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August 14, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Perceptions

by Joe Sheehan

Maybe it's an Adam Eaton effect, maybe it's my unnatural affection for Ruben Rivera or maybe it's just that I'll be in the city next weekend, but I would really like to know why no one, anywhere, considers the San Diego Padres a contender.

The Padres are 57-61, in last place in the National League West. That's the bad news. The good news is that they're just 8 1/2 games out of first place and chasing a collection of teams with enough holes to supply a couple of golf courses. The Padres have won 12 of 15, are getting excellent pitching from a young, high-upside rotation and have even started scoring a few runs in support of that rotation.

Crazy? Just two weeks ago, your favorite sports Web sites were filled with news of how the Chicago Cubs were making a big run at the NL Central title. At that point, the Cubs were 49-55 and had just gotten their deficit under 10 games, primarily on the strength of an effective rotation and a rebuilt bullpen.

The difference, of course, is that the Cubs play in Chicago and have Sammy Sosa, Kerry Wood and a media-favorite manager. The Cubs were supposed to contend, so when they won nine of ten in July to sniff .500 and get within 8 1/2 games of the Cardinals, "The Cubs Are Coming" rang from the rooftops. The Padres haven't been a national story since Mark Langston just missed with a 2-2 pitch in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the 1998 World Series.

The similarities between the two situations are striking. Comparable records, comparable hot streaks, even some comparable strengths and weaknesses. Neither team has quality young position players, getting by with lineups heavy on veterans and low-upside young players. Neither team is over- or underplaying its Pythagorean projection significantly, so luck hasn't been a factor in their success.

Do I think the Padres will win the NL West? No. They have problems scoring runs and other than Trevor Hoffman, their bullpen is a bit frightening. Their last two weeks have been filled with a healthy helping of Phillies, Marlins and Cubs, and it's hard to imagine them scoring enough runs to stay in the race. They visit Atlanta this week, which could be the death knell for their hot streak.

Then again, say they win two of three. Now they're coming home for a week to play the Expos and Mets, after which they don't play a good team until September 7. If they even win 13 of their next 21, they move to within six or seven games of the top and probably jump over the Rockies into fourth place.

Any team within 8 1/2 games of the division lead in the middle of August deserves to at least be noticed, even by a random columnist at an out-of-the-way Web site. Even if the Padres never get any closer than they are right now--and I think they will--know that they weren't just another team playing out the three months after the All-Star break.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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