Jason Follain. 27th April, 2010 - 3:26 pm
Before the 2010 season began, vegas.com published the odds of the San Diego Padres winning the World Series at 200 to 1. That figure tied them with the Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians for worst in all of MLB. If you?re thinking what I?m thinking, you were shocked to hear that someone gave them a worse chance of winning it all than the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team diligently working on a consecutive season streak of losing records that currently stands at 17. This is the kind of odds you would expect for a team with the second lowest payroll figure in Major League Baseball.
The most noteworthy news surrounding the Padres this offseason involved trading away their starting third baseman of the past three years to complete the Hairston duet and the day-in, day-out musings regarding the future of local boy done good Adrian Gonzalez. The point here is that despite closing out the final 43 games of 2009 with a 26-17 record to finish the season with a surprising 75 wins, the youth movement in San Diego was expected to be a whole lot of youth and very little movement in the standings in 2010.
To everyone?s surprise in the National League, the Padres have surged out of the gates to lead the western division after the season?s first three weeks. While aided by an eight-game winning streak, Padres opponents will attest to the fact that the pitching staff they have assembled in San Diego is a force to be reckoned with early on. Most notably, it has been the bullpen that has been fantastic. Aside closer Heath Bell, the relief corps is mainly comprised of minor league vagabonds waiting for their chance. Three hurlers in particular have seized the opportunity to get on manager Bud Black?s good side. All three relievers cut their teeth in the big leagues last season with San Diego, but 2010 has proven to be their time to show that they belong with the big club for good.
In all fairness, Luke Gregerson, once the infamous player to be named later in the trade that sent Khalil Greene to St. Louis, had an extremely efficient season for the Padres in 2009. He finished the season fourth among NL relievers in strikeouts per nine innings with 11.16, a statistic that is startling for a guy that averaged just 91.1 mph with his fastball. He featured a devastating slider that, according to fangraphs.com pitch values, was the most successful pitch of its kind among NL relievers. In 2010, he hasn?t done anything to suggest that he won?t continue along the same trail he blazed the year before. During the Padres? success early on, Gregerson has posted an impressive 2.61 ERA, but the beauty lies in his peripheral stats. These include a batting average against of .121, a .58 WHIP, and only two walks in 10 1/3 innings compared to 11 strikeouts. Since his arrival in the major leagues, Gregerson has been one of the better setup men in the NL and it doesn?t look like he is slowing up anytime soon.
The second piece to the San Diego setup triumvirate is right-hander Edward Mujica. Mujica was obtained from Cleveland in exchange for that elusive player to be named later (are you sensing a theme here?) just prior to the 2009 season in which he wound up making 63 relief appearances as well as four starts for the Friars. Last season, he could safely be described as slightly above average, but his last few weeks have shown that he may be taking a stride forward in his development. In Mujica?s attempt to step up to the next tier of NL relief pitchers, he has posted eerily similar numbers to Gregerson. In 11 2/3 innings, he has accumulated 12 strikeouts versus 2 walks, a .132 BAA and a .60 WHIP, all leading to a 2.31 ERA. It hasn?t all been smooth sailing as he has given up 3 home runs in this season?s infancy, but lady luck has been on his side because they all came with the bases empty. These also happen to be the only runs he has given up thus far.
Rounding out this impressive trio is starter turned reliever Tim Stauffer. For someone who has bounced between AAA and the majors for the past five years, Stauffer has taken to relieving like a fish to water. As a starter, he had posted a bevy of wholly uninspiring statistics that include a 5.15 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 5.9 strikeouts and 3.8 walks per nine innings. At age 27, it looks as if Stauffer has found his calling. In 10 1/3 innings, he has yet to give up an earned run by striking out almost 3 more batters per nine innings than his career average. While it is unlikely that he will sustain such a disparate rate compared to what he has racked up in his time as a starter in the big leagues, it is possible that being able to let it all hang out for an inning or two could result in a significant increase in his strikeout rate. The improvement has been even more impressive with respect to his walk totals. Throughout his major league stints, he has accumulated a walk rate of 3.59 per nine innings. That is a far cry from the 0.87 rate he has displayed in 2010. He has yet to give up a home run and has held opponents to a measly .194 batting average and .77 WHIP. Since the act of relieving is new to Stauffer, there is no telling if these statistics have any chance of holding up over the balance of a full season. The Padres can only hope that Stauffer has been miscast as a starter for all these years and destiny is currently working its magic.
The starting rotation that San Diego has assembled has been nearly as remarkable as their bullpen counterparts. Their best starter, Chris Young, has been injured since he threw six innings of shutout, one-hit ball in his first start of the year. You would think that this would spell doom for an otherwise unheralded rotation, but it has been anything but that. Through Sunday?s games, the starter with the highest ERA, 3.75, is Clayton Richard, who was one of the main components that the Padres were able to obtain in the Jake Peavy trade last summer. Youngster Mat Latos and his blazing fastball have impressed in the early going, but he hasn?t yet begun to rack up the impressive strikeout numbers that he did in his minor league career. Like Monday?s clunker of a start, there will undoubtedly be bumps in the road for a young arm like Latos (he is only 22 year old), but, then again, he wouldn?t be at the major league level already if San Diego didn?t think he had the stuff on the mound, and in between the ears, for that matter, to be there.
The two veteran starters, Jon Garland and Kevin Correia, have been steadying influences on the younger members of the rotation, not to mention they have given their team a chance to win. There are few certainties in baseball, but one of them is Jon Garland. A sure bet to make 32 starts, something he has done every year since 2002, Garland is the definition of an innings eater. He will not dominate on the mound, but something he will do is actually show up every fifth day. This is the kind of stability a young team needs from a veteran. Kevin Correia, who for years attempted unsuccessfully to become a regular contributor to the division rival Giants, tossed just under 200 innings of 3.91 ERA ball in 2009 and looks to continue his steady presence on the mound. Through four starts, Correia has accumulated 22 strikeouts against nine walks to the tune of a 3.13 ERA. Not bad for a guy that the Padres considered a non-tender candidate in the offseason.
While San Diego has relied on their pitching staff to anchor their fast start, their offense has performed better than expected due to the breakout of a couple prospects. Adrian Gonzalez is obviously the offensive monster in the lineup and NL opponents are well aware of this. Like men wearing skinny jeans and women sporting sunglasses that cover their entire face, pitching around him had become quite the fad last year as he racked up more intentional walks than anyone in baseball not named Albert Pujols. Obviously, for the Padres to be successful, someone else needed to step up to the plate (pun intended).
It looks as though one Chase Headley is proving to be one of the players doing just that. Before the 2008 season, Headley was considered by many as one of the premier third base prospects in the minor leagues. In fact, Baseball Prospectus?s Kevin Goldstein ranked him as the 23rd best prospect overall at the time. Since moving back to third base this season after spending most of last season in left field, he has looked much more comfortable on offense and defense. A switch hitter with power potential who plays a slick third base is a rare commodity in this day and age, which is exactly what Headley is proving himself to be. The Padres recently moved him to the cleanup spot in the lineup due to his .873 OPS. This is quite the confidence builder and it seems as though he is finally living up to the hype that was thrust upon him early in his career.
Another, however less heralded, prospect is also proving that he would like to stick with the big club for good. What he lacks in hype, he makes up for in big league pedigree. The son of former journeyman outfielder Max Venable, Will Venable is looking to make a name for himself. While he would like to follow in his father?s footsteps with respect to being a bona fide major leaguer, he hopes to provide an offensive punch that dear old dad sorely lacked. His pretty swing has produced a .547 SLG% thus far and while his career minor and major league number don?t suggest that he will sustain this level of power, the rest of his game is strong enough to warrant a spot in the every day lineup. Who knows, maybe one day the best major league hitter in the family won?t be named Max?
More and more every day, the NL West is becoming a stronger division so tightly bunched that it makes it difficult to predict a winner. While it is unrealistic to assume that this young Padre team will continue this level of success throughout the 2010 season, they are proving that they are not the 95+ loss team that some projected them to be. Backed by a pitching staff that is exceeding all expectations and an offense that is finally showing life outside of Adrian Gonzalez, there is hope on the horizon for the baseball club out of America?s Finest City.