Up until now, this has been a very American League-centric series, with the Marlins — a team I’m not 100% positive hasn’t actually been relegated to the Pacific Coast League — representing the only NL club. While the AL is now a bifurcated league, one that features a smaller middle class than most 11th-century societies, the NL is now relatively competitive, the better league for Team Entropy. Clubs like the Padres stayed mathematically competitive much longer than comparable AL teams, but the eventual requiem mass was inevitable.
Among the clubs who could use a real, consistent run of success, the Padres are fairly high on my list. It’s an organization that, despite reaching its 50th year of Major League Baseball this season, has only won 95 games on one occasion and only produced consecutive 85-win seasons at one point in their history (2006-07), so if anyone’s due for a truly sunny period, it’s San Diego. Conversely, the Padres are rarely even all that bad and haven’t had a 100-loss season since 1993 (though they have come close). If, for Bill James, the late-80s Houston Astros were like bad jazz, I’d submit that the Padres are like .38 Special (the band, not the gun): their most popular songs are instantly recognizable, and you won’t turn off the radio in the middle of “Hold On Loosely”, but you’re never going to make a giant .38 Special playlist for your road trip. The team just exists, harmless and middling.
That’s the long-term trajectory of the Padres, and you get the sense that they really want to put together a winner, almost desperately. We saw this inclination after the 2014 season, shortly after general manager A.J. Preller’s joined the organization from Texas. His desire to compete immediately remains laudable, but the foundation of the team wasn’t strong enough to allow it, and there were some really troubling errors in judgment exhibited en route to hastily assembling a contender, such as the acquisition of Matt Kemp. (I won’t fault them for James Shields, whom they signed to a reasonable deal at the time and was ultimately exchanged for the system’s top prospect.) Manager Bud Black took the fall in 2015 — I’m not a fan, but he was definitely a scapegoat in that particular instance — and the team quite quickly went back into rebuilding mode.
The rebuilding had gone quite well heading into the 2017-18 offseason, but a little more organizational impatience was displayed, though not as damaging as that from three years earlier. While I’d prefer not to dwell on Eric Hosmer, you can’t talk about the preseason without mentioning him. There’s a very good argument to be made that a club shouldn’t refuse to sign a star player simply because they haven’t entered a window of contention yet. The problem, however, is that Hosmer isn’t so much a star as an extremely up-and-down player who has never recorded two consecutive league-average seasons in the majors. You don’t give someone $500 to lock in your Olive Garden reservations for next year’s wedding anniversary.
Trading Enyel De Los Santos for Freddy Galvis displayed similar failings of patience, even if that deal is hardly the sort to destroy an organization. You can’t say De Los Santos was anywhere near elite prospect status then or now, but a year of a slightly below-average shortstop production just didn’t do anything for the club. People yelled at me that the Padres had “enough” pitching prospects, but having too many pitching prospects isn’t an actual problem, and trades ought to bring in assets a club needs. It’s a small unforced error, but those unforced errors pile up.
The ZiPS projection system was completely unimpressed with San Diego’s starting pitching and, overall, saw the team as rather lackluster entering the 2018 season, projecting a 73-89 record and a 1.5% shot at the playoffs. ZiPS saw little divisional upside for the Padres, with many of the organization’s most interesting players absent from the 25-man roster for part or all of the season.
At 61-92, the Padres are already guaranteed to fall short of the projections for the 2018 season, though they again won’t lose 100 games. Hosmer struggled after a hot start, spending the summer struggling to keep his OPS above .700 and is either below-average or sub-replacement depending on how you feel about Baseball Info Solutions’s DRS vs. Ultimate Zone Rating. Wil Myers was similarly blazing on his return from an oblique injury, his OPS peaking at an impressive .976 the week before the All-Star break, but he has hit .213/.275/.329 since then. Dinelson Lamet didn’t even make it into the 2018 season, a torn UCL ending his campaign prematurely, making him one of the year’s biggest disappointments for me. The starting pitching was generally lousy, with the rotation’s 131 ERA- ranking last in MLB.
The potential for the veterans to prevent the Padres from sorting through their lesser prospects and interesting Triple-A talent was mitigated significantly due to injuries. The team, for example, never had Myers, Franchy Cordero, Hunter Renfroe, and Christian Villanueva all healthy at the same time. Still, they had trouble occasionally finding at-bats for Franmil Reyes. It would have been nice to give a look at fringier minor-league depth, too — like Brett Nicholas or Ty France — but that’s unlikely to seriously come back and bite the franchise later.
Despite this collection of missteps, the team did have quite a bit go right. Renfroe, Reyes, and Villanueva all showed progress as power hitters, even if none of them are likely to be build-around types. Getting a look at Myers at third base with Villanueva gone with a broken finger was an extremely clever way to fit both Renfroe and Reyes in the lineup without benching the veteran. Myers may even be a plausible third baseman, which makes him more valuable; it was a smart thing for a rebuilding organization to try. The rotation was a hot mess, but Joey Lucchesi adjusted to the majors very quickly. Austin Hedges took a significant step forward at the plate, enough that it makes the team’s catcher battle — in this case, with recently acquired Francisco Mejia — a fascinating thing to watch over the next year. One of my favorites, Manuel Margot, bounced back nicely from a nightmare-esque first two months of the season (.189/.234/.288 through May 21st).
I can’t leave without talking a bit about the bullpen. The group has combined for 7.8 WAR, behind only the Yankees, with a 3.53 ERA/3.33 FIP in 2018. And they assembled that top bullpen essentially from scratch, with no splashy free-agent acquisitions.
|Craig Stammen||2.05||2.70||2.2||Minor league contract|
|Adam Cimber||2.32||3.17||1.1||9th-round draft pick|
|Jose Castillo||2.46||3.12||0.9||Wil Myers trade|
|Kirby Yates||2.60||2.01||1.5||Waiver claim from Angels|
|Robert Stock||2.63||2.21||0.6||Minor league contract|
|Robbie Erlin||2.69||2.05||0.8||Mike Adams trade|
|Brad Hand||3.17||3.05||0.7||Waiver claim from Marlins|
|Phil Maton||3.24||4.26||0.6||20th-round draft pick|
|Matt Strahm||3.71||2.23||0.3||Big ol’ relief trade with Royals|
|Kazuhisa Makita||5.31||6.10||-0.2||Two-year, $3.8 million + $0.5 million posting fee|
Contrast San Diego with the experience of the Colorado Rockies, who spent nearly all their free-agent dough on brand-name relievers and still endured bullpen struggles throughout most of the season. While contracts like Hosmer’s seem to reflect problematic decision-making, it is a good sign if the organization sees that they can build a solid relief corps without spending money like your irresponsible cousin. The 2000s Angels and A’s made this kind of bullpen assembly an art form.
What Comes Next
Hopefully for the Padres, the future involves staying the course. If there’s a positive to Hosmer’s poor season and Galvis’s irrelevant one, it’s that they could have a moderating effect on any kind of over-exuberant transactions this winter. While you may think from my tone in certain places that I’m down on the Padres, I’m actually wildly optimistic about the team’s future. A middle infield of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Luis Urias could be the best combo of the next generation, and we’ve only seen the very edge of the team’s overwhelming stable of pitching prospects, with Lucchesi and Jacob Nix representing merely a dip of the toe in the talent reservoir. Combine those two and MacKenzie Gore and Chris Paddack and Logan Allen and Adrian Morejon and Cal Quantrill and Michel Baez and Anderson Espinoza and Luis Patino and Ryan Weathers and so on and so on and you have a list of young pitching prospects that’s so long that I think I forgot the point I was trying to make.
Oh yeah, future awesome or something like that. The team cashed in two of their cheaply acquired bullpen pieces to bring in Mejia, the best catching prospect in baseball. Josh Naylor, who may present an interesting problem for the team in a few years as it would be shocking to see him anywhere but first base, showed great improvements in plate discipline and power in 2018, and I think there’s a good chance he’ll hit in the majors.
San Diego’s future is as promising as any other team’s in the majors, especially if the team’s willing, when they are finally a force, to give out more Hosmer-type contracts to players who are better than Hosmer. If someone came back from the past and excitedly proclaimed to me “Dan, the Padres have four All-Stars in 2021!” I’d actually be slightly disappointed that the team only had four and very disappointed at such a mundane use of a time machine.
The organization’s challenge is piloting these transition years, not with short-term thinking or a desire to hot-shot an 80-win season through shortcuts, but with a laser-like focus on enhancing that future core as much as possible.
And when this team succeeds, they better do it in some variation of mustard and brown. The franchise deserves better than to have what could possibly be the sunniest epoch in the team’s history be played out in Generic Team 1 uniforms from the create-a-team mode in a baseball video game.
Way-Too-Early 2018 Projection: Fernando Tatis Jr.
Sure, it might be interesting to see Margot’s development, or project Hosmer’s chances at a bounceback, or see what a Myers season at third looks like. But I’m sure what people really want here is some glorious fan service in the form of Fernando Tatis Jr. Let the dreaming commence…
I thought the process of turning grass into steak was the world’s best magic trick, but turning James Shields into this, well that’s impressive. ZiPS doesn’t think that Tatis will spike high averages in the majors, but it does see a significant power upside, and really, if you’re complaining about this projection for a prospect in Double-A, well, you’re the greediest person that ever existed and you should be thrown in jail or something and have to wear one of those old-timey cannonball things chained to your ankle.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.