Despite Fade, Padres Worth Celebrating
Hail to the field personnel of the San Diego Padres. Great praise to a team that had only one good hitter yet extracted 90 victories from the journey that ended Sunday in defeat.
Huzzahs for the National League's best bullpen, for a 22-year-old hothead who matured into an ace, for the pitching gurus who ran the show and for the overachieving role players who stuffed the roster.
Take a bow one and all, gentlemen. Collect your silver medals on the way to the golf courses and the offseason resorts and hunting lodges. Seven months ago, after the Vegas sharks pegged you for 71 wins and either fourth place or last, you insisted that you would contend for the playoffs.
Most of us laughed. Here at West Coast Bias, I forecast 79 wins and fourth for you, ahead of only the Arizona Garden Snakes. Then you finished second in the National League West. You took the pitching-rich San Francisco Giants to a meaningful 162nd game.
As the Great Recession gripped your city, you returned fair value on the entertainment dollar.
You aided your club's desperate ticket sales staff, which is burdened with beefing up a season-ticket base that fell from 20,000 to 8,700 in the six years since your publicly financed ballpark opened.
Seemingly with each passing week, the baseball world predicted your collapse, yet you kept fooling the smart crowd.
You ended up seven games ahead of the more talented Colorado Rockies, and 10 ahead of the paycheck-stealing Los Angeles Dodgers.
You won 11 more games than the New York Mets, the boring Evil Coasters who nonetheless lived on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball.
You outpaced by four victories a St. Louis Cardinals team that drew rabid support in Flyover Land, and had Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter, plus a genius in charge.
With the next-to-last payroll in the majors, you amassed 33 more victories than the team with the lowest payroll -- the profit-turning con artists from Pittsburgh.
You bettered by one victory The Matrix, whose computers on Yawkey Way did not compute that as a possibility.
Good stuff, gentlemen, but don't forget about what might have been. Somewhere, you must find something to steel yourself for the next playoff race, assuming you can get back into one.
With 37 games to go, you were 6 1/2 games ahead of the Giants.
You didn't choke. You succumbed. To the cold calculus of thin talent margins. To the stress of a pennant race. To Bruce Bochy's well-managed Giants pitching staff that closed the season on a historic roll. To the momentum of a losing streak that stretched too far in reaching 10 games, your worst since 1994.
We'll call it the Big Fade. Different from asphyxiation, it usually felt more like a restoration of the law of the averages.
You were 76-49 on Aug. 26, the best record in the NL. Some sort of correction was all but inevitable later in the season. You had gone the nearly five months without losing more than three games in a row -- a minor miracle even for great teams. Contrary to common perception and the scouts' evaluation of your talent, your sum-is-greater-than-the-parts offense then was league average or better, when ballpark factors were applied by Baseball-Reference.com.
I'd never seen so many hits from bloops, bleeders, Baltimore chops, San Diego quails and Ducksnorts (which is also the name of a popular Padres blog).
Exploiting the flaws of your foes, some of whom were ill-prepared, your running game had achieved vital gains early in the season.
You got the jump on them, but as the summer unfolded, the dummies had smartened up. Some of your forays became reckless.
Your bullpen inspired awe among even grizzled scouts. Your best middle reliever -- Ryan Webb -- had better stuff than many teams' setup men. As the summer wore on, though, Luke Gregerson stopped being nearly perfect.
You outhustled opponents. Hearing your second baseman David Eckstein, who owns two World Series rings, you excelled at making winning the day's only objective.
Thus, you exploited the Winning Is Secondary market inefficiency that pervades the league. "Best chemistry I've ever seen on any team," said Padres baserunning instructor Dave Roberts, who played for several franchises, including the Red Sox team that won the 2004 World Series. "The Padres played the game right," said Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson, a former star for the Tigers and Dodgers.
You enjoyed terrific health, comparatively speaking.
But then injuries struck down some key role players, notably Jerry Hairston Jr.
Could your front office have done more to strengthen your position?
Perhaps, but likely doubtful.
The rookie general manager, Jed Hoyer, who has hit for a high batting average since last November, cheaply found you a pretty good shortstop in July. Miguel Tejada gave you eight home runs, 32 RBI and reliable defense in 59 games.
Alas, like the Padres shoppers before him, Hoyer discovered that it's risky business to import a hitter from the hitter-friendly National League Central to San Diego's pitcher-friendly ballpark and the pitching-strong NL West. Ryan Ludwick batted .211 in his 59 games for you. He wasn't what your giddy fans expected when you got him from the Cardinals. West Coast Bias had seen it before from NL Central transfers.
Will your accomplishments set up greater feats in 2011 and beyond?
Let's wait and see. I've already heard scouts predict a sharp decline.
It does appear that you developed an interesting group of starting pitchers. After entering the year as a talented question mark, Mat Latos, averaged more than a strikeout per inning, posted a 2.92 ERA and drew consideration for the Cy Young Award. Latos went into September slump, yet in his only October outing, in front of another great crowd in San Francisco, he gave a B-plus performance in the 162nd game. Left-hander Clayton Richard, 26, contributed 201 2/3 innings and a 3.75 ERA in his first full season. All the way back from shoulder problems dating to 2003, Tim Stauffer showed why he was selected fourth overall in the 2003 draft. He toyed with the Giants in the 161st game. Stauffer ended up with an ERA of 1.85 in 82 2/3 innings and a 1.83 ERA in seven starts.
Your one good hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, will be back in 2011, his walk year into free agency. He could be traded next summer or lost in free agency for two compensatory draft picks after the 2011 season.
Gonzalez deserves to return to October baseball, which he tasted with the 2006 Padres, who were ousted in four games by the Cardinals. The product of south San Diego and Tijuana would rather reach a World Series with his childhood favorites -- but it's been since 1998 that the Padres last won a playoff series.
FanHouse TV's Steve Phillips breaks down the two NLDS matchups. Click to watch: