The matchup was quite ironic.
Two franchises, one in the process of rebuilding and just four losses away from an 18th consecutive losing season, the other thought to be in need of retooling but instead leading its division, clashed in a three-game series between the lowest-payroll teams in the major leagues last week at Petco Park in San Diego.
Despite such similar payrolls—the Padres at approximately $38 million and the Pirates hovering around $34 million—the clubs are playing at such different levels. The Padres lead the National League West by 3 ½ games. The Pirates have the worst record in the major leagues with a 39-78 mark.
Last season, the Padres finished 75-87, fourth in the NL West and 20 games behind the division-winning Dodgers. The Padres were a rebuilding team trying piece itself together. Who knew that the very next year, they would have the best record in the NL?
Outfielder Tony Gwynn, son of the Padres' legend, explained how the Friars have surprised.
“You’ve got some talent here," Gwynn said. "You've got some youth, and you’ve got your veterans. I think, most importantly, you’ve got a coaching staff that’s willing to teach, especially a lot last year. That had a big impact on how we finished the season last year. Our second-half schedule was pretty much all teams that were in playoff contention. You get a little bit of confidence against those teams, regardless if we had nothing to play for. But, we treated it as if we did. I think that just carried over. Guys take that confidence over, and they know they can play at this level.”
The Padres went 37-25 in their last 62 games in 2009 after going 38-62 in their first 100. They followed that with a terrific spring training in which they won 18 of their last 20 exhibition then had a 15-8 April that included an eight-game winning streak. The team’s success continued as the season rolled along, but to bolster their playoff chances, the Padres felt they needed to add more pieces and traded for shortstop Miguel Tejada and right fielder Ryan Ludwick at the trade deadline.
Tejada and Ludwick, combined with the off-season signing of free-agent catcher Yorvit Torrealba, brought a history of success to the Padres. Torrealba spent four seasons in Colorado, where he was a part of two post-season berths and one NL pennant winner. Tejada was the American League MVP with Oakland in 2002, and Ludwick was selected to play in the All-Star Game and won an NL Silver Slugger in 2008.
Gwynn acknowledged that kind of veteran presence and youth has led to a strong clubhouse atmosphere. He also pointed out that leading the major leagues in runs allowed with an average of 3.42 a game helps create an upbeat attitude.
“We've got a really good chemistry in here," Gwynn said. "When you pitch and play defense, and you do it like we have, you’re going to be involved in every game. The numbers don’t say it as far as average or power-wise, but when runners are in scoring position or we need to move runners over. We play the game right. Our pitching staff and defense always keeps us in the game, or at least closing range where we don’t need to go out and score four or five runs. When you get a staff like ours, you’re going to be successful.”
Ludwick, who left a contending team when he was traded by the Cardinals, said he is impressed by the amount of talent that surrounds him.
“From an outsider looking in… The bullpen, in my opinion, is the best in baseball," Ludwick said. "The starters have done a good job all year long. They mix in some timely hitting. The thing that brings that all together is the great chemistry in here, just great chemistry in this locker room. They play the game the right way.”
Padres starter Kevin Correia echoed Ludwick’s praise of his team’s bullpen.
“We got guys other teams would love to have," Correia said. "[Ryan] Webb was sent down recently, and he was pitching great. [The pitching] has just been contagious all year. As the group goes, you go. And look, we’re not a power hitting team. It all comes down to our bullpen. You get the wins when the ‘pen can hold those leads. That’s where those funks come from, if they can’t do that."
The Padres haven't been in any funks this season. They have not had a losing streak longer than three games.
The Pirates, on the other hand, have had seven losing streaks of at least five games. It seems, at least on the surface, that their latest youth movement is going nowhere like so many before them. However, Correia believes the Pirates are on the right track, even if they are playing at a dismal .333 clip.
"They've got real talent,” Correia said. "They remind me of us last year. Our young guys have developed quicker. But, the Pirates have a good young core. Think about us. No one thought we’d be here [in first place]. There are guys that can hit on that team, no doubt about it.”
What has seemed to be an endless rebuilding process for the Buccos still continues to be an ongoing endeavor for general manager Neal Huntington and his crew, though the lineup shows promise with rookies Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Neil Walker along with second-year center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The surfeit of young talent has added some hope to a seemingly hopeless situation.
“I think they’re definitely headed in the right direction,” Ludwick said. "The youth in McCutchen, Tabata, and Alvarez—I don’t think you can expect a ton out of them right now, as a team. [Most of them] are just getting their feet wet. But with experience, I definitely think that team is going to get better.”
One way in which the Pirates have tried to mimic the Padres is by building a strong late-inning relief corps. All-Star set-up man Evan Meek (16.4 VORP) has pitched well in his first full major-league season. While his 0.64 WXRL is nothing special his 16.4 VORP leads all Pirates pitchers. Joel Hanrahan (1.92 WXRL) is getting another chance to close now that Octavio Dotel has been traded to the Dodgers. Hanrahan twice lost the closer's job with the Nationals last season but has made strides this season. The Pirates bullpen, though, doesn't compare to the Padres yet as their team WXRL is 4.48, compared to San Diego's major league-leading 13.83.
Heath Bell may be getting most of the credit as the team’s closer as he has 4.70 WXRL and 35 saves in 38 opportunities, but Luke Gregerson (2.30 WXRL) and Mike Adams (2.99 WXRL) have also played a major role in anchoring the Padres' relief corps.
“A team like the Padres, with such a low payroll, doing so well is amazing," Meek said. "They’ve got really good arms in that ‘pen, guys that could do some things for you at the end of ball games. We’ve brought in guys here who [at some point] could do the same thing. But the Padres, they’ve just clicked. We’re maturing, and still learning how to get to that point. We’ve got young guys here—Pedro, Neil, Tabata. I hope we’re done trading everyone away at this point. We need to build a foundation, just like the Padres have done.”
Starting pitcher Jeff Karstens, a San Diego native, believes the Pirates can learn from watching a team like the Padres.
"They play very good baseball—getting guys over, playing small ball,"he said. "The direction of the club has started to work. That’s what we need to do. But, it has to translate for each guy here. At times we’ve pressed. You haven’t seen that [with the Padres]. There are adjustments that have to be made for us."
The Padres have learned how to play winning baseball at the big-league level, whereas the Pirates have not. However, Gwynn thinks the Pirates’ situation is far from hopeless.
“They have talent," Gwynn said. "They have guys who are capable of playing good baseball. Hopefully, this learning experience and last year’s learning experience will make them better for the next few years.”
Jesse Behr is a Baseball Prospectus intern.