The Padres find themselves in a far different position than they’ve been in the previous four Septembers, trying to spoil the chances of their southern California rival Dodgers in the NL West race. They have four games left against the division leaders, including the finale of a three-game series tonight at Petco Park.

The only other thing the Padres have to play for is to avoid the indignity of having the worst record in the major leagues, although achieving that would land them the first pick in next year’s first-year player draft and the chance to make a big splash by selecting hometown hero Steven Strasburg, the hard-throwing right-hander from San Diego State. The Padres are 56-89, last in the NL West, and tied with the Nationals for the majors’ worst record.

This is certainly a change from recent years. The Padres have had four straight winning seasons, capturing the NL West in 2005 and 2006 before losing a one-game playoff to the Rockies for the wild card last season. “We played good baseball last season, and felt we had a good team coming back this season,” second-year Padres manager Bud Black said. “Our expectations were in line with everyone else in the division. We felt we could stay in contention and be there in September battling for the division title. Things just haven’t worked out that way. We haven’t played well in a lot of areas. It’s reflected in our record, and it has been frustrating.”

The Padres’ swoon has been disappointing to all involved, including right fielder Brian Giles, who has been with his hometown team since being acquired in a trade from the Pirates late in ’03, and who vetoed a potential trade to the contending Red Sox last month. “To a man, we thought we had a team good enough to win the division this year,” Giles said. “I never would have expected this. It’s been a goofy year, though. Not just for us, but for the whole division. Really, no one in this division has had a very good year. In a way that makes it more frustrating. We didn’t even need to have a great year to win.”

The Dodgers are the only NL West team over .500 at 74-71. “It really is hard to believe that everyone in the division is going to finish with a worse record than would have been expected when the season started,” Black said. “When you look at the pitching in this division, especially the starting pitching, you have some of the very best pitchers in the game. It’s just been one of those years where you’ve had injuries and a lot of teams counting on young players without a lot of major league service time.”

The Padres are 29th in the major leagues in runs scored with 3.9 per game and 17th in runs allowed at 4.6. Jake Peavy has had another fine year anchoring the rotation and his 6.1 SNLVAR ranks fifth in the NL, but the Padres have no one else in the top 50 after the trades of left-hander Randy Wolf to the Astros and Greg Maddux to the Dodgers. Chris Young is 55th with 2.1 SNLVAR, but he’s missed just over two months after suffering a slight skull fracture and a broken nose when he was struck by a line drive off the bat of the CardinalsAlbert Pujols on May 22.

Meanwhile, the Padres’ bullpen has been disappointing, ranking 22nd in the major leagues with a 5.126 WXRL after leading the majors with a 15.671 mark last season. While set-up man Heath Bell is fourth in the NL with a 3.416 WXRL, all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman (1.210) is just 35th. “This club pitched so well last year and the years prior to when I got here,” said Black, the only former pitcher currently managing in the major leagues. “When you pitch well, you win regardless of what happens on the offensive side. The bullpen in this day and age is so critical and it just hasn’t been very good. This year, we haven’t pitched as well as some of the Padres teams of the past, and that has sort of showed some of the flaws on the offensive side.”

The Padres are spending the final weeks of the season looking at a number of rookies in the lineup, including catcher Nick Hundley, second baseman Matt Antonelli, and left fielder/third baseman Chase Headley. While the team has yet to address next year’s budget, there is wide speculation that the payroll will go down from $73 million at the start of this season to as low as $40 million by the beginning of next season (perhaps in part because owner John Moores is going through a messy divorce). “The good thing about the situation is that it’s easier to fix the problems you have when you know what’s gone wrong than if you can’t put your finger on it,” Black said. “We obviously need to score more runs to be competitive next season. We’re sort of going through a transition now that will give us a good indication of the type of club and players we’ll have next year.”

Astros general manager Ed Wade took plenty of heat about trading for Wolf and Yankees reliever LaTroy Hawkins instead of dealing to bolster a weak farm system when his team looked out of the playoff chase in late July. Owner Drayton McLane also took his share of criticism for saying the Astros would never wave a white flag while he was in charge. Yet the Astros now at least have a puncher’s chance of getting back to the postseason for the first time since 2005, as they’re now four games behind the Brewers in the NL wild-card race. The Astros are tied for third with the Cardinals and trail the Phillies by one game in the wild-card standings with 17 games left, but they’re going to need help as they have no head-to-head games remaining with the teams they’re chasing. Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds place their chances of reaching the postseason at just 2.8 percent.

“You’ve got to believe,” Astros right fielder Hunter Pence told the Houston Chronicle. “When you start believing and you have that positive energy, it’s kind of like a feeder. I still believe we have a playoff contender, and nothing is going to stop me from going out there and believing that and playing that way.”

Astros manager Cecil Cooper has said all season that his team is capable of getting as hot as any in the major leagues, and his players have affirmed that belief. Houston has the best record in the majors since the All-Star break with a 34-16 mark, and have won 12 of their last 13 games. “It’s an opportunity, and that’s what people ask for-give me a chance,” Cooper said. “Our guys have gotten a chance and they’ve done it. They all have. You name one guy who hasn’t.” First baseman Lance Berkman concurs that contributions from numerous players have put the Astros back on the radar. “That’s the thing about baseball,” Berkman said. “It helps to have one or two guys you can count on, but to be a good team and win, everybody has to do their part.”

Another team making a late surge is the Blue Jays, though it seems certain that their 10-game winning streak, the club’s longest since 1998, will be a case of too little, too late as far as getting the franchise into the postseason for the first time since the second of their back-to-back World Series titles in ’93. Now that they’re seven games behind the Red Sox in the AL wild-card race, Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report still gives the Blue Jays just a 0.5 percent chance of playing in October.

The Blue Jays aren’t becoming overly excited that the momentum of this late-season run can carry over into next season and make them contenders in the AL East. One of the primary reasons for that is the uncertainty surrounding the franchise, particularly with right-hander A.J. Burnett likely to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract to become a free agent. Furthermore, president Paul Godfrey’s contract with Rogers Communications, the Blue Jays’ owners, expires after this season, and while GM J.P. Ricciardi has two years left on his contract, if Godfrey decides to leave, a new president may want to hire his own man to run the baseball operations. Even though he has guided the Blue Jays to a 43-27 record since replacing the fired John Gibbons on June 20, and has Ricciardi’s backing, manager Cito Gaston still has interim in his title, as he has not been signed for next season.

The Blue Jays gave Burnett the option to leave after the third year of his five-year, $55 million contact as an enticement to come to Toronto, and he has increased his value this season with 3.9 SNLVAR. “He’ll do what is best for A.J. Burnett. He’ll test the free-agent market,” Godfrey told the Toronto Sun. “It’s a business for him, just as it is a business for the Toronto Blue Jays. This isn’t his hometown, and we didn’t draft him. It’s not like he has been with the organization a long time. I won’t have a problem with him leaving, if he leaves. Fans may be upset, but given the same opportunity, they would do the same.”

If Burnett leaves, the Blue Jays will certainly need to add a veteran to serve as the number two starter behind Roy Halladay and help stabilize a rotation that includes young right-handers Jesse Litsch and Shaun Marcum. They would also like to add a power bat at designated hitter, as they have never adequately filled Frank Thomas‘ production since releasing him early in the season. Godfrey still feels that the Blue Jays could contend next season if a certain number of things fall into place. “The fact is, when you compete in the AL East, it is tough to compete, no matter how free Ted Rogers is with his money,” Godfrey said. “We can’t pick up a Bobby Abreu the way the Yankees did in 2006, or the way the Red Sox added Mark Kotsay when J.D. Drew went down this year. If everyone is healthy next year, we have Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, a new DH, Aaron Hill, Scott Rolen … that’s five strong bats. Lyle Overbay has been better, and I like Adam Lind, too.”

More than two months after the initial meeting of the safety and health advisory committee, a joint committee formed by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to consider issues of fan safety, MLB issued a statement on Tuesday saying that the group would soon be able to make “short-term and long-term recommendations” to address the issue of maple bats. The shattering of maple bats has been a concern all season, particular since Pirates batting coach Don Long suffered nerve damage in his cheek after he was struck just below the eye by a piece of a broken bat while standing in the dugout during an April 15 game at Dodger Stadium.

According to MLB, nearly 1,700 shattered bats were collected from July 2 to September 7 for analysis. Video tape of each bat breaking has also been logged for study. The quality of wood is being analyzed by both the USDA Forest Service’s Products Laboratory, which is the federal government’s primary research facility for wood products, and Timberco, Inc., an independent accredited certification and testing agency for structural and nonstructural wood products. Dr. Carl N. Morris, a professor of statistics at Harvard, and Dr. James A. Sherwood, director of the Baseball Research Center and a professor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts-Lowell, have been retained to analyze the data. Representatives from the committee have also met with various maple bat manufactures in recent weeks in an effort to determine if there are any problems with quality control.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez will definitely test free agency after the season, but it is not a given that he will leave the Angels; Los Angeles owner Arte Moreno is willing to spend money, though he may not go five years and $75 million for K-Rod. If Rodriguez does not return to the Angels, the Tigers and Cardinals are two likely landing spots. The Mets don’t seem to have much initial interest despite the likelihood of closer Billy Wagner missing all of next season following reconstructive elbow surgery. … Though some reports have the Tigers taking their payroll down from $134 million to around $90 million next year, they will likely spend close to the same amount in 2009, as owner Mike Ilitch desperately wants his franchise to win its first World Series since 1984. … The Yankees have dispatched top scout Gene Michael to Japan, primarily to watch pitcher Koji Uehera of the Yomiuri Ginats, who will be the top free agent from that country this winter, and also to keep an eye on right-hander Yu Darvish in case the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters decide to post him for free agency. … If the Yankees don’t re-sign Jason Giambi as a free agent, they will consider converting outfielder Johnny Damon into a full-time first baseman next season. … The Rangers will attempt to re-sign designated hitter Milton Bradley as a free agent, but they aren’t likely to go beyond a two-year deal. … The Royals will consider giving Alberto Callapso first crack at the second baseman’s job next spring if he continues to impress in the season’s final weeks. … The player to be named coming to the Indians from the Brewers in the CC Sabathia trade depends on if Milwaukee makes the playoffs. If the Brewers qualify for the postseason, the Indians get to pick the player, likely to be either Double-A Huntsville outfielder Michael Brantley or High-A Brevard County third baseman Taylor Green. If the Brewers miss out on the playoffs, then they choose the player.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: Speculation continues to grow that Tony La Russa will step down as the Cardinals’ manager at season’s end to pursue a GM job. His most likely landing spot is Seattle, but don’t rule out the Padres if they reverse course and decide to allow Kevin Towers to interview for the Seattle job. … Part of the reason that the Mets aren’t very interested in Rodriguez is that they plan to exercise the $12 million option on first baseman Carlos Delgado in the offseason, and then spend most of the rest of their money on starting pitching, especially with left-hander Oliver Perez eligible for free agency. … The Astros will try to sign closer Jose Valverde to a contract extension rather than go to a potential arbitration hearing in the offseason. … The Padres would like to bring Trevor Hoffman, who can become a free agent after this season, back on a one-year contract, but he prefers a two-year deal. … The Braves have interest in re-signing left-hander Mike Hampton; that eight-year, $121 million contract he signed with the Rockies as a free agent finally ends this year. Meanwhile, right-hander John Smoltz said he would be willing to go somewhere else as a free agent if the Braves show no desire to re-sign him after undergoing shoulder surgery earlier this season. … The Giants plan to give Emmanuel Burriss first crack at their starting shortstop job next spring.

Scouts views on various major league players:

  • Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels: “He’s got great stuff and he’s one of the best pitchers in the game, but he’s also still a kid and has to learn how to pitch in big games. That really showed Sunday night when he lost to the Mets and [Johan] Santana at Shea Stadium. He overthrew everything, and was way too hyper. If he’s truly going be a great pitcher, he has to learn to handle the big-game pressure a lot better than he has so far.”
  • Pirates right-hander Ross Ohlendorf: “You can tell he’s getting tired now that it’s late in the season, but he’s throwing harder than I’ve ever seen him [do], his fastball has pretty good life, and he is willing to pitch inside. I think this kid is going to be a pretty good starting pitcher in the major leagues.”
  • Nationals right-hander Garrett Mock: “He doesn’t blow you away when you watch him, and his stuff is average at best. However, the kid just has a good idea of how to pitch and he doesn’t look scared. He has some moxie on the mound, and I think that’s going to serve him well for a long time.”
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The Astros\' 2.8% chance is a lot better than the .1% chance they had last week.
Is it possible that we could have a true dumping scenario in baseball this year, with the Padres? With Strasberg\'s local connections, and with a fairly clear gap between him and the rest of the draft pool, it has to be incredible tempting for Padres management to dump the rest of the season in order to secure the #1 pick.
I\'m not sure the Padres would see it that way. For one thing I don\'t know that anyone can be a \"guaranteed\" #1 pick a year out, even with Strasburg\'s dominance. I rememer 18 months ago when Pedro Alvarez was a \"lock\" to go number one, and, well, we know how that turned out. Not to mention injury, under performance, etc. The other thing is the Padres record with signing talent. I don\'t know that they have a \"bad\" relationship with Boras, but they have almost always avoided large bonuses, and seem to try to avoid Boras. I hope they learned from the Bush fiasco, but signability often seems to be more important for SD than talent.