The National League West has been the division of surprises so far in 2013. We’ve had the Los Angeles Dodgers flopping and the Colorado Rockies winning. But overlooked has been the San Diego Padres. Don’t look now, but coming into Thursday’s games, the Padres were right at the .500 mark, 36-36 and that’s good enough to be within three games of the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks.
Are the Pads a team we have to take seriously? That’s the focus of the National League installment of today’s MLB coverage.
A POTENT OFFENSE IN PETCO
San Diego has had their best teams in recent years behind strong pitching, a byproduct of being in arguably the game’s best pitching environment. But this year’s Padres are bashing their way to success with the bats.
Well, bashing might be overstating the case. Although San Diego is seventh in the National League in runs scored, and when you factor in the vast expanse of Petco Park, it’s fair to assume this an offense in the upper third of the league. And that’s in spite of a terrible year from third baseman Chase Headley, who was supposed be the one reliable part of the everyday lineup.
What San Diego has gotten is excellent years from the emerging middle infield of second baseman Jedd Gyorko and shortstop Everth Cabrera. Both players just had to hit the disabled list, but in neither case does it look like anything more than the minimum stint. Gyorko has popped eight home runs and has a stat line of .341 on-base percentage/.461 slugging percentage. Cabrera has a .382 OBP and has already stolen 31 bases.
Yonder Alonso, a key part of the trade that sent Mat Latos to Cincinnati, had been off to a respectable start, at .335/.416 and continued to show potential as a line-drive hitter. Alonso had to go to the disabled list with a broken hand and won’t be back until the early part of next month. But Kyle Blanks has moved from the outfield to first, and is swinging a very good bat, at .351/.483.
When Alonso comes back, Blanks can displace unproductive rightfielder Will Venable, or provide insurance for Carlos Quentin in left field. Quentin has posted a solid .367/.471 stat line, but he’s been injury-prone and is even right now nursing a sore shoulder that has rumors about the disabled list rumbling.
San Diego is never going to be an offensive juggernaut, because of the park they play in, but what they have is playing well enough to win. So long as they get pitching, but that’s been a problem.
The Padres starting rotation is just flat-out awful. Not awful relative to their park. Just bad on its face. San Diego ranks 14th in the National League in starters’ ERA, and the prime culprit is Edinson Volquez. The presumed ace of the staff has a 5.84 ERA in fifteen starts. Just imagine how bad Volquez might be if he were still in Cincinnati where the ball jumps out of the park. Clayton Richard is an absolute train wreck, with a 7.01 ERA in his ten starts.
Between these two disaster areas, San Diego ‘s trio of Eric Stults, Jason Marquis and Andrew Cashman have been respectable, with ERAs ranging from 3.25 to 3.63. But just as we give the hitters a little extra credit for the Petco effect, we have to knock the pitchers down a little bit. It’s not that these three pitchers are having bad years, but adjusted for Petco, we have to see them all as back-end guys. Which becomes a problem when there are no front-end guys.
The San Diego bullpen is competent, if not spectacular. Gone are the days when Heath Bell and Mike Adams led up one of the best relief crews in all of baseball. But Huston Street has closed out his save chances, 14 of 15, even if his ERA is a little high at 4.24. Luke Gregorson, Joe Thatcher and Tyson Ross give manager Bud Black good options for getting to the ninth inning. The bullpen is fine, but the starting pitching can’t put a huge burden on them all year long.
IS THIS FOR REAL?
I don’t think San Diego is going to be in the race, NL West or wild-card for the long haul. I’m not optimistic that Volquez and Richard can get things turned around and give them the pitching they need. In fact, I think it’s far more likely that the other starters, along with some of the everyday players, will take a step back. The Padres still look like a sub-.500 team at the end of the day, but at least they’ve become an interesting team with some nice individual stories.
AROUND THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
NL East: Decision time is coming for the Philadelphia Phillies, who have marketable veterans (Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon) and a lot of teams ready to give up prospects. The Phils are eight back in both the division and wild-card. Washington remains seven games back of first-place Atlanta.
NL Central: St. Louis is going to get some needed pitching depth when Shelby Miller returns from the disabled list this weekend against Texas. On the division’s other end, the bad season continued to get worse for Milwaukee, where it appears Ryan Braun’s DL stint will be longer than originally anticipated. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh continue to be the leaders in the wild-card race.
NL West: The NBA Finals end tonight. I bring this up because once Magic Johnson’s role as analyst for ABC is up he might get focused on his baseball team and decide to fire Don Mattingly. The Dodgers are now eight games out and the only team in this division not within a good week of first place. I say part of this in jest, because I’m sure Magic is paying attention to the Dodgers, and I don’t advocate Mattingly’s firing. But we know how the real world works and the manager’s time has to be running short.