The San Diego Padres are not only the surprising leaders of the N.L. West, but the team also has the best record in the entire league at 73-48 (as of Aug. 21). Many experts pegged the Padres as one of the NL's worst clubs before the start of the 2010 season. On paper the Padres looked like a complete mess. They had dealt their best pitcher, Jake Peavy, to the White Sox last August. The speculation was that first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and closer Heath Bell would be the next to go. The Padres have a payroll of just under $38 million this season, or about $5 million more than A-Rod made last year. That's the second lowest team payroll in MLB behind only the lowly 40-82 Pirates. All signs pointed to a lost year.
But strange things can happen on the way to 110 losses. In a season filled with Stephen Strasburg hype, the Padres feature a phenom of their own. Mat Latos is a 22-year-old right-hander and the ace of baseball's best pitching staff. While Strasburg was cast for his Cooperstown bust, Latos amassed a 13-5 record, 144 Ks and a stellar ERA of 2.33. Even more impressive is Latos' WHIP which is a Maddux or Pedro-like 0.98. Joining Latos at the top of the rotation is Clayton Richard, a 26-year-old lefty who was acquired in last year's Peavy deal. Richard is 11-5 with a 3.69 ERA through 25 starts.
The Padres also feature a solid bullpen to back up their starters. Bell has done his best to make San Diego fans forget about Trevor Hoffman as he's racked up an impressive 37 saves. The bullpen is filled out with a collection of has-beens and never-weres who’ve found new life in the SoCal sunshine. Guys like Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams, and Joe Thatcher aren't exactly household names, but they’ve spent the summer baffling N.L. hitters.
The Padres are a great story. It’s the type of team that MLB should be promoting endlessly to combat the notion that only “big market, high payroll” teams can compete. They should be featured on Fox and ESPN as games of the week, and Latos deserves serious buzz as a Cy Young candidate. Typically, none of this is happening. ESPN commentators would much rather discuss Jacoby Ellsbury's latest cracked rib or Lance Berkman's impact on the Yankees' lineup than give any play to an exciting young team that was built the right way and looks to be a near lock for the postseason.