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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.