Every year we release team projections, and every year people express disagreement with them. But it’s not large-scale disagreement — typically, people differ on one or two or three specific teams. Sometimes it’s been the Royals, sometimes it’s been the Orioles, and this year it’s the Rockies. Most of the projections are considered basically fine. The FanGraphs crowd has determined that the Padres’ 2017 projection is basically fine. The Padres are projected to be the worst team in baseball, at 65-97, and we put their playoff odds at 0.1%.
But there are certain numbers I love to bring up. I have team projections going back to 2005, and since then, all the teams projected to win no more than 70 games have averaged 68 projected wins, and 68 actual wins. In that sense, the projections have been great. Yet the 2008 Marlins were projected to win 68 games, and they won 84. The 2010 Blue Jays were projected to win 65 games, and they won 85. The 2012 Orioles were projected to win 70 games, and they won 93. All of those teams were thought to be bad. All of those teams were contenders.
The Padres, right now, are thought to be bad. What if they turned into contenders? Let’s follow an 11-step process to make that happen. Let’s try to get these Padres into the playoffs, without doing anything too unrealistic.
Note that bizarre things can and do happen. Those 2010 Blue Jays, for example, enjoyed the first full season of the newly-broken-out Jose Bautista. Expecting something like that would be stupid. The 2012 Orioles beat their Pythagorean record by 11 games. Expecting something like that would be stupid. The Padres could get to the playoffs on dumb luck alone, given enough of it, but declaring that would be a form of cheating. I want to be as reasonable as I can be, given the premise.
Here’s how we’re doing this. We have the Mets projected as the NL’s second wild card. So that’s the point to reach. The Mets are projected for 39.6 WAR. The Padres are projected for 22.8 WAR. It’s time to come up with 17 new wins above replacement. In no particular order, let’s start assigning extra value.
Step 1: Bullpen
The Padres have the potential to have a really good bullpen. I’ve written before about how that could allow them to hold a big trade-deadline sell-off. Alternatively, it could allow them to maintain critical ties and preserve critical leads! Brandon Maurer remains interesting, and Kevin Quackenbush was good not all that long ago, but the three main pieces to me are Ryan Buchter, Brad Hand, and of course Carter Capps. The last time Capps was healthy, he was almost literally unhittable. Hand just had a major breakout season with what was almost an Andrew Miller slider clone. And Buchter struck out roughly a third of his opponents while generating a ton of weak fly-ball contact. Let’s say these three relievers are worth 4.5 WAR between them. That takes the Padres up to 25.0.
Step 2: Schimpf
I get that there are reasons to be skeptical of Ryan Schimpf. He was a 28-year-old rookie with extreme rates of both strikeouts and fly balls. He has an atypical profile, and it makes perfect sense to be wary of players who follow non-traditional paths. Yet Schimpf was just a 2.4-WAR player in a little over half a season. His plate discipline implies he shouldn’t strike out so much going forward, and he’s hit the ball hard in the minors. Repeating last year’s performance in this year’s projected playing time would give Schimpf 4.1 WAR. Let’s put him, instead, at 3.0. That takes the Padres up to 26.4.
Step 3: Myers
This one doesn’t take too much. Last year wasn’t a breakout season for Wil Myers, offensively — he hit just as well the season before. Rather, it was a breakout season for Myers’ health, as he got into 157 games. We’re horrible at predicting injuries, because an awful lot of injuries are random, but Myers is going into his age-26 season and he shouldn’t be coming apart at the seams. He made an outstanding transition to first base, and Myers also learned to become a premier baserunning threat. He was roughly a 4-win player. Let’s say he’s a 4-win player again. That takes the Padres up to 27.8.
Step 4: Solarte
One doesn’t often pause to spend much time discussing Yangervis Solarte. He’s an unsexy player, a low-ceiling player, sort of anonymous in a crowded field of talented third basemen, league-wide. Yet Solarte has always been fine, more or less all-around, and applying last year’s performance to this year’s projected playing time would yield a WAR of 3.3. Let’s knock that down to a reasonable, slightly-above-average 2.5. That takes the Padres up to 28.6.
Step 5: Hedges
Here’s a fun one. Austin Hedges has always been known for his excellent defense. No one’s ever doubted his various catching skills, or his ability to handle a pitching staff. The issue, for some time, was that Hedges couldn’t tap into his raw power. Last season, in the minors, he did that, slugging .597 in an admittedly hitter-friendly environment. Hedges is 24 years old. He’s been big-league ready as a catcher for years. Now he might be able to deliver real damage, too. A wOBA around .325 or .330 wouldn’t be nuts. That’s what, say, Brian McCann and Alex Avila just did. Hedges has the ability to be a 3-win player, without too much trouble, if last year’s progress was legitimate. That takes the Padres up to 30.0.
Step 6: Jankowski
Travis Jankowski probably isn’t going to hit. Although his idea of the zone is just fine, he’s not particularly strong, and he keeps the ball on the ground. His walks, then, will be limited as a function of pitchers staying aggressive. But Jankowski is a good runner, and, more than that, he seems to be a fantastic defender, according to DRS, UZR, and Statcast. Billy Hamilton has been worth 3.6 WAR per 600 plate appearances, despite being a terrible hitter. Leonys Martin has been worth 2.6 WAR per 600 plate appearances, despite also being a below-average hitter. Let’s put Jankowski, the regular, at 2.5. That barely exceeds what he did last season as a rookie, in less time. That takes the Padres up to 31.6.
Step 7: Margot
Manuel Margot is just 22, but he spent last season as a 21-year-old in Triple-A, playing good defense without striking out. He’s shown advanced bat-to-ball skills that should help his discipline translate to the majors, and similar to Jankowski, he’s an athlete who ought to make an enormous if subtle contribution beyond the batter’s box. Margot is going to run on the bases, and he’s going to run down fly balls in the gaps. You can put him at 2.5, too. His adjustment should be fairly smooth. That takes the Padres up to 32.8.
Step 8: Renfroe
This Padres outfield is underratedly interesting, and I’m not even bothering here to include Alex Dickerson, who has consistently hit. The concern for Hunter Renfroe is his swing-and-miss tendency. Last year in Triple-A, his strikeouts were ugly when compared to his walks. Yet he’s also still young, and beyond those Triple-A peripherals, he slugged .557. Eric recently gave Renfroe a raw-power rating of 70, on the 20-80 scouting scale. He’s a capable corner defender, if well short of Jankowski in that regard. Let’s say Renfroe is an even, league-average 2-win rookie. That takes the Padres up to 34.2.
Step 9: Perdomo
We’ve all made fun of the Padres’ starting rotation. It is, truthfully, a bad starting rotation. Yet it’s not completely without its promise, and Luis Perdomo is of considerable interest. He was a Rule 5 Draft selection, which didn’t bode well, and no one should like the look of Perdomo’s 5.71 ERA. Behind that, though, there was a 97 xFIP-, which is three points better than average. Perdomo was an extreme ground-ball pitcher with a homer problem, and those are typically fleeting. The stuff is real, with Perdomo getting his fastball well into the mid-90s. From July on, in 15 starts, Perdomo walked fewer than two batters per nine innings, with an xFIP- of 94. He stayed around the zone and threw 65% strikes. For comparison, Jeff Samardzija had an xFIP- of 96. I’m going to bump Perdomo up to 2.5 WAR. Best starter in the group. That takes the Padres up to 35.7.
Step 10: Richard
And now we turn to Clayton Richard, who is still a pitcher in the major leagues. Richard is very much not a strikeout pitcher. He never has been. He’s not even all that much of a control pitcher. But he can throw a roughly average number of strikes, and, more importantly, two years ago he made a change to his sinker, generating a bunch more drop. The most recent version of Richard has leaned heavily on that sinker, which he’s thrown reliably around the bottom edge of the strike zone. As a consequence of this, Richard has become tremendously difficult to elevate, and he just posted a higher grounder rate than Brad Ziegler. Richard isn’t a quality starter, but he could be a passable one. Give him 2 WAR. That takes the Padres up to 36.7.
Step 11: Luck
We had to get here eventually. Even after all of that above, the Padres remain 3 WAR short of the Mets. But! But, through the magic of good sequencing, teams can overachieve beyond even their base talent. Over the past dozen years of BaseRuns information, a quarter of all teams — 25% — have posted a win total that was at least three wins better than their estimated BaseRuns win total. It’s happened for good teams, average teams, and bad teams; the Padres are no more or less likely than anyone. Three wins would get them up to the Mets. Three wins, that is, in addition to all of the other extra wins. The odds of all of this coming together just so are incredibly slim. That much, we all understand, which is why people don’t think the Padres will be good. But even bad baseball teams have promise. And when you break a roster down on a case-by-case basis, it’s funny the things you can start to imagine.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.