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The Padres were the darlings of baseball at this time last year.

At 22 games over .500, they were the surprise leaders in the National League West with a 3 1/2-game lead, pretty amazing stuff for a team that was almost unanimously picked to finish last in its division.

The Padres' 2010 season had a sad ending. A 10-game losing streak that spanned the last six days of August and the first five days of September led to the Padres being eliminated from the NL West and wild card races on the final days of the regular season.

The Padres went into the winter feeling frustrated despite posting their first 90-win season since capturing the NL pennant in 1998. That frustration has not completely dissipated.

Finances forced the Padres to trade first baseman/hometown hero Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox in December as his impending free agency approached.  A 10-17 April essentially buried the team this season, and the Pads are now 54-68 and playing out the string in what will be a fifth consecutive season without a post-season berth.

"It's been a frustrating year," said third baseman Chase Headley, who suffered a broken pinkie finger early this month that may sideline him for the rest of the season. "We've been in a lot of games but haven't been able to get the one hit we need or we kick a ball here or there. In the big leagues, there is not lot of a margin for error. On any given night in the major leagues, a team can play well. To be successful, though, you have to be consistent, and we haven't been that way this year. We need to get back to playing consistently good baseball."

The Padres have played better lately, having won seven of their last 11 games. Yet they are still in last place in the NL West.

"The one thing we've consistently done all season is play hard," manager Bud Black said. "We're still the scrappy Pads."

Not surprisingly, though, the Padres' problem has been offense. Playing their home games at Petro Park, which suppresses scoring more than any ballpark in the major leagues, coupled with the loss of Gonzalez, has been too much to overcome. While journeyman first baseman Jesus Guzman has provided a lift by posting a .333 True Average in 139 plate appearances since being called up from Triple-A Tucson, the Padres are 14th in the NL and 27th in the major leagues with an average of 3.73 runs a game.

The Padres made two low-budget free agent moves in the offseason in an attempt to cover for the loss of Gonzalez, but both failed miserably. Brad Hawpe had a .233 TAv in 216 plate appearances before succumbing to season-ending Tommy John elbow surgery, and Jorge Cantu drew his release after posting a .184 TAv in 155 PA. Second baseman Orlando Hudson has also struggled with a .254 TAv after being signed to a two-year, $10 million contract as a free agent last winter. Outfielder Ryan Ludwick, acquired from the Cardinals at last year's trading deadline, was dealt to the Pirates at this year's deadline after notching a .249 TAv.

"We made some moves in the winter we thought would continue the momentum we had last year, but it didn't happen for a number of reasons," Black said.

The Padres are now taking an extended look at a trio of 24-year-olds on a regular basis in third baseman James Darnell, left fielder Kyle Blanks, and center fielder Cameron Maybin, who has been a bright spot with a .278 TAv in 424 plate appearances. Coming off Tommy John surgery, Blanks has a .304 TAv in 72 PA.

"We've had to regroup and restabilize ourselves," Black said. "We're going to keep bringing up young players and make some hard evaluations about them. We want to see exactly who can be part of this as we move forward."

The evaluations of the pitchers figure to be more favorable, as the Padres are allowing just 3.80 runs a game, ranking fourth in the NL and fifth in the majors. Though losing left-hander Clayton Richard to shoulder surgery last month was a blow, the Padres feel they have three quality pitchers to build their rotation around in lefty Cory Luebke (2.61 FIP), Mat Latos (3.22), and Tim Stauffer (3.95)

The Padres' bullpen has been strong, as its 3.07 ERA is third in the majors behind the Braves and Giants, both with a 2.92. However, top set-up man Mike Adams (2.09 FIP) was dealt to the Rangers at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, and closer Heath Bell (2.89) could be the next to go if he clears waivers this month, though the San Diego County native says he is willing to take a significant discount to stay with the Padres. Luke Gregerson (3.21) has had another fine season in a set-up role.

The trades of Gonzalez and Adams and the possible loss of Bell reflect the reality of playing in one of baseball's smallest markets. Though owner Jeff Moorad says next year's payroll will be higher that this year's season-opening $37 million figure and probably at least $50 million, the Padres will never be among the game's biggest spenders. Moorad believes the franchise will never be able to sustain a payroll much over $70 million.

"Mike is a really good pitcher and that's not a secret to anybody, but that's the business side of baseball, and you try not to get worked up about it," Gregerson said. "We're a small-market team and we don't have a big payroll. You have three good years and start to make some money and there's a chance you could be the traded. That's just the situation we have here, and you learn to live with it."

If Bell leaves and middle reliever Chad Qualls departs as a free agent in the winter, Gregerson could become the leader of a bullpen in 2012 that will likely see lefty Josh Spence take on a bigger role. Spence has a 3.38 FIP in 22 1/3 innings just a year after the Australian was drafted from Arizona State.

"Whenever you pitch well, you always have a chance to stick around and be a factor," Black said. "I think we're going to be able to keep our pitching and let it grow. We've got some young guys who are still growing and going to get better. We've got some young guys in the minors that we like. Overall, we're optimistic moving forward. I don't want to give a timetable when we'll get back to what we were last year last year, but I think we're headed back in the right direction now after the bad start to the season."

Rumors and Rumblings: The Phillies are looking to make a waiver trade for a second left-handed reliever in hopes that they can keep Antonio Bastardo fresh for the postseason… There is growing speculation that Cal Ripken Jr. could be in line to take over the Orioles' baseball operations next season, especially with Andy MacPhail in the last year of his contract and uncertain whether he will return if asked back… The Angels have at least some interest in reacquiring Athletics designated hitter Hideki Matsui if he clears waivers… Cubs rookie outfielder Tony Campana believes he is the fastest man in the major leagues and wishes Major League Baseball would add a 60-yard dash competition to the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game. Campana told the Chicago Tribune that he would include Brewers center fielder Nyjer Morgan, Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon, and Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner in a race to see who is the fastest player… Indians manager Manny Acta is so enamored of rookie second baseman Jason Kipnis that he is comparing him to the Red Sox' Dustin Pedroia and the Phillies' Chase Utley… Tigers closer Jose Valverde has set a club record by converting each of his 35 save opportunities this season, breaking the record of 32 in a row set by Guillermo Hernandez in 1984. Valverde has pitched exactly one inning in all 35 games, while Hernandez pitched at least two innings 16 times during his streak and three or more innings six times… The Marlins are 50-39 with shortstop Hanley Ramirez in the lineup and 6-24 without him… The power of backup catchers: the Phillies are 20-3 when Brian Schneider starts, and the Cubs are 19-11 with Koyie Hill in the lineup… Red Sox owner John Henry bought property in Brookline, Mass. four years ago, tore down the existing 13,000-square foot mansion and replaced it with a 35,000-square foot mansion. Whom did Henry buy the property from? Embattled Dodgers owner Frank McCourt.

Scout's Views

Astros center fielder Jason Bourgeois: "He's waited a long time to get a chance to play in the big leagues, and he has added some life to what had been a dead-ass team. I'm not saying he's a long-term answer by any means, but he is the right guy for them right now."

Royals second baseman Johnny Giovatella: "Physically, he really reminds you of Dustin Pedroia. I don't think he's going to be as good as Pedroia, but he is going to be a good offensive second baseman, though the Royals will have to learn to live with his defense, which I don't see as ever being any more than adequate."

Padres first baseman Jesus Guzman: "I'm glad somebody has finally given this guy a chance to play. He proved he could hit Triple-A pitching, and he's looked good in the big leagues. I don't know about him being an everyday player, but there is certainly room in the big leagues for a bat like his."

Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse: "His stuff isn't as good as it used to be since he had the forearm surgery last year. He has to be more of a finesse pitcher now and hit his spots, and you can see it's a learning process for him."

Pirates left-hander Paul Maholm: "It'll be interesting to see if the Pirates pick up his ($9.5 million club) option or let him leave as a free agent. He's miscast as a No. 2 starter. On a good team, he'd be a solid No. 4 or a good No. 5. He has his uses, but he's definitely not a top-of-the-rotation guy, and $9.5 million is a lot for a No. 4 or No. 5, even in today's market."

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