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September 13, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Padres' Playoff Chances

by Marc Normandin

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On the morning of August 26, the Padres found themselves 6 1/2 games up on the second-place Giants in the National League West. The Friars had just finished off an 8-2 stretch that saw them push their playoff odds into the 90 percent and higher range, and with one game remaining in a series with the Diamondbacks, a three-game weekend series against the Phillies and then a slew of inter-divisional series, it looked as if they could finish off their playoff chase before anyone else in the NL.

Things did not go according to plan though, and Padres lost to the D’backs that day, which kicked off a 10-game losing streak. The Giants, who were closest to the Padres in the division standings, did not fare that well themselves over that 10-game stretch, but managed to close the gap to two games when their shot at San Diego came up this past weekend. After taking three of four from the reeling Padres at Petco Park, the two clubs now find themselves in a virtual tie for the division lead with the Padres leading by one percentage point.

Just as much of a concern as the Giants for the Padres are the ever-dangerous Rockies. Colorado is now just 1 ½ games behind thanks to a 10-game winning streak. The NL West, all of a sudden, looks like what so many people expected the American League East to look like at this stage of the season (before it became a requirement for every Red Sox player to spend time on the disabled list), with three teams within shouting distance of each other. The difference with the NL West, though, is the two finishers aren't locks to get to the playoffs because the resurgent Phillies in the NL East have made the battle for the wild card interesting.

The Padres have been in first place after 124 of their 142 games in 2010. With just 20 games left, is this a position San Diego can stay in or is it time for the Friars to start praying?

First, let's get an idea of why they have played so poorly as of late. Injuries have been a concern, as Jerry Hairston Jr., who played multiple positions in both the infield and outfield and had amassed 1.8 WARP despite his intended role as a utility player, went on the disabled list on August 28 (and only pinch-ran on August 27). Tony Gwynn Jr. doesn't get the recognition he deserves, but he has been one of the finest center fielders in all of baseball this year despite a .246 TAv. Thin Gwynn can range as well as almost anyone in baseball in center, and the Padres' outfield depth has been compromised by needing to replace him in the lineup. Gwynn has been out with a broken hand since August 19, and Will Venable, Chris Denorfia, and Luis Durango have all split time replacing him in center. While all three are quality defenders, none of them are Gwynn, and having them in center means you lose plus defense in a corner and a bat off the bench.

Ryan Ludwick, the right fielder acquired from the Cardinals on July 31, has been mired in a slump as of late, bringing his season line down to .259/.330/.439. He's hit just .238/.320/.364 since the All-Star break, well off from his first-half production (.273/.337/.485), which is more in line with what the Padres should have been expecting from him. Were Gwynn still around, the Padres may be able to spell Ludwick, but with Scott Hairston (.217/.301/.357), Matt Stairs (.217/.298/.386), and Oscar Salazar (.229/.319/.297) the left-field options (Denorfia or Venable would move to right in lieu of Ludwick's rest), this hasn't exactly been an option for the club.

In the rotation, things are not looking good towards the back. Kevin Correia has been better than his ERA suggests, but adjusted ERA doesn't count in the standings, and it's tough to win games behind a 5.46 pitcher. The Padres quietly removed Wade LeBlanc from the rotation when September began, as he has had issues locating his pitches and is oftentimes a homer away from exploding in his starts. These two almost single-handedly caused the bullpen to be overworked in August, as they averaged 5 1/3 innings per start—LeBlanc's ERA for the month was 6.47, while Correia's was 7.20.

That's a whole lot of bad, and explains why the Padres have slid, but the important question going forward is what happens now? Gwynn hopes to be back for the last two weeks of the regular season after having the broken hamate bone removed from his hand. Given he doesn't need his hand to run in the outfield, the Padres could use him even if he isn't 100 percent. Jerry Hairston was activated on Sunday, and now adds to both the infield and outfield depth. The back end of the rotation has already been fixed, with Cory Luebke (a September call-up: 11 innings, 10 K, 3 BB, 4 R over two starts) and Tim Stauffer (a 3.69 SIERA, 6.9 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, and 1.6 G/F ratio in 2010) sliding in, and Chris Young may even end up making an appearance if need be after going on the disabled list in early April after making only one start. That answers all non-Ludwick related questions from the past few weeks, and means the Padres should be better going forward than they have been lately.

Their schedule may have something else to say, though. The Padres need to get through the Rockies and Giants in order to get to the postseason. Beginning today, San Diego finishes its season series with the Rockies with the first of three games in Colorado. Thus, there is a very real chance the Padres could find themselves in third place by the time they get to St. Louis on Thursday for the opener of a four-game series against the Cardinals. The key, outside of surviving this set with the Rockies, is going to be taking advantage of inferior teams as they play the Cardinals (.521 winning percentage), Dodgers (.493), and Cubs (.434) in 10 of their remaining 20 contests. The Padres also have three at home against a Reds team that is becoming more dangerous thanks to improved defensive play, an additional arm in the pen and a powerful lineup, and finish the season with three in San Francisco.

As of today, the Padres' playoff odds stand at 46 percent, the Giants at 55 percent, and the Rockies at 34 percent, and for all three clubs the bulk of the percentage sits in the division champions' column rather than the wild card. There could be a significant swing for the Padres or Rockies depending on the outcome of the next three games, but the fact that the odds are still this close shows you how tough it is going to be for all three clubs down the stretch, not just the one who seems to have faded.

The Padres' destiny in 2010 remains in their hands, and they are still in first place, if just barely. The Padres have little room for error but neither do the Rockies and Giants. They play each other at the end of September and neither has it much easier than the Padres from here on out. The schedule may not be soft, but the fact that the Padres have a roster strong enough to have been in first place for the vast majority of the season and are second in the NL with a +100 run differential gives reason to be optimistic even with an evaporated lead.

Related Content:  The Streak,  The Who,  Padres,  Giants Outfield

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