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Padres count on picking up where they left off

SAN DIEGO -- It's probably far too simplistic and short-sighted to say that the Padres used a fast finish in 2009 as a springboard to bigger and better things in 2010, the season the team won 90 games and was in contention for a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season.

That said, Padres manager Bud Black certainly wouldn't mind if that scenario played out again in 2013, especially with the team again playing well in the second half the previous season, leaving a great deal of optimism for what potentially lies ahead.

"I like the way we ended the season last year," Black said. "We've got the same group of position players coming back, with a couple guys maybe trying to fight to get on the club. Like every club, it depends on how you pitch.

"I think we have to have a healthy year on the mound, do what we did offensively the second half of the year and then we'll see how the year plays out."

While the Padres are optimistic they'll finish better than they did in 2012, they, like the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball, enter a new year with their share of questions. Here they are.

1. Will this team really be any better?

It should be, especially if the Padres acquire another starting pitcher to log 200 or so innings and make 30-plus starts in 2013. The bullpen again figures to be strong, and the position-player mix is as good as it's been in Black's first six seasons. Injuries and underperformance derailed this team early last season. With a trio of pitchers coming back from injury midseason, the Padres hope to survive an early tough schedule against teams in a very good division. With all the chaos of 2012, the Padres won 76 games. There's no reason to think they won't surpass that in 2013.

2. Will the offense produce in 2013?

The Padres are counting on it, so much so that few (if any) upgrades to the position-player portion of the roster are planned this offseason. That likely means a platoon in right field of Will Venable and Chris Denorfia, and John Baker and Nick Hundley splitting the catching duties until Yasmani Grandal (50-game suspension) is eligible to play in late May. The Padres were encouraged that the offense was fifth in the National League in runs from July 1 until the end of the regular season. The team thinks that Carlos Quentin will be in better health in 2013, Chase Headley will continue to be a run producer and Yonder Alonso (39 doubles as a rookie) will continue to improve.

3. Will Headley do that again?

You mean, will he surpass his 31-homer, 115-RBI total in 2013 and again win a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove? That's a lot to ask, though Headley himself has high aspirations for himself, and his hitting coach, Phil Plantier, thinks the numbers the third baseman had in 2012 can be more toward the norm than just an outlier. Bill James has offered projections of 22 home runs and 85 RBIs. That's still pretty good, but moving in the fences at Petco Park could lead to better power numbers for Headley, who killed it on the road in 2012 and even fared well in his spacious home ballpark.

4. Can this team stay healthy in 2013?

Time will tell, though there's a thought internally that no matter what happens in 2013, things can't be any worse than they were in 2012 -- especially early in the season when pitchers landed on the DL, one after another with bad news seemingly at every turn. Remember, this is a team that gave 51 starts to pitchers who weren't on the 40-man roster on Feb. 1. That's why general manager Josh Byrnes is doing his best to build starting pitching depth as well as cultivate depth in many areas so the team can survive some injuries.

5. How does the early schedule look?

It's just as daunting as it was a year ago, when the team stumbled out of the gate -- injuries as well as underperformance didn't help -- with a 7-17 record in April and a 10-18 mark in May, as it played 16 games against NL West foes in April alone. This year, the Padres play 18 games against division rivals, including nine on the road. They see the much improved Dodgers six times before April 18. Simply put, this team -- without Grandal until May 28 and injured pitchers until midseason -- can't afford to get buried again early.

6. Can Jedd Gyorko stick at second base?

The Padres certainly hope so. Gyorko is no stranger to the middle of the infield, as he played shortstop at West Virginia University. He'll get plenty of reps there this spring and logged some innings there last season in the Minor Leagues. The hope is he's good enough to handle the position defensively, as the organization feels that he's ready offensively, especially after posting a .319/.385/.529 line in his first three professional seasons. But don't forget Logan Forsythe, as he'll get reps at second base and shortstop and maybe even (gasp) give Headley a blow at third base on occasions.

7. Who will be pitching coach Darren Balsley's "project"?

A year ago, Balsley -- regarded as one of the best in the business -- worked closely in Spring Training with pitcher Edinson Volquez to iron out some mechanical issues. He's done the same with many a pitcher in spring, allowing them to be successful in the regular season. Could Tyson Ross, obtained in November from the A's, be the next in line? Ross has an unconventional delivery that offers deception, though he has struggled with consistency. He's only 25 and the Padres feel there's still plenty of upside.

8. Which prospects can we expect to debut in 2013?

Gyorko, as previously discussed, will certainly be one. We saw a little of reliever Brad Boxberger in 2012 and he could play more of a prominent role in 2013, especially if there's any changes (read: trades) of relievers. Pitcher Donn Roach, the sinkerball specialist, could move fast. Reliever Kevin Quackenbush, who has a 0.81 ERA as a pro, could move quickly as well. The guy throws a ton of strikes. He might not have the best stuff in the system, but he continues to get outs.

9. What will the starting rotation look like?

Let's address what we know: Clayton Richard and Volquez, the only two starters to make more than 16 starts in 2012, return. After that, though, it becomes a little fuzzy. The Padres like their internal candidates and know they'll have some pitchers coming back from injuries during the season -- Andrew Cashner, Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland. The team signed Jason Marquis in early December and still will add another starting pitcher through trade or free agency. Until then, Ross, Robbie Erlin, Casey Kelly, Anthony Bass and Eric Stults will contend for rotation jobs in the spring.

10. How will the fence modifications play at Petco Park?

It's far too soon to be sure, though it's worth noting that the changes the organization made weren't a move to neutrality but a move toward neutrality. "It's going to help the psyche of our offensive players," said Black. Petco Park will still favor pitchers, especially at night in April and May and with the marine layer helping suppress fly balls. But there's no denying moving the fences in 11 feet in right-center field, for example, will reward hitters for squaring a ball up -- something many have craved since the ballpark opened.

San Diego Padres, Yonder Alonso, John Baker, Anthony Bass, Brad Boxberger, Andrew Cashner, Chris Denorfia, Robbie Erlin, Logan Forsythe, Yasmani Grandal, Jedd Gyorko, Chase Headley, Nick Hundley, Casey Kelly, Cory Luebke, Jason Marquis, Kevin Quackenbush, Carlos Quentin, Clayton Richard, Donn Roach, Tyson Ross, Eric Stults, Will Venable, Edinson Volquez, Joe Wieland