The San Diego Padres? Most of us predicted them to finish last in the NL West this year, right?
That division was expected to be a two-team race between the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants and megabucks Los Angeles Dodgers. Early in the season, however, the surprise emergence of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies made the NL West a three-team battle.
Take a look at those division standings right now, as of June 17. The NL West is currently a four-team scrum with the Padres jumping into the pile.
As Joe Lucia wrote in Tuesday's Dugout Digest, the Padres notched their seventh straight win with a 5-3 victory over the Giants in 13 innings late Monday night. San Diego has won 10 of its past 12 games. So far in the month of June, this team is 11-5.
That surge has pushed the Padres to within one game of the NL West lead, a half-game ahead of San Francisco with a 36-34 record. San Diego hasn't just been pounding patsies either. That seven-game winning streak includes three-game sweeps of the division-leading D-Backs and the Atlanta Braves, who hold the second-best record in MLB.
So how has this happened? As of April 20, the Padres held last place in their division, eight games behind the Rockies. But since compiling a 10-15 record in the first month of the season, San Diego has gone 26-18 — winning nearly 60 percent of its games.
What makes this success seem especially improbable is that the Padres don't appear to be getting great starting pitching. San Diego starters have a 4.71 ERA, ranking 25th in MLB. Edinson Volquez has a 5.84 ERA. Clayton Richard is even worse, lugging a 7.01 ERA.
Yet Eric Stults has been one of this season's surprises, posting a 3.28 ERA in 14 starts. In his past four appearances, the left-hander has allowed four earned runs in 31 innings. That includes a complete game last Friday versus the D-Backs in which Stults allowed one run and two hits.
Jason Marquis has also been a curiosity, compiling a 9-2 record and 3.68 ERA in 14 starts. Advanced metrics show that Marquis is benefiting from some good fortune, however.
His .230 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is far below the typical .290 to .300 average. Marquis' 5.77 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) also indicates that he's getting some considerable help from his defense.
Sure enough, the Padres have the fourth-best defense in baseball, according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating. Those numbers aren't fully reliable at this point of the season, but they do provide some explanation for the team's performance and ability to succeed despite mediocre pitching.
So the Padres must be benefiting from strong hitting, right? Well, as a team, San Diego is hitting .251, ranking them ninth in the National League. That doesn't look terribly impressive, nor does a .706 team OPS.
But there have been some standout performers in the Padres' batting order.
Shortstop Everth Cabrera is batting .305 with an .800 OPS and a league-leading 31 stolen bases. The Padres are certainly hoping that a hamstring injury Cabrera suffered on Sunday doesn't linger and put him on the disabled list.
Before going on the DL with a groin injury, second baseman Jedd Gyorko was having an impressive season. The rookie is batting .284 with an .802 OPS and ranks second among NL first-year players with eight home runs and 25 RBI. Gyorko also helped the Padres with his versatility, filling in at third base while Chase Headley was sidelined early in the season.
Perhaps it's the production that the Padres have received from their reinforcements — reserves filling in for injured starters — that best explains their success thus far.
Logan Forsythe has been a capable replacement at second base. Following a 3-for-6 performance in Monday night's win, he has a .292 average and .766 OPS. Luke Gregerson substituted at closer while Huston Street was out, notching three saves to go along with a 1.95 ERA.
The most impressive fill-in has been Kyle Blanks. While Yonder Alonso and Carlos Quentin have nursed injuries, Blanks has helped out at both first base and left field and hasn't squandered the opportunity. In June, the 6-foot-6 slugger is batting .317 with a 1.003 OPS, four doubles, five home runs and 13 RBI.
Once Alonso and Quentin return, manager Bud Black could have some difficulty finding a spot for Blanks in his lineup. Given how well Blanks is hitting, Black will surely move players around to accommodate him. But there's no obvious candidate to put on the bench.
Outfielder Will Venable leads the team with nine home runs, though his .225 average and .711 OPS are problematic. Venable is also making outstanding defensive plays, such as the diving grab he made on Monday night to prevent the Giants from scoring a walkoff run. Chris Denorfia's .342 on-base percentage ranks fourth among Padres hitters, while his 60 hits are the team's third-best total.
This is the ol' nice problem to have for Black. Most likely, he'll rotate players around the outfield and first base to keep his guys fresh while getting them the at-bats they need. Black has certainly had the right touch with his decisions this season, emerging as a favorite for NL Manager of the Year.
Can the Padres keep this up? It seems entirely possible, given how mediocre the NL West looks right now. Considering the Padres have no true stars (other than Headley, perhaps, though he hasn't played like one thus far), Black has gotten the right guys into the lineup while making sure his team hasn't suffered too badly from poor performances.
San Diego could arguably get even better once some of their injured players return. An increasingly productive lineup and a strong bullpen have allowed the Padres to compete with their NL West rivals. Unfortunately, their starting pitching could ultimately be what prevents them from staying in contention.
Until then, however, it has to be fun for the Padres and their fans to be in the race. This wasn't expected to happen, though some may have looked at San Diego as a sleeper in the NL West until they began the season with injuries to Headley and Street, along with catcher Yasmani Grandal serving a 50-game PED suspension.
It's certainly fun to write about a club that hasn't gotten very much attention in recent years. It would be even more enjoyable to follow an improbable contender late into the season. Stay competitive, San Diego.