Cactus League preview: San Diego Padres

San Diego's Will Venable had 22 home runs and 22 stolen bases last year -- one of only nine major leaguers to top 20 in both stats.

Christopher Hanewinckel/Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

The San Diego Padres displayed plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future in the second half of the 2013 season, as they fought to a third-place NL West finish, but they know plenty well you don’t hang banners for third place.

But the Padres are optimistic that the momentum will carry over as they report to Peoria for another spring training in the Cactus League.

With what appears to be a relatively healthy roster, talented youth and healthy competition in a few spots, the Padres have reason to believe they can maintain an upward trajectory. It won’t be easy in the NL West, though, with the Dodgers spending like crazy to remain the division favorite.

Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Padres and what to watch for in camp this spring.

Rookie second baseman Jedd Gyorko was a big reason for the Padres’ strong finish in 2013, belting 15 home runs in their final 52 games. 

The Padres’ 2013 season got off to a bleak 5-15 start, but a 30-19 run followed. After another tailspin, the Padres went 42-33 after the All-Star break to finish 76-86 and third in the NL West, their best finish since 2010. Highlights included a career year from outfielder Will Venable (.268, 53 RBI, 22 home runs) and an impressive rookie campaign by second baseman Jedd Gyorko (.249, 63 RBI, 23 home runs). Among the lowlights, though, were third baseman Chase Headley’s down year and a seventh consecutive season outside the playoff picture.

Arrivals: RP Joaquin Benoit (free agent), SP Josh Johnson (free agent), OF Seth Smith (trade with Oakland), RP Alex Torres (trade with Tampa Bay).

Departures: RP Anthony Bass (traded), RP Brad Boxberger (traded), IF Logan Forsythe (traded), RP Luke Gregerson (traded), 1B Jesus Guzman (traded), OF Mark Kotsay (retired), SP Jason Marquis (free agent).

How will the starting rotation shake out?

The Padres’ gamble on Josh Johnson could pay off in a big way at the top of the rotation. The former Marlins ace got a one-year deal worth $8 million from the Padres after a disappointing 2013 season in Toronto. Being back in the NL and in a pitchers’ park half the year could help him regain his form. The rotation has other promising pieces in Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, but there’s less certainty on the back end. Ian Kennedy was average in 10 starts for the Padres last season and still hasn’t rediscovered his 2011 form. Alex Torres, Eric Stults, Robbie Erlin, Burch Smith and Joe Wieland, who missed last season after Tommy John surgery, should also compete for rotation spots, but Cory Luebke’s promising career has been derailed by a second Tommy John surgery.

Can the Padres stay healthy?

The baseball gods were not kind to the Padres the last two seasons. Four pitchers have needed Tommy John surgery. Every infielder made a trip to the disabled list last season. Outfield Carlos Quentin has played just 168 games in two seasons amid knee issues. They’ll need to stay healthy this season to keep trending upward.

Will the Padres’ supposed stars regain their form?

Knee injuries have hampered Quentin since the Padres acquired him two offseasons ago, and he hasn’t been the 100-RBI, 25-home run hitter they hoped he would be. Headley, meanwhile, backslid significantly last season after a breakout 2012 campaign. He admitted last season to being distracted by contract negotiations and trade rumors and could face a similar problem this season. Quentin has expressed confidence his latest knee surgery will yield better results. However it happens, the Padres need both to be forces in the middle of the lineup.

Might manager Bud Black be on the hot seat? The former Mike Scioscia assistant enters his eighth season with the Padres, and though he won the NL Manager of the Year award in 2010, Black has yet to lead San Diego into the postseason. Black is highly regarded throughout the league and well liked by players, and the Padres in November picked up his option for 2014 and 2015, but another postseason miss could spell trouble.

Jedd Gyorko. The second baseman returns for his second full season in San Diego after a strong rookie year in which he finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Gyorko provided some much needed pop in the heart of the order. The 25-year-old really heated up in the season’s final two months, tallying 15 home runs and 37 RBI over the Padres’ final 52 games. What can the youngster do for an encore?

Pitchers and catchers reported Thursday, Feb. 13. Full squad reports Tuesday, Feb. 18. Games begin Feb. 28 at Peoria Sports Complex, 16101 N. 83rd Ave., Peoria. Visit Padres.com for full schedule and tickets.