During spring training, Adrian Gonzalez(notes) approached each of his San Diego Padres teammates and delivered a message: He didn't want to be traded. None had the ability to single-handedly dispatch him, of course, though that wasn't the point. Gonzalez simply wanted to let them know his departure was no foregone conclusion.
Over the previous six months, Gonzalez's name had swirled amid a baseball rumor mill for which his situation was built: a star player and good guy with a reasonable contract on a rebuilding team shedding payroll. Leaving wasn't a possibility as much as Gonzalez's reality, the confluence of all the necessary elements so ideal for San Diego to deal him.
Gonzalez didn't want to go anywhere. He grew up in San Diego. He ached to win there. And he saw something from this team, something that only a person so skilled in baseball forensics might notice: The Padres were good. Not cutesy, little-franchise-that-could good. Legitimately so. Thus went the pledge to the rest of the Padres: They could win, and they could win now, and if they won, he wasn't going anywhere.
In a first half full of surprise division leaders – among baseball's six, only the New York Yankees were favorites – none stands out more than the Padres, who have ridden the best pitching in the major leagues, arguably the best defense and the offensive contributions of Gonzalez, first baseman extraordinaire and, more important, Padre for this season and the foreseeable future.
"The team made that the case," Padres general manager Jed Hoyer said. "Adrian's had a terrific season. In my mind, if the season ended today, he's the National League MVP considering what he means to our offense. And what he did in spring training was very impressive. He was adamant that this team was going to compete."
Just how competitive not even Gonzalez could imagine. The Padres sported their lowest opening day payroll since 1997, when they shelled out $34.7 million – about three-fifths that of the highest-spending team, the New York Yankees. The 2010 Yankees opened the season with a $206.3 million payroll, nearly 5½ times that of the Padres' $37.8 million.
And yet since July 27, 2009, the only team with a better record than the Padres is New York. San Diego's 88-62 mark is better than Boston's (88-64), Colorado's (87-64) and St. Louis' (84-64). If the Padres really are a fluke, they've done a remarkable job hiding it for an entire year and outfoxing the Rockies, Dodgers and Giants to sit atop the NL West with a 51-37 record.
"I knew we had the ability to beat every team out there," Gonzalez said. "My only concern was whether we were going to play at that level when it wasn't September. We have. Seeing that we've been able to do that lets me know we can do this for a full season."
On his walks to the mound, Padres manager Bud Black goes through a routine. He'll take the ball from the pitcher, deliver a few words of encouragement, then turn toward Gonzalez and open his ears. Rare is the mid-game moment where Gonzalez doesn't have some sort of strategic maneuvering to suggest. Better to ensure the Padres keep doing things right.
"Of the number of players I've been around as a player and coach, he's right up there with understanding the game," Black said. "Players. Situations. Some guys embrace it, some guys can't. Adrian has an understanding now who he is, and he embraces it."
Gonzalez's evolution from subservient kid on a team with Trevor Hoffman(notes) and Brian Giles(notes) to the – he won't say it – old man in the Padres' clubhouse happened quickly. The fashion in which he embraces the role fits perfectly with his personality: calm, collected and cerebral. Gonzalez's brain works overtime, whether through tips to Black or more serious conversations inside the clubhouse.
"I observe a lot of things on the field," he said. "Sometimes I feel like I'm not just playing first base but trying to play every other position. I visualize that position. A lot of times, people are quick to speak and say something. And by the end of the day, they end up thinking, 'I really shouldn't have said that.' I like to measure my words. I want to make sure it's the right thing to say instead of the first thing that pops into your head."
Gonzalez, 28, saves his words for before and after games. As Black's clubhouse liaison and peacemaker, he approaches teammates with a certain delicacy – Gonzalez looked sheepish for taking Nick Hundley's(notes) money in a recent World Cup side bet – and offers little pearls of wisdom, short and sweet enough to end up on Twitter.
He spoke to Hundley this spring, his advice almost a haiku: "Let the ball get deeper when you swing. Don't go and get it. Be calm."
When Gonzalez approached pitcher Wade LeBlanc(notes), he suggested LeBlanc follow another successful control-and-command left-hander: "Look at Mark Buehrle(notes). He never shakes off his catchers because all he has to do is execute the pitch. Execute, and it will work."
The extra duties aren't nearly as trying as Gonzalez's primary job: carry the Padres' offense. No player in baseball has as high a percentage of his team’s weighted Runs Created metric as Gonzalez, who accounted for 18.5 percent of his team's offense in the first half. His traditional statistics – .301 batting average, .397 on-base percentage, .533 slugging percentage, 18 home runs, 56 RBIs – are all the better with half his games coming at Petco Park, which, Hoyer said, "is a graveyard for left-handed hitters."
Factoring in Petco makes Gonzalez's abilities even gaudier: His league- and park-adjusted OPS is 62 percent better than average, the second consecutive year it's been at least that high. Only 74 players have had two such seasons, and those don't include Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt, Dave Winfield, Johnny Bench, Al Kaline and Robin Youth, nor Sammy Sosa, Ryan Howard(notes), David Ortiz(notes) and Lance Berkman(notes). And so with that, and with his back-to-back Gold Gloves, and with his cross-cultural appeal, Gonzalez would seem the sort to overcome his small market and pry his way into the national consciousness. Then he doesn't even finish in the top five in his league in All-Star balloting and is left to laugh, the perfect microcosm for the team he represents.
Adams pitches in a Padres bullpen filled with cast-offs and no-names. He played for four organizations in 2006 alone. Closer Heath Bell(notes) was cast off by the Mets. Setup man Luke Gregerson(notes) broke his neck in a car crash in high school and spent college as an outfielder. Edward Mujica(notes) was traded for a player to be named later or cash. Joe Thatcher(notes) spent two seasons in independent ball. Ryan Webb(notes) finished his six years in the minor leagues with a 5.21 ERA – nearly three runs higher than his with the Padres this year.
Maybe it's Petco, maybe it's Black – the only former pitcher managing an MLB team – and pitching coach Darren Balsley, or maybe the Padres' pitchers simply improved. Whatever the case, the team's 2.91 bullpen ERA entering the All-Star break was the best since Cleveland's in 2005, and the pitching staff's 3.25 ERA is tops since the Los Angeles Dodgers' in 2003.
"We believe in each other and in this team," Adams said. "And we know outside this clubhouse, other people don't. It's almost better nobody believes in us. We started getting a little more attention, and in a way it wasn't a good thing. This team plays better under the radar when nobody knows who we are."
As long as the Padres continue their stranglehold on first place, anonymity is a necessary sacrifice. The Padres weren't supposed to be this good, not this soon, with Hoyer taking over from the fired Kevin Towers in late October, and with veteran starter Chris Young out since his first start of the season with a bum shoulder, and with Gonzalez's one-man show bound to bite the Padres.
"I know some of us are wanting to bring just one guy to help Adrian," Bell said. "It would make our team that much better."
It's certainly superior to the plan in the alternate universe where the Padres are no good: trade Gonzalez. He's going nowhere, the team's $5.5 million option for next year one of the game's great bargains, and should the Padres pull off the improbable and win their division, the surplus money from a playoff appearance, Hoyer said, "will go right back onto the field."
Whether that translates to a contract extension beyond 2011 for Gonzalez – "We will talk this offseason," Hoyer said – depends on his intent of reaching the $100 million-plus deals Mark Teixeira(notes) and Ryan Howard signed.
"For now, it's nice knowing I can focus on baseball," Gonzalez said, and as long as the Padres continue winning, he'll have plenty of those moments to savor. He and his teammates delivered a message, as loudly and clearly as possible, and all Gonzalez wants is for the Padres' remaining 74 games to treat them as well as their previous 150.