A funny thing happened on the way to the Padres trading first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Those frisky Friars grabbed the NL West lead.

Will they win the division? Probably not.

Will they end up moving Gonzalez, closer Heath Bell and any other player with a high salary and a heartbeat? Probably so.

But are the Padres for real?

That question actually deserves careful examination -- and come to think of it, the other questions might, too.

"This is who we are," second baseman David Eckstein said by telephone Sunday, after the Padres' eight-game winning streak ended with a 5-4 loss to the Reds.

"The biggest question from everyone on the outside was what we did the last two months of the season -- could we continue that going into the next season? That's what we've shown the last two weeks."

The Padres finished last season 37-25. They started this one 11-7. That's a combined 48-33 -- a full half-season sample.

While such assessments normally carry little weight, given the high rate of roster turnover from year to year, the Padres are largely the same team they were last season.

They traded third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff for outfielder Scott Hairston in a four-player deal. They signed free-agent right-hander Jon Garland, infielder Jerry Hairston Jr., catcher Yorvit Torrealba and pinch-hitter Matt Stairs. But that's it.

If the Padres played in the AL East -- or even the NL East -- they would not stand a chance. But they play in the NL West, a division in which every club but the Rockies has obvious flaws.

The Giants can't hit, and don't catch too well, either. The Divorce Court Dodgers are barely getting five innings a game out of their starters. The Diamondbacks are trying to patch both their rotation and bullpen.

The Rockies still could run away, but the Padres' pitching should allow them to stay competitive -- maybe even competitive enough for new general manager Jed Hoyer to think twice about blowing up his roster in July.

"We understand that it's all in our hands," Eckstein said. "The ability to go out and get wins will help us accomplish that. If we don't, we don't deserve to stay together."

Eckstein re-signed with the Padres for one year and $1 million actually believing that the team was on the verge of a breakthrough.

General manager Kevin Towers left Hoyer a foundation, and the Padres are winning all sorts of ways. They had a 17-2 victory over the Braves. They had a 1-0 triumph over the Giants -- with one hit.

Come to think of it, they even looked decent in spring training, going 15-2-2 in their last 19 games, including split-squad efforts.

"I felt it was developing here," Eckstein said. "I saw the guys, saw who they were, saw what they were going to be. I knew that if we were able to keep everyone together, we would have a good chance to play the way we're playing right now."

There's that "if" again, but the Padres' $37.8 million payroll is the second-lowest in the majors, ahead of only the Pirates.

If they stay in contention and start drawing decently at Petco Park, it's not inconceivable that they might add rather than subtract.

Yo, Adrian! Don't pack your bags yet.