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Padres' success contingent on collective health

Maybin, Johnson sidelined to start season, but skipper Black remains optimistic

SAN DIEGO -- At this point in his career, Padres outfielder Will Venable still isn't sure what it's like to be a part of a team that bolts fast from the gate in April, though he's quite familiar with the other side and how exasperating it can feel.

SAN DIEGO -- At this point in his career, Padres outfielder Will Venable still isn't sure what it's like to be a part of a team that bolts fast from the gate in April, though he's quite familiar with the other side and how exasperating it can feel.

Two years ago, besieged by injuries, the Padres began the year 9-20. In 2013, they allowed 19 runs in the first two games (both losses) on their way to a 5-15 start that saw them desperate for a mulligan.

If the Padres are to truly take a big leap forward in what is one of baseball's most competitive divisions, they can't afford to be buried in the division early, Venable said.

"I think it's very important," Venable said. "You want to get out to a good start. You want to be able to bank some wins early, that's important. But it's also establishing the good first impression on the city, the fans and each other as teammates.

"I think a fast start makes all the difference, being able to sling-shot yourself into the rest of the season."

A good start and good health -- well, better health -- will be on the collective minds of the team when it opens the regular season at Petco Park on Sunday night against the Dodgers. But achieving some semblance of good health has been difficult for this organization in recent years.

And this spring hasn't been much different.

The Padres head to the regular season without outfielder Cameron Maybin (ruptured left biceps tendon) for a few months and right-hander Josh Johnson, who was expected to be a part of the rotation, for five or so weeks, if not longer, after he recently suffered soreness to the flexor tendons in his right forearm.

Pitcher Cory Luebke had his second Tommy John surgery in March and is out for the year. Joe Wieland -- another pitcher who, like Luebke, had Tommy John surgery in 2012 -- could miss half the season after he recently had arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow.

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

That certainly didn't happen last season, as the Padres fell to their second 76-86 finish in as many years.

Can they improve on that in 2014? Can they still be healthy? Can they squeeze out a few more runs from the offense to make it all work? All viable questions, though none bigger than health.

"Like all teams, we have got to keep our best players on the field for most of the season. We've had too much time lost [in 2013]. We had a lot of guys miss time," said Padres manager Bud Black, who is about to enter his eighth season.

"[These aren't] excuses … We have got to keep the guys who are our best players on the field."

There is, of course, a performance component to this fast-start talk as well. For as much as the Padres have been crippled by injuries, they simply haven't played well enough in the early part of the season.

This is still an organization built on run prevention, and the rotation -- even without Johnson for a while -- still appears formidable with Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross leading the way. Both Ross and Cashner took big leaps forward in 2013, and the Padres hope Kennedy, a fly-ball pitcher, can have success at Petco Park in his first full season with the team.

The rotation is a far cry -- in a good way -- from the Clayton Richard, Edinson Volquez and Jason Marquis trio that fronted the staff a year ago.

The bullpen looks to be in good hands with closer Huston Street and new setup man Joaquin Benoit, the ageless wonder, and lefty Alex Torres, acquired from the Rays in January, who is a max-effort guy with a disappearing changeup.

"The optimism really started last year in the second half when our starting pitching started to show up," Black said. "You saw Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and we traded for Ian Kennedy. You saw what we did collectively as a pitching staff. Now you add Joaquin Benoit, Torres, and when you see who we have on the mound, it's exciting."

Offensively, the Padres will need to find a way to score more runs. They ranked 12th last season in the NL in runs, though, at times, they were without third baseman Chase Headley, left fielder Carlos Quentin, All-Star shortstop Everth Cabrera, first baseman Yonder Alonso and second baseman Jedd Gyorko, all of whom missed time with injury.

"I think if we have the right players out there, by that I mean the guys we project -- Carlos Quentin, Jedd Gyorko, Yonder Alonso, Chase Headley, Will Venable, Chris Denorfia, our catchers -- we feel as though we have a nice group," Black said. "You get Everth Cabrera back at the top of the order and we feel it's a good group. But we haven't had that group together for a lot of games.

"If you put it together as a group, which we haven't had the benefit of, we've had some injuries to our position players [in the past] … we're excited about this group of players."

Corey Brock is a reporter for Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter.

San Diego Padres