MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Leach: Friars a force to be reckoned with

Leach: Friars a force to be reckoned with

The Padres have shown that they're taking themselves seriously. It's time for the rest of baseball to do the same.

With Deadline trades for Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick, San Diego showed that it is playing to win this year. These were the right moves for a good team that has a very real chance to win not only in the regular season but in the playoffs as well. The Pads have been preventing runs well all year, now they should score a few more. If they get to October, and right now the odds look very good, they're legitimately dangerous.

The Padres have not only the National League's best record but the league's best run differential as well. They've won at their enormous home ballpark and also on the road. They started hot and they've stayed hot, with a winning record in every month of the season. Any notion that this club is a fluke or a curiosity should have been dispensed with by now.

Ludwick should know. He's coming from a team that made the playoffs last year and is in contention this year. He and the Cardinals also lost two out of three at PETCO Park in May.

"I think a lot of people weren't giving this team a chance," Ludwick said. "They were surprised after the first month, then the second month -- here we are going into August and [we] have the best record in the National League. It's not a surprise anymore. From an outsider looking [in], it's obviously something special."

Still, San Diego hasn't really hit this year. It's easy to chalk it up to PETCO, an extreme pitchers' park, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Not at all. The Padres have hit better at home than on the road. They have a higher batting average, much higher on-base percentage and the same slugging percentage at home. They've scored 4.17 runs per game on the road, and 4.51 at PETCO.

They needed an infusion of offense. Tejada may or may not provide that, though he's surely an enormous upgrade over starting shortstop Everth Cabrera at the plate, and he offers more against left-handed pitching than third baseman Chase Headley does.

But Ludwick? He's an impact hitter. Over parts of four years in St. Louis, he slugged .507. Whether he plays left field or right, he represents an enormous improvement. Padres outfielders rank last in the NL in batting average (.229), 14th in on-base percentage (.315) and a distant last in slugging (.360).

"It's a much better lineup to write out today than it was 48 hours ago," general manager Jed Hoyer said after the two deals were completed. "We needed some thump in the lineup. Our corner outfield production has been below par."

The question is what the moves will do to a defense that has been an enormous key to what the Padres have already accomplished. Ludwick, a quality defender having a good year in the field, should not hurt at all. Tejada, however, hasn't been a shortstop regularly this year and has only been an asset at the position in one of the past four years. The Pads felt they had to take that risk, and it is a risk.

The turnaround in San Diego recalls one of baseball's most dramatic in recent memory: the one that the Rays pulled off in 2008. The Padres weren't down for nearly as long as the Rays -- after all, they won 89 games just three years ago. But massive turnover led to a 99-loss season in '08, and despite a strong finish in '09, the Pads still finished 12 games under .500.

In retrospect, though, it's clear that something was brewing. Like the '07 Rays, the '09 Padres offered a sign of what was to come. And also like the Rays, San Diego has a smart, creative front office. Mostly, though, the Friars upgraded in the same low-profile ways that the Rays did.

The Padres' bullpen in 2009 was so-so. Now it's as good as any in baseball. More essentially, the Pads engineered a drastic improvement in the quality of their defense. Of all the changes that have occurred for the Padres to make this season happen, none is more important than the defense.

San Diego ranks third in the Majors and first in the NL in defensive efficiency, a measure of how well a team turns batted balls into outs. This is an excellent defensive team. And when you combine a brutal park for hitters with a defense that catches balls in play, you get a team that allows very few runs. The term "run prevention" has become a punch line to some media types in Boston, where the third-best team in baseball counts as a disappointment. In San Diego it's the key to a brilliant season and, potentially, a glorious October.

Baseball Prospectus keeps a measure called "Secret Sauce" based on three qualities that have been shown to correlate with postseason success. The Padres rank at the top of baseball in these Secret Sauce calculations, with an exceptional defense, a top-flight closer and a pitching staff that racks up strikeouts.

According to Prospectus, those three traits are about the only ones that have real predictive value in October. If you have two of them, you're in good shape. If you have all three, you're the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks or '07 Red Sox. In the Wild Card era, no team has finished a full season as high in the Secret Sauce rankings as the Padres stand right now.

The Friars have permitted 27 fewer runs than any other team in baseball. Now they've improved their offense as well. It's an excellent way to win in the regular season but an even better way to get through the postseason. Take them seriously, or disregard them at your own peril.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.