A Point Of Contention

On Thursday, during the Padres’ off day, after they’d finished off a sweep of the NL East leading Braves, I started reading some Twitter musings about how few games back the Padres were from first place and how close contention actually was for this team. So I tweeted this:

Then the Padres beat the Diamondbacks twice and got to .500. But my Thursday tweet had specifically said over .500. So I tweeted this:

Then Clayton Richard did his best Eric Stults impression and Kyle Blanks hit another shot into the Western Metal Building, and the Padres finished off their sweep of the division leading Diamondbacks. The Padres, thanks to this 6 game win streak over division leaders, are now 35-34, above .500 for the first time since April 2011, when they started the season 3-1, then lost their next 3 games, and never again tipped above .500 the rest of the season. 2012? Not a single day of the season were they ever over .500. How depressing is that?

 Anyway, as of right now, the division looks like this, if you’re viewing it from an iPhone 4s:

 standings

First, let’s just take a second to laugh at the Dodgers. Okay, that was fun. Now back to the…holy crap! Look at how bunched up the NL West is. The Padres are now two games back of first place, but because the rest of the division (except the Puigilists…get it? They have Puig and they fight a lot) is pretty good, they didn’t actually gain any ground in the standings.

So, now that the Padres are both over .500 and close to the division lead, I guess not only is it okay to wonder if the Padres are possible contenders, but I probably have to discuss it since I’ve been such a Debbie Downer about it actually happening. So let’s discuss. I’ll try not to be too negative.

The Padres are now an impressive 30-19 since their horrible 5-15 start. They’ve climbed completely out of the hole they started off in, and they’re not likely to go back to being oh so bad. The 5-15 team had almost no depth, and now depth is probably the biggest strength of the team.

The Padres have a plug-and-play team. They’ve built a bench half-full of starter-quality players who play multiple positions, so when players like Maybin, Alonso, and Gyorko go down, they can fill the holes in the lineup with guys like Forsythe and Blanks and not only not miss anything offensively but in the case of Blanks actually improve the team.

On the other hand, their 30-19 pace is probably not sustainable. Over a full season, that’s a 99 win pace. This team isn’t a 99 win team. Not with this pitching staff. There are too many throwaway starts for that. In order to win 90 games, though, they can’t have any let up. They have to maintain a 95 win pace for the remainder of the season to hit the 90 win mark.

Luckily, the rest of the division is in a similar situation. The Diamondbacks, still currently atop the division, need to win at a 92 game pace to hit 90 wins. So if anyone is going to win 90 games in the NL West this year, somebody’s going to have to stay consistently hot for an extended period of time, much more than just a 50 game stretch. Somebody likely will.

Can it be the Padres? The good news is that they’re running hot without having to rely on plus play from their two best players from last year, Chase Headley and Yasmani Grandal. The Padres have the 5th most position player fWAR in MLB and a top 12 team wRC+, and they’re doing it as a group. They have 11 players with more than 100 PA’s on the season, and 8 of them have a wRC+ of 100 or better.

They’re also running hot without great pitching. Amongst the starters, Clayton Richard and Edinson Volquez, the two starters making more than $5 million each this year, have been mostly horrible. Jason Marquis and Andrew Cashner have gotten good results on mediocre-to-bad performances. The lone real bright spot has been Eric Stults, who continues to prove that his 2012 numbers weren’t fluky, and that he probably had this kind of ability his whole career, just nowhere to show it off.

The bullpen has its questions as well. This isn’t one of those great Padres bullpens we became used to as fans over the years. It’s been Luke Gregerson and everybody else, with nobody but the man with many sliders showing anything better than replacement level stuff. Huston Street, last year so good, has seen his strikeout rate plummet while allowing 7 home runs in just 23 appearances, and has only finished his outing with a clean sheet 6 times.

So what do we make of the 2013 Padres now that we know they aren’t bad? Can they really be good? Can they really contend for the playoffs? The truth is I really don’t know. When I try to answer those questions, I come back with more questions.

Can Jason Marquis continue to have success in spite of his stats? Can Clayton Richard build off Sunday’s start and turn his season/career around, and if not, will the Padres bite the bullet and replace him before he sets them back too far? What will become of Huston Street, professional closer? If the team ever gets healthy, will they keep their best players on the roster when decisions need to be made, or will they continue to make decisions based on who has options?

There are 93 games left, including 27 before the All-Star break when teams really start making decisions about whether they are contenders or pretenders. A lot can happen in 27 games, and obviously a whole lot more in 93. Are the Padres contenders? Ask me again in a month.

The Vocal Minority is on Twitter @The_NV and @VocalMinoritySD. Follow us both, because we are two different people with two different egos. I also saw a commercial for this new thing called Myspace on TV and am thinking about jumping on that before it gets cool. The Vocal Minority posts on Mondays.

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