Sometimes it is easy to forget the Padres exist. They basically wrote off this season before it started as former owner John Moores, in the midst of selling the team to Jeff Moorad and going through an expensive divorce, lopped $30 million off of last year’ s payroll and gave Kevin Towers, the longest-tenured general manager in the major leagues, just $43mllion to build a roster with.

Except for dealing ace of the staff and face of the franchise Jake Peavy to the White Sox at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, the Padres have been out of sight and out of mind in 2009. However, a funny thing has happened with the Padres over the last couple of months. They have started to play winning baseball with a roster that still includes first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, closer Heath Bell, and a bunch of names only a hardcore fan would know. The Padres have gone 31-21 in their last 52 games, quite a turnaround since a 37-62 start.

It’s a turnaround that has given Towers hope the Padres can shorten the usual rebuilding curve, an idea that manager Bud Black seconds. “We still have a ways to go,” Black cautioned. “However, what I do like about what we can take away from this season is that there is no longer a question of if we have enough talent to be competitive at the major league level. I think we’ve proven that over the last two months, so we’ve got past that stage. The next big step will be to prove the guys we have can take their talents and use it to win at the major-league level on a consistent basis over a full season. We’ve gotten a taste of it for part of this season.”

Gonzalez is already established as one of baseball’s top young stars, and has a .338 EqA this season to back that up. Left fielder Chase Headley (.272), third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff (.263), and catcher Nick Hundley (.254) have solid holds on their lineup spots. However, a number of other Padres hitters have taken steps forward this season, including outfielders Kyle Blanks (.310) and Will Venable (.294) and shortstop Everth Cabrera (.283). Blanks has had his rookie season shortened by plantar fasciitis in his foot, but the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder has impressed observers with his raw power and athleticism for someone so big. Venable was pegged as more of a fourth-outfielder type until the second half of the season, but he has been so impressive lately that he is all but assured a spot in the lineup for Opening Day 2010.

The biggest revelation has been Cabrera, who was selected from Colorado in the Rule 5 draft last December after playing at Low-A last season. The Padres felt the 22-year-old could handle the defensive part of playing shortstop in the majors, but his hitting has been a happy surprise. Everyone connected with the Padres cannot quit raving about him; veteran bench coach Ted Simmons mentioned Cabrera in the same breath with such shortstops as Larry Bowa, Ozzie Smith, and Omar Vizquel. “This kid could eventually play defense like those guys, he’s that good,” Simmons said. “The biggest difference is he can already hit, whereas those other shortstops did not start becoming factors with the bat until they physically matured when they were around 28 years old. Everyone compares this kid to (Dodgers shortstop Rafael) Furcal, and it’s a fair comparison. As a scout, you always look at the shortstops with the great arms and give them an eight (the highest grade on the 20-80 scouting scale). Well, when you see Cabrera, he’s an eight unlike other eights-he’s the eight of eights. Nobody else looks like an eight after you’ve seen him.”

Pitching will always be a key for the Padres as their home field, Petco Park, suppresses offense more than any other park in the major leagues. Kevin Correia, signed as a free agent after being non-tendered by the Giants at the end of last season, leads the starting rotation with 4.0 SNLVAR, and has produced a .510 SNWP. While he has proven to be a wise pickup, the Padres are resting their long-term hopes on some of their younger arms, including Mat Latos, who had 1.1 SNLVAR and .476 SNWP in 10 starts after being called up in July, Tim Stauffer (2.1 and .541), and left-hander Clayton Richard, one of the key components coming from the White Sox in the Peavy trade. Bell is leads the team in WXRL with a 3.82 mark, but Luke Gregerson, obtained from the Cardinals in the off-season trade for Khalil Greene, has been a real find, contributing 3.122 WXRL. That might enable to the Padres to sell high on Bell in a potential trade during the offseason while elevating Gregerson from set-up man to closer.

“We feel like we are to the point where we are fairly well set with the position players,” Black said. “The key for us now is going to be the pitching. We have had some guys take steps forward and have a number of good young arms either on our major league roster or in our farm system. Our pitching has been much better lately and if we can carry that on from here then I think we have a chance to be good again, perhaps a little more quickly than we originally anticipated coming into this season.”

Astros owner Drayton McLane was said to be on the fence, as recently as last weekend, on whether to retain manger Cecil Cooper for 2010. McLane has obviously since jumped off of that fence, as he fired Cooper on Monday, even though he’d given the second-year manager a contract extension through next season back in April.

The firing wasn’t a huge surprise. Cooper never seemed like the right fit for the Astros since being promoted from bench coach to replace Phil Garner late in the 2007 season. The players never warmed to him, nor he to them, and Cooper was reportedly one of the first people to leave the clubhouse after games. Cooper went 171-170 in his a little more than two full seasons on the job.

The biggest factor of all, though, was that the Astros were 70-79 and on a seven-game losing streak at the time. Cooper was put on the spot for that record despite the team’s affording itself a club-record $107 million payroll. The Astros will also miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year since making the lone World Series appearance in franchise history in 2005, when they were swept by the White Sox.

“It seems like we’ve been on sort of a gradual downhill spiral ever since we made it to the World Series, and you can’t point to just one thing,” Astros first baseman Lance Berkman told the Houston Chronicle‘s Richard Justice. “There are several factors involved in that. If there was ever an environment for sweeping reform or change, this would be it.”

“Coop is a very solid baseball guy and gave his heart and soul for this organization,” Astros GM Ed Wade said. “Unfortunately, I got to a point where it was appropriate to make this change and make it now. It gives us a couple of weeks to go ahead and evaluate some other facets of our operation at the field level and hopefully use that time to make the right decisions going forward.”

The Astros opened the season with the oldest roster in the major leagues, and Wade would prefer to now go with a youth movement. However, a lack of top prospects at the upper levels will prevent that from happening unless McLane, who has always been opposed to rebuilding, gives Wade the go-ahead to trade a star like Berkman or right-hander Roy Oswalt for a package of prospects.

In the meantime, third-base coach Dave Clark was promoted to interim manager. He was a well-regarded manager in the Astros’ farm system, and is expected to get strong consideration for the full-time job. Two former major league managers, Jim Fregosi and Manny Acta, will also likely be candidates, along with Red Sox first-base coach Tim Bogar.

While the Astros will have a new manager in place next season, there is a chance that the team on the verge of winning the National League Central might also have a new skipper in 2010. That’s because Tony La Russa‘s contract expires at the end of the season, and he has yet to commit to coming back for a 15th year with the Cardinals.

“The same goes for me that goes for any player who is a free agent or any player trying for a statistical finish,” La Russa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Derrick Goold. “It’s not time to talk about this now, and instead be totally committed that we don’t get distracted by anything.”

The Cardinals are all but assured of getting to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, when they made a stunning run through the postseason after winning just 83 games in the regular season, a run that was culminated by their beating the Tigers in the World Series. “Winning makes it fun,” La Russa said. “The question isn’t, is (the fire) still burning right now. Just the way I was raised as a competitive person, I’ll never get to the end of the season with it being out. But once you get to the end, that’s what you have to evaluate.”

The White Sox traded designated hitter Jim Thome to the Dodgers and right-hander Jose Contreras to the Rockies on August 31, and now it remains to be seen if GM Ken Williams will completely overhaul the roster in the upcoming offseason. The White Sox are 73-79, which is disappointing for a team that felt it had a good chance to repeat as the American League Central champions.

Williams must decide whether to exercise the $12 million mutual option on right fielder Jermaine Dye, or allow him to leave as a free agent. Outfielder Scott Podsednik and right-handed set-up reliever Octavio Dotel are also eligible for free agency. There has also been speculation closer Bobby Jenks could be traded, as he is likely to receive a huge salary in arbitration over the winter.

While White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen seemingly has an option on all things, he says he will let Williams handle the GM duties without offering advice. “I’m not going to say, ‘We should trade this guy and we should trade that guy,'” Guillen said. “Obviously, I have a little thing to do with who’s coming and who’s not, but since I’ve been managing this ballclub I’ve never come out and said, ‘I don’t want whoever.’ If Kenny has something in mind, he will do it. I did in the past say, ‘I don’t want this guy in my clubhouse, I don’t want this guy on the team.’ A few people, I went to Kenny and said, ‘Hey, listen, I don’t think this guy’s going to work here. I don’t think having this guy is going to help this ballclub,’ and he did what he had to do. But in the meanwhile, I haven’t told him what trades to make. He knows what we need, he knows what we want, he knows what direction we’re going in. That’s why I stay away from that.”

Scouts’ views on various major leaguers:

  • Chris Coghlan, LF, Marlins: “There is nothing flashy about this guy but he just hits, hits, and hits. He’s really consistent for a rookie and I think he is going to the type of guy you can rely on to be a productive player for many years to come.”
  • Wade Davis, RHP, Rays: “This kid has a chance to be a true number one starter. He’s got great stuff, is an outstanding competitor, and isn’t scared of big-league hitters.”
  • Jorge De La Rosa, LHP, Rockies: “The switch in managers seems to have worked wonders. Jim Tracy told him to start getting hitters out and begin living up to his reputation of having a great arm, and it’s really worked. He’s more aggressive than he’s ever been.”
  • Juan Francisco, 3B/OF, Reds: “You can see he has talent, but he’s totally overmatched by major league pitching at this point. Big-league pitchers are getting him to chase everything.”
  • Brian Fuentes, LHP, Angels: “I know he has a lot of saves, but if I’m (Angels manager) Mike Scioscia, I don’t feel comfortable with this guy as my closer in the postseason. He’s too erratic. I think he’s going to be their Achilles heel in October.”
  • Aaron Hill, 2B, Blue Jays: “He’s one of the best stories in baseball this season. There were a lot of questions whether he would ever play against after having that concussion last season, and he’s come back to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs. He is someone Toronto can build around.”
  • Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants: “He seems to be wearing down this season, and that’s going to re-start those questions about his size and durability. Still, he’s got such a big heart and great stuff, that I would never bet against him.”
  • Kyle Lohse, RHP, Cardinals: “If they can get him back to throwing like he was early in the season before he got hurt, then the Cardinals are going to be tough to beat in October. You put him as your number four starter behind Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Joel Pineiro in a seven-game series, and you’ll take your chances.”
  • Adam Moore, C, Mariners: “This kid is pretty good. I like the way he handles the pitching staff, and he is a decent hitter. I think he has a solid future.”
  • Mark Reynolds, 3B, Diamondbacks: “You hate to see a hitter strike out as much as he does because they are wasted at-bats, but you can live with this guy punching out 200 times because he can help you so much with his power and speed. I think most teams would live with his 200 Ks if they had the chance.”
  • Mariano Rivera, RHP, Yankees: “People aren’t really going to appreciate his greatness until he retires. He is so consistent and low-key that you take him for granted. He’s no spring chicken, but that cutter is as nasty as ever.”
  • Henry Rodriguez, RHP, Athletics: “He was hitting 100 mph consistently in his major league debut (on Monday). The big question is: Will he throw enough strikes? If he figures it out, he’ll be a top-flight closer.”
  • Chris Tillman, RHP, Orioles: “You can tell he is starting to wear down from a long season, and he hasn’t been that sharp since getting called up to the big leagues. Don’t let that fool you, though, because he’s got the arm and the build to be a front-line starting pitcher.”
  • J.R. Towles, C, Astros: “They keep giving him chances in Houston, but I just don’t get it. He’s a number two catcher for me, at the very best.”
  • Claudio Vargas, RHP, Brewers: “He’s been throwing as well as I’ve ever seen him, and it’s because Milwaukee is using him the right way-in relief. He’s too limited to be a starter but he can definitely help you in short stints.”
  • Billy Wagner, LHP, Red Sox: “He is going to be a factor in the postseason, mark my words. Even if he isn’t able to pitch on back-to-back days, there are enough offdays built into the schedule that he will be able to make a difference.”
  • Randy Wolf, LHP, Dodgers: “He’s got to be their Game One starter in the Division Series. He is never going to overwhelm you, but he’s a real pro and he almost always gives you a chance to win. Right now, the Dodgers don’t have very many reliable starters and they are going to need him to pitch well in October.”
  • Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Cubs: “For me, he’s the classic underachiever. He should be one of the top five starting pitchers in baseball, but he always has something going on, either an injury or some kind of crisis. That act gets old.”
  • Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals: “He has really taken a major step forward this season, and now has to be considered among the best third basemen in baseball. People forget he is still a kid and there’s more upside.”

Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Red Sox at Yankees, Friday-Sunday (September 25-27)
Jon Lester vs. CC Sabathia, 7:05 p.m. (TBS); Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Joba Chamberlain, 4:10 p.m. (Fox); Paul Byrd vs. Andy Pettitte, 1:05 p.m. (ESPN)

Cardinals at Rockies, Friday-Sunday (September 25-27)
Chris Carpenter vs. Aaron Cook, 8:10 p.m.; Adam Wainwright vs. Ubaldo Jimenez, 8:10 p.m.; Kyle Lohse vs. Jorge De La Rosa, 3:10 p.m. (TBS)

Tigers at White Sox, Friday-Sunday (September 25-27)
Nate Robertson vs. Freddy Garcia, 8:11 p.m.; Eddie Bonine vs. Jake Peavy, 7:05 p.m.; Edwin Jackson vs. John Danks, 2:05 p.m.

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No, but really: how about a whole column devoted to the scouting reports? I can find the news-y stuff sooner through other outlets.
Thanks for the call out on the Pads. It has been a very pleasant surprise, also against tough competition. Who knows which of these guys will stay useful, but you could have 5 pitcher rotation to choose from: Richards, Latos, Corriea, Stauffer, LeBlanc and Chris Young. Maybe Gallagher as well. No aces there, but potentially a lot of depth.
So in one article we get Ted Simmons thinking that Larry Bowa and Ozzie Smith were similar defensively, and strikeouts are especially bad because they are "wasted at-bats". Still clearly a long way to go...
Lance Berkman should be suspended for the rest of the season for saying such mean things about the Astros organization.
Thanks for a Padres-focused article. I hope this late-season push will make the Padres reconsider trading Adrian Gonzalez as the future looks much brighter now than a few months ago when it was being discussed regularly.
The Pads could trade Bell, and the White Sox might let Jenks walk, the Red Sox could look to trade Wagner (or Papelbon?). Are closers going to be cheap this winter? Also, what's up with the entire Red Sox - Yanks series getting national coverage, I'd like to be able to see more than two teams this weekend.
Nice to see the Padres mentioned. But even as a fan, its tough to get excited when they're still running one of the worst run differentials in the league, and have given up a ton of runs despite playing in Petco.
I concur with the first commenter - more scouts' views! Where else can you get such great lines as - "Tracy told him to start getting hitters out ...and it's really worked," (no doubt the previous manager told the pitcher to serve up gopher balls), - "you hate to see a hitter strike out as much as he does because they are wasted at-bats", (as opposed to pop ups, bunts which lead to runners being thrown out, ground balls which produce double plays and any third out - all of which are "productive" outs), - "people aren't really going to appreciate his (Mariano Rivera) greatness until he retires" (because nobody else looks at the silly 'Reliever Expected Wins Added' webpage at BP nor looks up his statistics which shows that in his 15 years in baseball, he seasonal ERA has been below 2.0 a total of 9 times), - "This kid (J.R.Towles) is pretty good. I like the way he handles the pitching staff, and he is a decent hitter. I think he has a solid future." (which is enough for anyone to accept without question, even though at 25, nearly his prime, Towles has yet to generate a positive WARP.) Now that I have critiqued some of the comments let me say this - I also enjoy this section. It reminds me of reading the comics or listening to Jim Rome talking about baseball. It is a form of entertainment. With comics, it is about wit and humor. With Romie, the entertainment comes in predicting how long one can listen to him before he makes a completely asinine statement about baseball. I believe the longest stretch for Rome between goofball comments is 8 minutes.
The scouts comments on Tillman are spot on...he's worn out. I wish they'd shut him down.
All the talk about the Padres and you don't mention Their 8th inning guy Mike Adams. Someone throw him a bone. He's been injured much of the season, but he has been unhittable in his 30 or so appearances.