A year that was supposed to be the dawn of a new era of San Diego Padres baseball will end with another sub-.500 record and a 13th consecutive season without a postseason berth. The Padres have not qualified for the postseason since 2006. Only the Mariners (2001) and Marlins (2003) have longer postseason droughts.

Of course, postseason contention always seemed like a bit of a long shot coming into the season, and the Padres did take several steps forward as an organization this year. They're likely to finish with their highest winning percentage since 2014 and score 700 runs for the first time since 2007. San Diego is also among the youngest teams in the league:

  • Average batters age: 26.2 (second lowest in MLB -- Blue Jays at 26.1)
  • Average pitchers age: 26.3 (lowest in MLB)

Those averages are weighed by playing time, so the 21-year-old September call-up who gets three at-bats doesn't offset the 37-year-old veteran who's been on the roster all season. Ian Kinsler is the team's only position player over 30. Otherwise 29-year-old Eric Hosmer is the elder statesman. Among pitchers to make more than one start, 27-year-old Matt Strahm is the oldest.

The highlight of the Padres season is of course the breakout of shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who authored a .317/.379/.590 batting line with stellar defense and electric baserunning before a back injury ended his season in August. He should rank among the game's top 10 players within a year or two. San Diego deserves credit for putting Tatis on the Opening Day roster and not manipulating his service time.

The Padres have a budding megastar in Fernando Tatis Jr. USATSI

The Padres also did not manipulate right-hander Chris Paddack's service time. The Sheriff seems to have hit a bit of a wall in the second half, possibly due to fatigue, but he's had a fine rookie season and is someone San Diego can build their rotation around going forward. Cal Quantrill flashed the potential to be an above-average starter as well, plus Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi are solid.

You no longer need to squint your eyes to see the core of the next contending Padres team. It's Tatis, it's Paddack, it's Manuel Margot and Francisco Mejia and Andres Munoz, plus others. Marquee addition Manny Machado has had a mostly underwhelming inaugural season in San Diego, but, at age 27, he is entering his prime and essentially part of the youth movement. Better days are ahead.

In addition to all that talent on the MLB roster, the Padres also boast one of the game's best farm systems. They have six top 100 prospects according to MLB.com, and Baseball America ranked the system second in baseball a few weeks back. From their write-up:

The Padres have already graduated six prospects this summer, including Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack, but the system has the best pitching prospect in baseball in MacKenzie Gore as well as a rare mix of upper-level position prospects and arms.  

Clearly, the Padres are heading in the right direction. That said, GM A.J. Preller and his staff can't simply sit back and wait for the young players to arrive. That's not how rebuilds work. You also need to be opportunistic and add pieces along the way. The Astros did it with Evan Gattis, Collin McHugh and others. The Cubs signed Jon Lester coming off a 73-win season. So on and so forth.

Preller has done that with Hosmer and Machado, ditto Kirby Yates. The goal this offseason: Add an ace. It is no secret the Padres are willing to deal from their farm system to secure a top-flight starting pitcher. Over the last 12 months they've been connected to Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray, Corey Kluber, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, and others. They're thinking big.

With the caveat that there is still an entire offseason to play out, San Diego's projected 2020 rotation depth chart currently looks something like this:

  1. RHP Chris Paddack
  2. LHP Joey Lucchesi
  3. RHP Garrett Richards (returning from Tommy John surgery)
  4. LHP Eric Lauer
  5. RHP Dinelson Lamet
  6. RHP Cal Quantrill
  7. LHP Nick Margevicius

Others like Adrian Morejon and Ronald Bolanos could be in the mix, ditto Jacob Nix, who is attempting to rehab a partially torn ulnar collateral elbow ligament. For a young, rebuilding team, that's a promising rotation depth chart. It's certainly a lot better than trotting out journeymen like Asher Wojciechowski and Aaron Brooks like the Orioles this season (no offense to them).

Still, adding a high-end starter to that group would push the Padres closer to contention in what figures to be another wide open wild-card race. Overtaking the Dodgers in the NL West won't be easy. A wild-card spot? That will be very attainable next year. A true ace can help the Padres get there, and then help San Diego advance deeper into October.

Expect to hear more Kluber and especially Syndergaard rumors this winter. Another name to keep in mind: Stephen Strasburg. He can opt out of his contract and is San Diego born and raised. If Strasburg does opt out, the Padres could bring him home for nothing but cash -- the Hosmer and Machado deals show they have plenty of it -- and keep all their prospects. It'd be a great fit.

Even after the Machado signing, 2019 always felt a tad optimistic for the Padres to return to contention. Their big coming out party is likely set for 2020 or maybe even 2021 depending on the young arms. I know this much though: Teams with this much young talent can arrive ahead of schedule. Consider:

  • Braves: 72 wins in 2017 to 90 wins in 2018
  • Cubs: 73 wins in 2014 to 97 wins in 2015
  • Pirates: 79 wins in 2012 to 94 wins in 2013
  • Rays: 66 wins in 2007 to 97 wins in 2008

The jump from sub-.500 rebuilder to World Series challenger doesn't have to be gradual. It can happen in one year when you have a lot of young talent, which the Padres most certainly do. Add an ace this winter, help the kids develop their game and take another step forward, and this Padres group could push 90 wins in 2020. It is absolutely possible. Easy? No. Possible? You bet.

Given their young core and enviable farm system (and apparent willingness to spend), few teams in baseball are set up for the next five years as well as the Padres. The Dodgers aren't going anywhere and overtaking them will be a challenge. San Diego is best positioned long-term to dethrone Los Angeles atop the division, but there's still a little more work to be done to get there.