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Series Preview: San Diego Padres vs. New York Mets

For the first time this side of the All-Star break, the Mets face a team that isn't in first place.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Back when it was still really cold outside and we didn't have baseball every day, the Padres were adored by fans and reporters alike. There they were, making big moves and transforming from a nobody into a contender before our eyes. While Sandy Alderson and the Mets sat on their hands and watched the snow fall, San Diego general manager A.J. Preller was out making things happen. Why can't more people be like him?

Fast forward a few months and reality has set in. Alderson's patience has appeared to pay off, as the Mets hung in the postseason race long enough to allow for a pair of trades to develop. On the other coast, the Padres struggled to turn their new star power into wins. Now the shoe is on the other foot, with Alderson improving his team via trade while the media is waiting for Preller to make some big moves in the seller's market. Although the Padres are only four games behind the Mets in the standings, San Diego is farther back in its division race and is in dire need of a farm rebuild.

The Upton movement

The last time we checked in on the Padres at the outset of June, Justin Upton (.251/.330/.429 overall) was hot and Matt Kemp (.257/.306/.414)  was not. Two months later, Upton still looks like the stronger player, but it's a much closer call than before thanks to recent performance. The former top overall draft pick hit .196/.319/.289 in June and has hit .154/.211/.269 so far in July. With Upton's scorching start now a thing of the past, it will be interesting to see if San Diego can grab some prospects in exchange for two months of his services.

If Upton can turn his offense around following a change of scenery, he can still give a big boost to any club that acquires him. However, if he continues to slump like he has, any possible destination might be better off without him. It certainly doesn't hurt that the slugger returned quickly to the lineup after sitting out four games with an oblique injury. In his most recent game, Upton hit his second home run of the month to lead the Padres to a win over Miami.

Kemp is in a totally different situation from Upton. After a good April and a dreadful May, the veteran outfielder has rebounded to hit .243/.279/.447 in June and .304/.400/.609 in July. That's a great sign for the Padres, who traded with the Dodgers for Kemp's massive contract this winter and are still on the hook for four more years. No matter if San Diego decides to build around Kemp or move him (either way, he's likely not going anywhere this summer), his performance will have a big impact on the club's future.

The start of the softer schedule

Recent trades for Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, and Tyler Clippard have added a refreshing splash of optimism to the conversation surrounding the Mets, but remember, this is still a club with a minus-six run differential that has been playing seven games under .500 since late April.

On the other hand, the Mets just did a good job to weather the storm that was 10 straight games against division-leading teams. A 4-6 record in that span isn't going to send shock waves through the league, but it's far from the disaster that could have been considering six of the 10 games came on the road. Now the Mets are still only two games behind Washington with a much easier stretch of games ahead of them.

48 of New York's remaining 63 games come against teams with below-.500 records. In August alone — when the Mets will be playing with their revamped roster and have an opportunity to prove that they are for real — the team plays just two opponents with winning records. With reinforcements in tow, and maybe one more bat on the way, hopefully we'll be able to look back in a couple of months and say that this series is where the Mets finally started to make their push to the postseason in earnest.

Pitchers are on the market as well

The lineup is not the only part of the team that San Diego will looking to trade assets from. Preller is also listening to plenty of offers regarding his pitching staff, including some on the guys going up against the Mets this week. James Shields is someone who the Padres would prefer to deal away thanks to the big contract they signed him to over the offseason, but it appears that suitors are more interested in the younger, more affordable Tyson Ross, who doesn't hit free agency until 2018.

Shields has bumped his strikeout rate considerably during his first year on the west coast, but he's also walking nearly twice as many batters as he did in 2014 with Kansas City. The real issue behind Shields's 3.77 ERA, though, is home runs. He's allowing them on 18 percent of fly balls, which is shocking considering that he's now playing his home games at Petco Park.

For whatever reason, though, Petco is not the pitcher's haven it used to be. This season, it's playing like a neutral park, and that has caused San Diego's pitching to perform worse than expected. The good news is that sluggers like Upton have been able to hit the ball out of their home yard. 13 of Upton's 16 home runs this year have come at Petco.

One guy who hasn't been affected by the changes at Petco is Ross, who doesn't have to worry about balls in the air too much thanks to his otherworldly 63-percent ground ball rate. Ross's ground ball rate has increased in each season he's spent in San Diego, but this campaign is especially ridiculous. When you combine all those worm-burners with Ross's 25-percent strikeout rate, you've got a guy who is really tough to deal with. His 3.45 ERA is mostly due to a .340 BABIP as well as his four walks per nine innings. That lack of control is the only weakness in Ross's game right now. If he can get that figure down below three, the 28-year-old could be a future Cy Young candidate.

Like Shields, Andrew Cashner has been adversely affected by the new Petco environment this season, and that showed in his last start against the Mets. Despite a stunning 12 strikeouts in four-and-two-thirds innings, Cashner allowed six runs to New York in a 7-0 shutout on June 1.

Date Time Television Padres Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
July 28, 2015 7:10 PM SNY James Shields Noah Syndergaard
July 29, 2015 7:10 PM SNY Tyson Ross Bartolo Colon
July 30, 2015 12:10 PM SNY, MLBN Andrew Cashner Jon Niese

Jacob deGrom was New York's starter in that game, but San Diego won't have the pleasure of getting crushed by him again. Instead, they'll face the surprisingly consistent Noah Syndegaard as well as Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon. While Niese was disappointing in his recent start versus the Dodgers, we'll give him a pass considering that his wife was about to go into labor. On the brighter side, Colon was brilliant in his outing against Los Angeles. It would be really cool if he could replicate it with someone besides Clayton Kershaw on the opposing mound.

Prediction: Mets win two of three.

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