SAN DIEGO - Back in late April, before all the other national media started paying any attention to the first place Padres, I posed a simple question: could a team with the second-lowest payroll in all of MLB really keep this up?
Well, three months later, we know the answer. Still atop the National League West with a 1 1/2-game lead, the little over $40 million Padres haven’t surrendered first place, and so here we are — 60 regular season games or so remaining — and manager Bud Black’s team is in position to make the playoffs at this point. But, of course, that’s the rub. The postseason doesn’t begin until early October and San Diego ranks 22nd out of 30 MLB teams in runs scored, although they were aggressive at the trade deadline, acquiring two former All-Stars, playoff veterans and historically proven RBI producers in Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Tejada.
Yet since the 2001 season, only seven teams have made the postseason while ranking in the bottom third in runs scored in all of MLB. And none of those teams won the World Series, nor did any of those clubs boast a payroll below $52 million, which begs the same question asked in April: can the Padres really keep this up?
“Why not? Most of us haven’t been in this situation before so we don’t know any better,” quipped young hurler Wade LeBlanc, whose off-balance ledger (5-9, 3.49 ERA) has largely been a result of the Padres biggest gaffe, a lack of run support for the southpaw starter who boasts among the 10 lowest home ERA’s in MLB. “We had a sense of something special in spring training just because of the way we finished last year.”
Dating back to late July of last season, the Padres have MLB’s second best record only to the Yankees. This season, their longest losing streak is just three games. Still, when you consider their low payroll and inability to score runs, the 2010 Padres are in a league of their own.
The ’07 Diamondbacks ($52 million) netted the fifth lowest runs in all of MLB that season and were swept in four games in the division series by the eventual pennant-winning Rockies. The Padres of 2005 ($63 million) and 2006 ($69 million) won back-to-back division titles, ranking 27th and 26th respectively, in runs scored, but never won a division series either. The Braves' magical run of 14 straight NL East crowns included ranking in the bottom third in runs scored in both 2001 (23rd) and 2002 (21st), where their payroll was $91 million and $93 million, respectively, but neither Atlanta team reached the World Series. Ditto, for the last team ranked in the bottom third in runs scored to make the postseason — the 2008 Dodgers ($118 million) who were 24th out of the 30 teams with just 700 runs scored. The 2005 Astros ($76 million), who netted just 693 runs in 2005 — sixth lowest in MLB — are the only team since 2001 to advance to the World Series while ranking in the bottom third in runs scored.
But, in the year of the pitcher, perhaps it’s best not to discount the Padres, right? After all, they have the No. 1 pitching staff in baseball and a top defensive team, too.
“They don’t beat themselves,” said Marlins skipper Edwin Rodriguez, who says the Padres are the most fundamentally sound club he’s faced this season. “They’re the best pitching staff in baseball and their defense is great.”
In acquiring Tejada and Ludwick, the Padres' $38 million pre-trade deadline payroll doesn’t increase much. Tejada, a free agent at season’s end, will be paid the $1.15 million left on his contract by San Diego, and Ludwick, signed through 2011, approximately $1.3 million this season.
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Tejada, who earned his sixth All-Star appearance a year ago (86 RBI/.795 OPS), has struggled this season to do what he’s done best for most of his career — drive in runs. Yet his 39 RBI in 2010 equates to fourth best on the Padres, which demonstrates just how few runs this team scores. And for his part, Ludwick’s 43 RBI with the Cardinals equates to second on the Padres behind three-time All-Star Adrian Gonzalez’s 68 RBI, and are more noteworthy considering the 2008 All-Star has started just 67 games this season. What’s more, Ludwick’s 2010 OPS with St. Louis was an impressive .827 and his .448 average with runners in scoring position leads the National League. Last season, the outfielder belted 22 home runs and drove in 97 runs.
A late bloomer, Ludwick, 32, didn't earn 300 at-bats in a season until 2007 as a result of being plagued by injuries. He missed time earlier this year with a calf strain and the Padres will need him to stay healthy.
“As a pitcher, you look at a lineup with Adrian (Gonzalez), Tejada and Ludwick and you’ve got to be careful now,” said Padres starter Kevin Correia, a former Giant, who’s pitched against all three All-Stars in his career. “It makes it a lot more stressful on a pitcher.”
Still, with a payroll higher only than the lowly Pirates, it’s fair to ponder whether a team with few household names can make the playoffs. Adding Ludwick to the Padres lineup also doesn’t solve the anemic offensive production the team has gotten from its two other outfield positions. Most baseball fans outside San Diego can’t name too many Padres offhand, and with only eight players making more than $1 million this season, that lack of universal knowledge is understandable, coupled with the fact San Diego is a west coast team in an, ahem, “small market” (even though, of course, the city is one of the 10 largest in the U.S.).
So while the performance of Ludwick and Tejada will prove critical down the stretch on whether the Padres punch their postseason ticket, so too will be the efforts of these four other Padres you may not know much about.
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