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Posted: Wednesday May 5, 2010 11:41AM; Updated: Wednesday May 5, 2010 12:23PM
Jon Heyman

Padres in first place? That's not the only surprise so far this year

Story Highlights

The Padres believe they can contend all year, but not everyone agrees

Both L.A. teams and both Chicago teams continue to struggle

Expensive stars like Alfonso Soriano are finally earning their contracts

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Heath Bell
Heath Bell has been superb at the back of a stellar Padres bullpen that might be the biggest reason San Diego sits atop the NL West.

Here's yet another surprise from the first-year general manager of the team that has been the season's biggest surprise to date. Jed Hoyer says if the Padres contend, they could actually become a trade-deadline buyer, and not the seller everyone expects them to be.

"If we're winning games, we're going to try to win more games,'' Hoyer said. "If we're in the race, we're going to look to add.''

Through 27 games, to everyone's surprise but theirs, the mostly anonymous Padres are leading a tight, tougher-than-you-think National League West with a 17-10 record. To them, it's just a continuation of their solid play late last year (a 37-25 finish) and better play this spring (a 15-2-2 finish).

"This team is playing with a lot of confidence,'' Hoyer said. "They don't see any reason why they can't do it.''

According to Hoyer, in fact, the Padres got "(ticked) off'' about the near unanimous perception they will finish last. And it's true most folks still look at San Diego as a lovely mirage. "The Padres aren't going to win the West, come on,'' one competing executive opined sarcastically on Tuesday, providing another niblet for the Padres to chew on. (That exec doesn't believe the Padres will add if they need to, either. "I don't think they're going to spend money,'' he said.)

"They feed off the fact that people don't believe in them,'' Hoyer said of Padres players and coaches. He added that the team has one big collective "chip on its shoulder,''

Coming into the season, San Diego was seen as a team much more likely to make noise by trading hometown hero and star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and perhaps closer Heath Bell, than it was to make waves within a division that features four other teams that spent more and expected to contend. But there are issues with each of the other four teams now. Most folks inside the division seem to feel the Rockies are the strongest team of the five, but all their injuries have given extra hope to the others, including San Diego.

The Padres place is entirely unexpected by everyone but them, but it's pretty obvious how they're doing it. Their 2.81 ERA is second best in the majors to St. Louis' 2.56 and their 8.12 strikeouts per nine innings are second best to the Cubs' 8.45.

The rotation has been enhanced by spring standout Wade LeBlanc, an early callup who had 20 1/3 straight scoreless innings snapped in the 3-2 win Tuesday over the Rockies and has a 1.16 ERA. Actually, several Padres pitchers for underrated pitching coach Darren Balsley have had streaks, as Luke Gregerson set a Padres relief record by retiring 26 straight batters at one point and Tim Stauffer still is the only major-league pitcher who has thrown at least 15 innings and has yet to allow a run (he's thrown 15 1/3 innings). The bullpen has been superb, limiting hitters to a .192 batting average, best in the majors.

"You get to seventh inning behind, you see [Mike] Adams, Gregerson and Bell, and you're done,'' said another competing executive in rare flattery about the Padres.

The latter two have been especially effective. Gregerson has a 1.76 ERA and 16 strikeouts against just two walks and Bell has converted all seven of his save chances and has a 1.64 ERA.

The issue is the offense, which is long on youth, relies on speed (their 31 steals rank second in the majors) and isn't helped by expansive Petco Park. Like his players, Hoyer believes this surprising team can continue to contend. But he said, "In order to do that, our offense has to be more consistent. We have some young players we have to get going in the right direction. Right now, we're striking out a little too much.''

The Padres have struck out 224 times, third-worst in the majors. Kyle Blanks has 33 strikeouts and is batting .189 and Will Venable has struck out 27 times. But except for the whiffs, just about everything else is working so far.

More early-season surprises

1. Both Los Angeles teams are in last place. The Angels, winner of six of the past eight AL West titles, are 12-16. The Dodgers, an NL finalist the last two seasons, are 11-15.

2. Neither Chicago team has a winning record, with the White Sox 11-16 and the Cubs 13-14. It'll be interesting to see which manager blows first -- Ozzie Guillen or Lou Piniella.

3. The Braves, who have the greatest rookie phenom in decades in Jason Heyward, are nonetheless 11-15. Bobby Cox's last year may seem like two.

4. The Nationals, who didn't expect to be very good until Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Chien-Ming Wang arrive, are 14-12.

5. The Mets are 15-12, but contained in there was a 10-1 streak.

6. The Astros are 8-18, but have bookend eight-game losing streaks.

7. The Pirates' team ERA is 6.60. It's not a surprise they have the worst ERA in baseball, only that it's a full run worse than anyone else.

8. A trio of guys with big contracts are finally paying off. The Blue Jays' Vernon Wells has eight home runs, 21 RBIs and a .321 batting average, the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano has six home runs, 18 RBIs and a .321 batting average and the Giants' Barry Zito is 4-0 with a 1.53 ERA.

9. Tigers rookie Austin Jackson is the surprise AL leader with a .377 batting average. Even more of a surprise, he manages to lead in hitting while also leading with 34 strikeouts.

10. Cardinals rookie David Freese, not Albert Pujols, is the leading Cardinal hitter, at .360.

11. Kosuke Fukudome, who spent two years in Piniella's doghouse, is hitting .338.

12. Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz is fourth in the majors with a .435 on-base percentage

13. Kelly Johnson, non-tendered by the Braves, has nine homers and 18 RBIs and is fifth in baseball with a .677 slugging percentage for the D-backs.

14. Jose Guillen, who probably could never hit enough to justify his contract, is making an attempt, with eight homers and 21 RBIs for the Royals.

15. Robinson Cano has nine home runs for the Yankees, or two more than Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson have combined.

16. Normally light-hitting shortstop Alex Gonzalez has eight homers, 22 RBIs and a .613 slugging percentage for the Blue Jays.

17. First-year Met Jason Bay is still warmly received in New York, though he has just one home run with 31 strikeouts so far.

18. Carlos Lee has zero home runs, 17 strikeouts, and .495 OPS.

19. Last year's NL Rookie of the Year, Florida's Chris Coghlan, has zero extra-base hits in 88 at-bats and a .188 batting average and .424 OPS. With his speed, you'd think at the very least he'd have legged out a double by now.

20. Not to be outdone, Gordon Beckham, a brilliant rookie in the AL last year, has a .213 batting average and .287 slugging percentage for the White Sox.

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