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Here's how the Padres can contend in 2020

January 2, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- The calendar only just flipped to 2019. What better time to start talking about '20 than right now?In all seriousness, the year ahead should teach us an awful lot about the Padres, even if it's unlikely the team contends for a playoff berth. Given their loaded farm

SAN DIEGO -- The calendar only just flipped to 2019. What better time to start talking about '20 than right now?
In all seriousness, the year ahead should teach us an awful lot about the Padres, even if it's unlikely the team contends for a playoff berth. Given their loaded farm system and controllable young talent, the goal of a playoff push seems very attainable in 2020.
But there are quite a few steps the Padres must first take to ensure they're in position for that '20 success. With that in mind, here's a blueprint that could turn San Diego into a contender over the next 12 months.
4 key needs before Spring Training
Find a front-line starter
The organizational pitching depth is unquestioned. But if the goal is to compete in 2020, that depth only gets the Padres so far. Their rotation posted the highest ERA in the National League last year.
General manager A.J. Preller has a deep pool to trade from, and you can bet he's going to explore those options. In the last six months, the Padres have been extensively linked with Chris Archer and Noah Syndergaard. The next big-name starter to hit the trade market is going to be linked with the Padres, too.
Get Eric Hosmer back on track
Hosmer recorded arguably the worst season of his career in 2018, posting a .720 OPS and a 1.4 Wins Above Replacement. But he has a history of bouncing back, and the Padres brass seems confident he's got the work ethic to do so. They've touted the benefits of a normal offseason -- after last winter's free-agent uncertainty.
Of course, it could take a major swing overhaul for Hosmer, whose ground-ball rate ranked second in the Majors last season. But he's indicated that he's open to changes, and it's worth remembering that Hosmer was a 4.1 WAR player in Kansas City in 2017.

Let the kids play
Fernando Tatis Jr. turned 20 Wednesday. He's MLB Pipeline's No. 2-ranked prospect and presumably the Padres' future at shortstop, and he's probably going to be in San Diego by June.
That said, it's not fair to expect him to thrive immediately at one of the sport's most demanding positions. The same goes for second baseman Luis Urias and catcher/outfielder Francisco Mejia. This is the season to experience that learning curve. If the Padres enter 2020 with a battle-tested group of youngsters, they'll be better off for it -- even if it means a few losses in '19.

Solidify center field
Between Manuel Margot and Franchy Cordero, there should be an internal solution here. Margot was outstanding during his 2017 rookie campaign before taking a step back in '18. Cordero has flashed brilliance with five tools, but he missed the final four months last season following elbow surgery. Ideally for the Padres, Margot will bounce back in '19, and Cordero could serve as a platoon option at all three spots.
"What we saw as a rookie, what we saw in the Minor Leagues, that's the player we think he is," Preller said of Margot.
But it almost doesn't matter whether it's Margot or Cordero (whose OPS was approaching .900 before his elbow injury). The Padres are pretty set at the corners. They just need one of those two to anchor to the middle.

Enhance the rotation competition
Here's an underrated aspect of the Padres' goal to better themselves: Their young starting pitchers need to be pushed. Sure, Joey Lucchesi and Eric Lauer could be nice rotation pieces moving forward. But the Friars would be better off if they had six or seven of those pieces battling for time.
In some ways, they've already set themselves up nicely for a rotation crunch late in 2019. Dinelson Lamet should return from Tommy John surgery midseason, and Garrett Richards might be back at the end of the year. Prospects Logan Allen, Chris Paddack and Cal Quantrill will push for time, too. The best pitchers will rise to the top, and with the addition of a front-line arm, a formidable '20 rotation could fall into place.

Find a third baseman
Let's play some hypotheticals here. Say the five items above all come to fruition. That leaves the Padres with:
• A promising rotation
• A still-formidable bullpen
• A deep outfield with a center-field option
• Potentially two or three good young catchers
• A revamped Hosmer at first base
• Urias and Tatis in the middle infield
That's a pretty complete team. What's missing? Yep, still third base.
Preller will surely be active this winter in his search for a long-term third baseman. But it's also possible the Padres merely find a stopgap until next winter.
That takes us to another hypothetical: Next offseason, two of the game's elite third basemen hit the open market in Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon. If the rest of the roster has fallen into place, the Padres might use their chips to address their only remaining hole. How's this for a San Diego lineup at this time next year?
1. Urias, 2B

  1. Tatis, SS
  2. Rendon, 3B
  3. Hosmer, 1B
  4. Franmil Reyes, RF
  5. Hunter Renfroe, LF
  6. Margot/Cordero, CF
  7. Austin Hedges/Mejia, C
    There are quite a few dominoes left to fall. But the path toward contention is getting clearer. And we're going to learn an awful lot in 2019.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.