty encouraging. Then we got hit with another round of injuries. We've played most of the last month without six of our regulars. It's been an odd couple of years. The middle of last year to the middle of this year, we were 12 games over .500. There were five winning months out of six. Obviously we haven't been able to sustain it. We haven't been able to sync up the pitching with the offense and get our health in order. We're heading into the offseason trying to decide how much we need to change the roster. There have been stretches of good play, but the goal is to play well for six months and we haven't been able to do that.
MLB.com: Have you guys had many games at all where your projected starting lineup has been on the field?
Byrnes: Aside from the injuries, we've had a couple of suspensions that affected things. To give you an example, we've had 14 games when both Everth Cabrera and Yasmani Grandal have been in the lineup. Obviously, Cameron Maybin didn't have much of a year. Carlos Quentin had about half of the year -- so not many.
MLB.com: On July 3 the five teams in the National League West were separated by three games. It's now about 21.
Byrnes: Heading into July we were right in the middle of that race and were looking to even add a starting pitcher, which we did anyway at the end of the month when we added Ian Kennedy. We had a 10-game East Coast road trip to Miami, Washington and Boston, won the first game and lost the next nine. That certainly changed a few things about our season, even our trading strategy. We never overcame that nine-game losing streak.
MLB.com: Plus, you had a tough start to the season again, opening 5-15 for the second consecutive season.
Byrnes: You can't have two of those stretches and we did. During the season, when you're struggling you have to find a way to play out of it. But 5-15 is a big hole. We did dig out of it, but then had that second bad stretch in July. Those two together put us where we are.
MLB.com: With Kennedy, you can slot him in as your No. 1 starter next season as you're putting the team together.
Byrnes: There's a lot of ways you can look at it. Obviously with Kennedy, Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, that group has pitched very well for us. Eric Stultz has pitched pretty well for us ever since we got him, even though his last few starts have been a little rocky. We have all these guys coming off injuries. As we sort it all out, it's interesting, but it's good to have a number of choices and a core of three or four guys who really should be part of stabilizing things.
MLB.com: Is the pitching going into this offseason better than it was heading into last offseason?
Byrnes: Much better. Pitching, even in the second half of this season, has been a lot better. We've definitely gotten better, and I think we'll continue to get better. What was our weakest area [last year] was our starting pitching. Now, not only is it better, but it will be significantly better as we head into next year.
MLB.com: When you say perhaps you may have to change the roster, what would you like to change and how much money will you have available to do it?
Byrnes: Our payroll is going to go up again. You can't play in fantasyland. If the pitching is as good as I think it's going to be next year and we put that together with the offense we had in the second half of 2012 and the first half of '13, that's a pretty good team. Are we sure that's going to happen? We can control the players to make it happen. We also have to return to health so it can happen. In the meantime, when you keep together a roster as we have for two years, we have to make some choices as the costs go up and players near free agency. We've worked very hard to create a team that can compete and then try to keep it together. If we try to keep it together, that will take up a good chunk of what our payroll increase is going to be. So it then it begs the question: Do we re-allocate a few things, make trades, take money off? That's what we're going to be evaluating during the next month as we head into the offseason.
MLB.com: What are you plans for Chase Headley, who will become just such a free agent after the 2014 season?
Byrnes: That's a big decision. When he's playing well we're a good team. He's a Padre. We're going to have to go into the offseason and find out these critical answers. We have to determine our ability to sign him -- our appetite and his. And if not, what do we do? Do we let him play out the year or do we explore the trade market?
MLB.com: Headley regressed this year. Did that have something to do with his Spring Training thumb injury and then starting the season late? What do you think happened?
Byrnes: I don't know. First of all, his Spring Training was great. He gets hurt, comes off the disabled list and the first month [he] was doing what he did last year. It was only then that he started to struggle. One of the guys we work with, who played a long time in the big leagues, said sometimes that happens with hand and wrist injuries. Initially you do well, and then the effects of the injury begin to set in as you're playing every day. But who knows? It's the beauty of baseball. I've been a Chase fan for a long time. His 31 homers and 115 RBIs last season were big numbers. Probably this year we should have expected a little bit less. As with many things, I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Now, being a year from free agency, there's probably a lot more urgency from both sides.
MLB.com: How disappointing was it that Yasmani Grandal and Everth Cabrera were suspended for drug violations, one during each of the past two seasons?
Byrnes: There's no doubt it hurt our team quite a bit. I look at it in a number of ways. In my role -- watching them go through it, having to deal with the organization, the fans, their teammates and the media -- it was interesting to watch and I tried to help in any way I could. I think they both handled it well. There is a human element. And then, from someone who loves this game and believes very much in the drug program, I give high marks to the Commissioner and the [MLB] Players Association for how far we've come. I view as it a good thing -- that we do need to clean up the game. These are the bumps along the way to get there. And now the players' voices on this issue have been heard.
MLB.com: Do organizations have to take a stand on these kinds of things? If a player gets suspended under your auspices and doesn't have a contract, do you bring the player back? What do you do?
Byrnes: I don't know. We're starting to talk about that now, referring to multiyear contracts. When you sign a player to a multiyear contract and he gets suspended, what kind of player do you have on the other side in terms of performance and fan acceptance? I think jumping into a contract and a club's protection on a contract are still ongoing assessments.
MLB.com: Isn't it also what you want to tell your fan base? Either these guys made a mistake and they're part of the family moving forward or you want to have a clean team and they're not going to part of it?
Byrnes: I think it's important that we all uphold the standards that we're all after with Major League Baseball. That being said, I'm not sure that the club should even implicitly be giving harsher penalties than the Basic Agreement provides by saying, "We don't want this player anymore."
MLB.com: If you go back to the Mat Latos trade, Grandal was suspended and has been hurt, Yonder Alonso has been hurt, you just released Edinson Volquez. Latos with the Reds is one of the top pitchers in the league. Are you OK with the way it's turning out?
Byrnes: Yes and no. We knew we had Volquez for two years. He didn't really work here. Having six years of Alonso and Grandal, having Brad Boxberger, it's a lot of long-term value. For a team that had no offense -- we were desperately trying to balance our offense -- Yonder gives us some offense and tough at-bats. You look at Grandal, you look at our record when he's caught, I want to say it's something like 10 or 15 games over .500. He's a two-way catcher. He can hit. He can run a game. I think Latos is a superlative pitcher, but we got some things back.
MLB.com: How is the new ownership with one full year under its belt? They replaced Tom Garfinkel with Mike Dee as club president and CEO. How has that affected everything?
Byrnes: They've been great. There's no substitute for going through a 12-month cycle in baseball -- all the things that went on, how things went better than we originally forecasted and how things went worse. In some ways, being in it for so long, it's the beauty of the game. You learn to embrace how much happens that you wouldn't have expected. Our job is to plan for as many of those scenarios as possible. Build as deep a roster as you can with talent, [both] long term and short term. Figure out a way with a lower-third payroll to pull this off. It can be done. But it needs to be done over time and with a lot of precision along the way.
MLB.com: You've been here for a good period of time now. What needs to get better?
Byrnes: We all know the cliché: As a franchise you're either going for it or you're not. You're building a talent base. You're re-loading. Whatever! We're a little bit in the middle ground. It's not necessarily where we want to be. Yet, we've seen this team in a calendar year play at an 87-88-win pace. We just haven't done it within the right calendar year. And we haven't been healthy. The June 30 to July 1 pennant race doesn't matter. We've gotten ourselves to a point where we're in range. But we're not there yet. And there are a lot of things we need to do, like improving our health and roster, to get there.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter.