Later today, I’ll be headed down to San Diego to see the Padres and Giants, part of BP’s Ballpark Feed event. We’ll have Sandy Alderson, Dave Pease and Barry Bonds, which is a pretty solid lineup, all things considered. I’ll actually see the Giants twice in eight days, as I’m due to catch them in L.A. next weekend as well.

For now, though, I want to focus on the Padres, a team about which I believe I’ve written exactly nothing since running my NL West preview. They’ve just been grinding this year, lacking the hot streaks of the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Rockies, but also avoiding any kind of the extended slump. Not one Padre is having an attention-getting season–nominal star Jake Peavy has been inconsistent–but the package has been good for a 41-37 record, the second-best run differential in the division, and a spot atop the West.

The offense is slightly above average, putting up a .263 EqA, seventh in the NL. As mentioned in the chat session yesterday, the Padres have displayed very little power, 15th in the league in slugging and isolated power, leading to a #15 ranking in runs scored as well. (The Cubs are last in both. Jim Hendry’s contract extension hasn’t kicked in yet, by the way.) It’s hard to separate their offense from the environment, though. Petco Park remains the best pitchers’ park in the game, depressing run scoring by 10%. I’m comfortable with what EqA tells us: this is an average offensive team playing in double gravity.

Of course, that environment means you have to deflate the pitching numbers accordingly. The Padres have allowed the fewest runs in the league and have posted the lowest ERA. When you look at the sabermetric stats, you see that…well, that they’ve been terrific. The Padres are in the top three in MLB in pitchers’ VORP, in Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement (for starters) and in Win Expectation (for relievers). While the park drives down the team’s raw numbers, the performance of this pitching staff is no illusion: it’s possibly the best in the National League.

I think we tend to worry more about adjusting for park effects at the high-offense end of the spectrum. Petco Park, though, is nearly as extreme at one end as Coors Field used to be at the other, back before they started using Nerf baseballs up there. It’s important to consider the context for all performances in all environments.

Why is the pitching so good? Well, they get a lot of help from the defense, which is first in the NL in Defensive Efficiency. Last year’s team finished 13th in the NL. The hurlers themselves have the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in the NL at 2.40, driven by a 15th-in-NL figure of 226 walks allowed. The Padres throw strikes and get ahead of hitters, and get more than their share of strikeouts: 6.8 K/9 puts them behind just the Brewers, Mets and Diamondbacks in the NL

The staff’s breakout star has been Chris Young, who has 88 strikeouts against 37 walks in 97 innings. Over the winter, I though the Rangers would win the deal that sent Young to San Diego, but every day that passes without an Adam Eaton start is one more on which Young can make headway. As mentioned, Peavy has not followed up his own breakout campaign well, seeing his home-run total rise. And while the Padres are allowing around a .280 BABIP on the whole, that figure rises to .309 with Peavy on the mound. If he’s healthy, he should return to his 2004-05 form shortly. Chan Ho Park has inexplicably become a useful pitcher again, in year five of his legendary five-year contract. It’s not a sexy rotation, but it has been an effective one.

The Pads’ bullpen has again been lights-out behind the work of Trevor Hoffman and Scott Linebrink. Behind those two, as had often been the case under Kevin Towers, the Pads are getting good work from retreads: Scott Cassidy has a 2.43 ERA, with 39 strikeouts in 37 innings. Brian Sweeney has put the defense to work, with a 2.56 ERA despite a 13/11 K/BB in 39 2/3 innings. Even Alan Embree has meandered back towards usefulness, with a terrific 34/6 K/BB in 30 innings. Other than Sweeney, all of these guys are posting peripherals in line with their ERAs, and making it very difficult for opponents to win games late. The Padres’ bullpen is by far the biggest reason for their success in 2006.

Adjusting for context makes the Padres’ offense look a bit better, but it’s hard to whitewash the OBP sinks that populate their infield. Adrian Gonzalez leads the group with a .319 mark, while the young middle infield of Khalil Greene and Josh Barfield have each come in under .315. It is very difficult to sustain an offense with this many low OBP players, as the Astros have repeatedly shown. Mike Piazza‘s raw numbers aren’t terrific, but he does lead Padre regulars in OPS, and is also the team leader in homers and slugging. Add in a productive outfield, and you see that the Padres are halfway to an effective offense. The return of Ryan Klesko would seem to address the first-base situation, but Klesko is a butcher at the bag and may not even be able to match Gonzalez’s overall value. There’s little room for him in the outfield once Dave Roberts returns, either, and as I’ve written before, the 400-foot power alleys at Petco Park don’t lend themselves to troglodyte corner outfielders.

Given the commitments the Padres have to the young infielders, there isn’t much they can do to upgrade the offense. Getting Vinny Castilla out of the lineup in favor of Mark Bellhorn is a stathead-friendly play, but Bellhorn hasn’t exactly forced his way into the lineup (.219/.296/.430). Upgrading third base via trade (Corey Koskie?) is the most direct way the Padres can reasonably improve the lineup. It may come down to wishcasting development for Greene and Barfield.

I can’t really be sheepish about going three months between mentions of the Padres. While larded with familiar faces, even some Hall of Famers, this is a team without a hook. The bullpen has been very good and the defense excellent, and those are the biggest reasons the Pads are in first place. There is no obvious reason they can’t stay there, although the roster’s lack of upside, especially as compared to the other NL West contenders, means that their fate is as much dependent on the Dodgers and Diamondbacks not finding their way to 88 wins as it is on anything they’ll do.

The 2006 Padres are basically the 2005 Padres with a better defense and a bit less new-park smell. That might be enough.