Overlord Dave and I exchange a lot of emails, and earlier Thursday he sent me an email declaring that everybody’s talking about the Padres. I chuckled heartily to myself, as Dave is one of the funniest people I know. The Padres are about as forgettable a franchise as any in the major professional sports. They could win seven consecutive World Series and still people would only talk about them in order to complain about the camouflage uniforms. But while everybody most certainly is not talking about the Padres right now, more people are talking about the Padres right now than were talking about the Padres some months ago. That’s because the Padres have been playing some outstanding baseball.
By their standards, at least. Maybe “outstanding” is too strong a term, but since June 10 — an endpoint carefully selected to make the Padres look as good as possible — the Padres have gone 41-30 and they’ve outscored the opposition by 23 runs. Overall, they’ve drawn to within a game and a half of the Red Sox, and while the Red Sox clearly aren’t what they were supposed to be, that’s a psychologically significant fun fact. The Padres and the Red Sox aren’t too different. The Padres now might well be better than the Red Sox now. What a game, baseball.
The Padres are nowhere close to a playoff race, because before they caught fire, they played baseball as if they were literally on fire. Yet their stretch of success has people wondering if the playoffs might be in the Padres’ near-term future. Let’s examine how this stretch has happened, and what the Padres’ outlook looks like.
Whenever a team surprises like the Padres have, you always want to check for signs of sustainability. Working in the Padres’ favor is that they haven’t put together this stretch of success by just beating up on the Astros. It’s not like the Padres have played 41 games against the Astros and 30 games against real teams, so if that’s something that you had in mind, the thought can be discarded.
Obviously, there are things that have occurred that can’t be counted on to continue to occur. During the stretch, Luke Gregerson has allowed zero runs, and Huston Street has allowed zero runs. Eric Stults has allowed ten runs in nine games, five of them starts. Will Venable has ridden his BABIP to lofty offensive heights. The Padres have won more games than their run differential would otherwise warrant. Whenever you isolate a team’s best stretch, you expect that the team will have been playing over its head, and, yeah, you see where this is going.
Interestingly, though, not all that many things stand out as being crazy. The starting rotation has not been very good, and the Padres have been saved by an excellent bullpen and a productive offense. You look at the top hitters and the numbers and it’s not like Alexi Amarista has been posting a four-digit OPS. Chase Headley‘s really good, and he’s been good. Venable’s been good, Yasmani Grandal‘s been good, Carlos Quentin‘s been good, and so on. This fine stretch of Padres baseball has come from fine performances from fine players.
That’s why this is so encouraging, from the Padres’ perspective. That’s why Ken Rosenthal just wrote about the Padres adjusting their plans to try to win sooner. The players who have been lifting the team are players who’ll be sticking around, and there are going to be more players with talent either coming up or coming back.
This is what the Padres’ lineup of position players could conceivably look like in 2013:
Logan Forsythe and Amarista could be around, for infield depth. Chris Denorfia could be around, for outfield depth. You look at that group and you don’t see a clear weakness. Cabrera isn’t much, but it’s hard to find a quality regular shortstop, and the Padres could find someone else. Statistically, Maybin isn’t much, but he’s posted a .735 OPS over the last two months since making an adjustment. There’s reason to believe in all of these guys, and there’ll be a little bit of depth in the probable event of someone’s under-performance.
The Padres do have reason to be wary. As recently as 2011, Maybin and Nick Hundley were major offensive contributors. Now Maybin is a work in progress again and Hundley seems lost. Players will surprise you in good ways and in bad ways. But the most you can do is raise your odds, and that group up there has fine odds of working out all right.
The bigger question for the Padres in the near term is the starting rotation. I’ll tell you now that I’m not going to dwell on the bullpen because bullpens are almost entirely unpredictable. During the Padres’ successful stretch, they’ve given regular starts to Ross Ohlendorf, Jason Marquis, and Eric Stults. Next year’s rotation is going to look different.
And it should look a hell of a lot better. The Padres’ pitching staff has just been shredded by injuries this year, and though injuries can mean future injuries, the Padres have suffered through too much bad luck. The only regular members of the rotation have been Edinson Volquez and Clayton Richard. Returning soon will be Anthony Bass. Returning soon will be Andrew Cashner. Casey Kelly just arrived. Returning somewhere early in 2013 could be Cory Luebke. Returning somewhere around the middle of 2013 could be Joe Wieland. Robbie Erlin seems to be over his elbow issues, and his minor-league numbers are designated as NSFW.
As the Padres have learned, you can’t really rely on any pitcher, but there’s a lot of intriguing starter talent already in the organization and with new ownership, the team could also land a quality arm on the market. Rosenthal mentioned Hiroki Kuroda as one possibility, and while we won’t just assume that Kuroda will land in San Diego, he’d make for a quality stabilizer. Going into next year, the Padres look to be all right. With an addition or two, they could be even better than that.
What the Padres are short on are stars, and stars are what help a team join the elite. The Padres have more of a smooth talent spread, with a Headley exception. There’s not a lot of projected condensed WAR on the 2013 roster. But in most places, there’s quality, and there should be the financial means to support that quality, or even add more of it. Nobody’s going to declare next year’s Padres as World Series favorites, nor should anybody do that, barring an unforeseen offseason of miracles. But the Padres have lifted themselves out of the lower tier and suddenly .500 looks less like a goal and more like an expectation. It’s realistic to think that the Padres should contend for next year’s one-game playoff. We’ll never live in a world in which everybody’s talking about the San Diego Padres. But we’re living in a world in which people are gradually remembering that the San Diego Padres are a baseball team. A pretty decent baseball team, with more talent on the way.