Braves built to last, Padres aren't

Published Jul. 20, 2010 1:00 a.m. EDT

On a springtime glance at the schedule, the matchup didn’t look like much: Padres at Braves, over three weeknights in the middle of July.

But look at them now.

Tonight, the teams with the two best records in the National League will meet at Turner Field. Atlanta has the biggest division lead in the majors -- 5.5 games over the Mets in the NL East. San Diego is four ahead of second-place San Francisco in the West.

It’s tempting to bill the series as a postseason preview. But the truth is that only one team is October-ready.


The Braves will be there. The Padres won’t.

Atlanta has the deeper roster -- one that is getting better and healthier, almost by the day. Jair Jurrjens, who starts tonight, recently came off the disabled list. So did outfielders Jason Heyward and Matt Diaz.

Opening Day center fielder Nate McLouth is expected to rejoin the lineup soon, perhaps as early as tonight.

Braves general manager Frank Wren also made a wise trade last week, swapping one erratic shortstop (Yunel Escobar) for a reliable one (Alex Gonzalez).

Gonzalez is a glove man by reputation who happens to be in the midst of a career offensive season. He will bring thump to a lineup that doesn’t have a single hitter slugging better than .500.

Atlanta’s offense is best described as “well-balanced.” In some instances, that is a euphemism for “weak.” Not so, in this case.

Yes, Troy Glaus is the team’s only hitter with more than 45 RBIs. Yes, McLouth was batting just .176 when was placed on the DL. But the Braves lead the NL in walks. They rank a respectable sixth in runs scored. And a number of their players -- Diaz, Omar Infante and Brian McCann -- are enjoying terrific Julys.

McLouth, who has missed more than a month because of a concussion, is returning at an ideal time. If he hits like he did in 2008, the Braves will have an everyday outfielder. If he doesn’t, Wren will be able to deal for an outfield bat.

How can we be so sure of that? Well, the Braves have the best currency in baseball: Young pitching.

The Triple-A bullpen has been an ongoing showcase of future big leaguers, including Michael Dunn, Stephen Marek and Craig Kimbrel. (Dunn is actually in the majors now.) And starters Mike Minor and Julio Teheran are highly valued in the industry.

On Monday, two major league sources put the chances at roughly 50/50 that the Braves will trade for an outfielder. Atlanta has interest in Florida’s Cody Ross and Washington’s Josh Willingham, among others.

The Braves are also keeping an eye on Milwaukee’s Corey Hart. The Padres are, too -- and San Diego has the greater need for his power bat.

While San Diego has the lowest ERA in the majors -- Atlanta ranks fourth -- the Padres have scored the fewest runs of any contender in the big leagues. They have relied on “pitching, defense and athleticism,” in the words of one scout. And there’s a good chance that their pitching is about to get worse.

Mat Latos, the staff leader in wins, is on the disabled list. So is Mike Adams, one of the best middle men in the National League. In each case, the complaint is a strained left oblique. Odd, isn’t it?

Legend has it that Latos suffered the injury when he attempted to stifle a sneeze. Comedians will have fun with that, but Padres fans shouldn’t laugh. Cliff Lee, one of the best pitchers on the planet, was sidelined by a harmless-sounding “right abdominal strain” in spring training three years ago. He finished that season with a 6.29 ERA.

I’m not comparing a right-hander’s oblique strain in 2010 with a left-hander’s abdominal strain in 2007. I’m simply making this point: There is no such thing as a trifling pitching injury.

Even before the DL stint, there were questions about how effective Latos, 22, would be in the second half of his first full season as a big-league starter. The same goes for Clayton Richard, 26, and Wade LeBlanc, 25.

“It’s extremely difficult to rely as heavily as the Padres do on pitching and defense, especially with those three young starters,” said one executive with another club. “Not to take anything away from what they’ve done to this point -- because they have been outstanding -- but you have three guys there that never had to take on this kind of workload. And they will be doing it in a pennant race.”

Three more concerns, if you’re a San Diego fan:

• In the second half, teams should be especially wary of Adrian Gonzalez and force Chase Headley to beat them.

• Luke Gregerson, whose setup role becomes even more important with Adams out, may struggle to maintain his stuff because of how many sliders he throws.

• Even if the Padres play well, it will be difficult to get comfortable atop the NL West. Three teams -- the Giants, Rockies and Dodgers, in that order -- are within six games of the lead.

So, I urge you to enjoy this week’s series in Atlanta. The baseball should be terrific, and it will be your last chance to watch the Braves and Padres play each other this year. One team is headed to October. The other is about to collapse.