The San Diego Padres are four games up on the San Francisco Giants in the National League's Western Division and they're doing it all without second baseman David Eckstein and right-hander Chris Young.
So far, the Padres have been able to stem the tide without Eckstein and have pitched better than most thought without their ace. Just when it looked like they might be without both players until deep into September, they might get both back sooner than anyone thought.
Eckstein is headed to Fort Wayne, IN to play a few rehab games with the Padres' Single-A affiliate. He told Corey Brock of MLB.com that he's not so much worried about how he swings the bat but how his calf holds up going full speed. If he feels good, the Padres should have him back sometime next week.
As for Chris Young, he has started to work his way back and threw his fifth bullpen session on Monday while the team is in Chicago to face the Cubs. He is scheduled to throw a simulated game on Thursday and could be back with the Padres by early September.
The big 6'10" right-hander hasn't pitched since he went on the disabled list after his first start of the year back in April. The team has done just fine without him, having young pitchers like Mat Latos, Clayton Richard, and Wade LeBlanc along with veterans Jon Garland and Kevin Correia. However, getting Chris Young back would be a definite boost for this team especially in the final month of the regular season and the NL West division on the line.
The biggest question is, if Young is able to return, where do you put him?
You can't shut down Mat Latos for the year because the Padres will need him, especially if the division lead is within two or three games. if Kevin Correia is struggling in the rotation, you could move him to the bullpen, but he's been a workhorse for the Padres for the last two seasons with Young spending most of that time on the disabled list.
That leads me to this conclusion. Put Young in the bullpen. Not only do you put less stress on his arm but it strengthens an already outstanding bullpen.
You have guy like Latos starting who's able to go at least six to seven innings, then having to face Young out of the bullpen followed by Mike Adams and Heath Bell would be as automatic as they come.
Not only that, but you can use him in long relief as well.
If Young proves that he's ready to go, you can't tell him no, especially if team doctor's clear him. The Padres hold a $6.5 million option on him for next season which is unlikely to be picked up after spending most of the last two seasons on the bench with injuries.
There's no question that this will be a difficult decision for the Padres when he's ready to return. However, bringing him back when the rosters expand on September 1st gives the team an opportunity to do so without having to demote or release anyone.
The Padres, without Chris Young, have done just fine to this point. Getting him back into the fold makes this team that much stronger and even they can't deny that.
Young's simulated game this coming Thursday should be even more telling than his bullpen sessions on just how healthy he is. If he shows no signs of the injury or any weakness at all, then they have yet another dominate pitcher they can bring into the fold. It would be just like getting a starter off waivers except they wouldn't have to give anything up to get him.
They need to be a solid challenger in the National League and they need to be able to hold the current lead in the division. To do both, they need a guy like this to be able to solidify themselves as NLCS contenders.
To see Young's true potential and what he's already brought to the Padres, take a look at his numbers from the 2006 to the 2008 season.
Through those three seasons, Young started 79 games for the Padres, with a combined record of 27-19 and finished with an ERA of below 4.00 in all three seasons. His best finish was in 2007 when he finished with a 3.12 ERA and was a Cy Young candidate for the majority of that season, though he never would have won it with a 9-8 record and pitching for a mediocre Padre team.
Over the last two seasons, he's made just 15 starts with 14 of those coming in 2009. It's not how Young saw things going and it's not the way he would want to end his time in San Diego having not helped the team on the field.
But, that's the life of a pitcher. They go through every start wanting to give their best effort, even if they're not feeling 100 percent.
Watching from the dugout each and every day, wanting to be up on the mound helping his team win and being unable to has to be the worst feeling. Seeing his team in first place, fighting for every win and getting victories they weren't getting last year has made the guy from Princeton fight that much harder to get back and do everything he can to help this team get to their ultimate goal. The World Series.
The San Diego Padres are as good, if not better, than the team that made it to the series in 1998. They're winning games they should win, they're getting good pitching, and timely hitting. It's all adding up to one of the more probable runs they've had in 12 years.
The season doesn't hang on the return of Chris Young, but having him at full strength and able to be a sixth starter gives Bud Black yet another weapon in his already deep arsenal.
He wants to start, he wants the ball just like the other starters in the rotation. But the Padres need him in the bullpen. They need another shutdown arm. Another guy that can stop another team's rally in its tracks.
They may only get one shot at the World Series and this may be their best opportunity. Putting the right pieces in the right place is absolutely key. If Young is the team player I believe he is, he'll go where the team needs him and he'll do anything it takes to help the team win.
So, he'll take a seat right next to Heath Bell and he'll wait for the bullpen phone to ring. He'll get up, start to warm up. His number will be called and he'll enter Petco Park to the biggest roar since Trevor Hoffman's theme song "Hells Bells" echoed through downtown San Diego.
His time is coming. There's no need to rush it but when he's ready and 100 percent, the Padres will welcome him back. They need him as much as he needs them.