Hey, These Padres Are Still Pretty Good

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Dating back to August 31, 2023, the Padres have the best record in baseball. They have the second-highest run differential in that time, trailing only the Brewers, against whom they just took two out of three on the road. To be clear, these are fun facts for the jumbotron rather than meaningful or predictive metrics. After all, the Padres of late 2023 look quite a bit different from the Padres of early 2024, and their performance from last September is doing most of the heavy lifting. Even so, it’s enough to make you stop and think, “Hey, these Padres are still pretty good!”

That’s not to say the Padres ever looked like a bad team. However, it would have been easy to write them off, at least subconsciously, after last year’s disappointing performance and the offseason that followed. The Padres ranked second in the NL in pitching WAR and third in position player WAR last season, yet they finished just 82-80. And although they were able to secure a winning record on the final day of the regular season, they certainly lost more than they gained over the winter. As their three biggest competitors in the NL West added six of our top nine free agents (and 10 of our top 21), the Padres lost their best hitter (Juan Soto), their closer (Josh Hader), their ace (Blake Snell), and three more capable arms from the rotation (Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha, and Nick Martinez), all while slashing payroll by nearly $90 million.

It’s not that they were punting on the 2024 season. The Padres got back four players with MLB experience in the Soto trade (righty starter Michael King, catcher Kyle Higashioka, and right-handers Jhony Brito and Randy Vásquez) and later flipped the final piece (righty Drew Thorpe) as part of the package for their new top pitcher, Dylan Cease. They also signed two notable free agent relievers (lefties Yuki Matsui and Wandy Peralta) to join Brito, fellow trade acquisition Enyel De Los Santos, and Rule 5 draft pick Stephen Kolek in a new-look bullpen. (San Diego also signed righty reliever Woo-Suk Go from the KBO, but he struggled in spring training, failed to make the Opening Day roster, and is currently pitching in relief with Double-A San Antonio.)

Still, the Padres were never going to make up for all they lost while simultaneously resetting their luxury tax penalties. Thus, San Diego was impossible to ignore over the winter yet easy to overlook as the season began. Teams that lose a generational superstar, a multiple-time Cy Young winner, and a stud closer after an 82-win season normally don’t factor into the playoff race the following year. But who would ever call the Padres normal?

Our playoff odds currently gives the Padres a 46.2% chance to make the postseason, and they have the third-highest odds (35.3%) to secure a National League Wild Card berth, trailing only the Phillies (52.9%) and Diamondbacks (36.2%). The race remains wide open, with the Mets, Giants, and whoever doesn’t win the NL Central also in the running. San Diego is only one game above .500, but at this point in the season, that’s an 85-win pace. There is a lot of season left to play, but as things stand, the Padres are in pretty good shape.

Consider this: Despite losing Soto, the Padres have had no trouble scoring runs. Wednesday marked the first time they’ve been shut out this season. The lineup is averaging 5.2 runs per game, and its 113 wRC+ ranks fourth in the National League.

The biggest contributor has been exactly the man who needed to be the biggest contributor: Fernando Tatis Jr. After a dismal second half to the 2023 season (86 wRC+), he entered the 2024 campaign all out of excuses. So far, he hasn’t needed any. His 148 wRC+ is reminiscent of his numbers from his first three seasons. Although he hasn’t hit for quite as much power as he did from 2019-21, Tatis already has set a new career high in maximum exit velocity (116.7 mph). Moreover, he is whiffing less than ever, and his strikeout rate is significantly below average for the first time in his career.

Jake Cronenworth is in the middle of a bounce-back season as well, with a 125 wRC+ through 19 games. If Tatis looks like his old self, then Cronenworth looks like a whole new man. After posting a meager .301 wOBA and an equally unimposing .305 xwOBA last year, Cronenworth is tearing the cover off the ball in 2024. His 44.1% hard-hit rate is a career high, as is his 15.3% barrel rate (nine barrels on 59 batted balls). Even better, he’s hitting the ball well without sacrificing his elite contact skills or plus plate discipline. It still feels like a bit of a waste to have a capable second baseman playing a less difficult position, but if Cronenworth keeps hitting like this, his bat will play at first. He’s currently day-to-day with a mild leg injury but shouldn’t be out for long.

As an added bonus, Jurickson Profar is also off to a phenomenal start. While history and common sense tell us this won’t last forever, it’s hard to find much fault with his early season performance. His .341 xwOBA isn’t jaw-dropping like his .394 wOBA, but it is still a career high. Nobody expects Profar to go shot for shot with Tatis all season, but if he can be even just a league-average bat going forward, that would be a major boost for the Padres.

In addition to those three bounce-back candidates, San Diego is enjoying the start of a breakout season from center fielder Jackson Merrill. While his .396 BABIP is unsustainable, the 20-year-old’s contact skills look as good as advertised. Like many of his fellow Padres, he is striking out at a well below-average rate. He hasn’t tapped into much of his raw power, but Merrill has knocked his fair share of hard-hit singles en route to a 140 wRC+. Most importantly, he hasn’t looked overmatched against big league pitching.

The only hitter in the Padres lineup who has been truly disappointing so far is Xander Bogaerts. The newly minted second baseman is hitting an abysmal .200/.273/.263 with a 60 wRC+, worst among hitters on San Diego’s active roster. It’s far too early to fret over the five-time Silver Slugger, who has been consistently excellent at the plate since 2018. That said, the team will need him to bust out of his slump eventually to pick up the slack when Profar inevitably regresses. Thankfully for the Padres, if history suggests Profar’s wRC+ will drop by about 50 points, they can expect Bogaerts’ to increase by the same amount.

Considering that Manny Machado had offseason elbow surgery and returned to the lineup in time for Opening Day, the Padres should certainly be pleased that his offensive numbers are still above average (118 wRC+) and right in line with his performance from last season. His .302 xwOBA is concerning, but his hard-hit and barrel rates are the highest they’ve been since 2021. The problem is he is drilling balls into the ground at a much higher rate (54.8%) than ever before — his career groundball rate is 41.7% — though we should expect his batted-ball profile to return to normal as the season progresses and he gets further removed from the injury, which so far has limited him to DH duty. He is expected to return to third base by the end of April, but it remains unclear when he’ll be ready for an everyday role in the field. Regardless, the Padres will be better off with his glove at third and more flexibility from the DH spot.

To that point, the newly signed Donovan Solano could get plenty of reps at DH once Machado returns to third. Solano can also play all three bases, giving manager Mike Shildt plenty of flexibility when it comes to his infield alignment. Now 36 years old, Solano may not be a plus defender anywhere but first, but he has been an above-average hitter for the past five seasons (112 wRC+ since 2019). When he’s ready for MLB action, he can offer the Padres another capable bat at the bottom of a deep lineup. With Solano replacing the current third base platoon of Tyler Wade and Eguy Rosario, the Padres would have eight hitters in the order with a projected rest-of-season wRC+ of at least 100. The only exception is Merrill, who so far seems like a strong candidate to surpass his 50th-percentile projections:

Padres Rest-of-Season Projections
Hitter Depth Charts Projected wRC+
Xander Bogaerts 113
Fernando Tatis Jr. 137
Jake Cronenworth 108
Manny Machado 120
Jurickson Profar 101
Ha-Seong Kim 103
Jackson Merrill 96
Luis Campusano 101
Donovan Solano 100

Interestingly enough, although the Soto trade was the prevailing story of San Diego’s offseason, the team ultimately lost more talent on the pitching side. Snell, Lugo, Wacha, and Martinez started 91 games in 2023, accounting for 58% of the rotation’s innings and 71% of its WAR. The Padres also lost a ton of arms from the bullpen. In addition to Hader, they parted with Scott Barlow, Luis García, and the aforementioned Martinez; on top of his nine starts, Martinez led the team in relief innings last season.

Unsurprisingly, A.J. Preller pursued pitching this winter, adding Cease and King as cheaper alternatives to some of the starters the Padres lost. The team was also counting on full seasons from Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish, who made a combined 41 starts in 2023. You can see how it would make sense in theory: Cease would replace Snell, King would replace Lugo, and an extra 20 starts from Musgrove and Darvish would replace Wacha. If all were to go according to plan, that could be a pretty strong rotation, even without a clear fifth starter. Indeed, the Padres ranked seventh on our starting pitching positional power rankings this year.

How is that plan working out so far? Cease has been excellent over his first four starts. His fastball velocity is up, and he has pitched to a 1.99 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 22.2 IP. His xERA and xFIP look more like his numbers from last season than his star-making 2022 campaign, but that’s not such a bad thing. He was still a 3.7-WAR pitcher over 33 starts in 2023. Besides, with Petco Park and the Padres defense to help keep his BABIP down, his ERA should drop substantially from last year’s 4.58 mark. Meanwhile, King has been inconsistent, with two brilliant starts hidden among three clunkers. He needs to stop issuing so many free passes (15 walks in 27 innings), but the two gems he has already thrown show that he can still be the dominant arm he was down the stretch last season.

Unfortunately, Musgrove has been something of a disaster, while Darvish is showing his age. Through five starts, Musgrove has a 6.29 ERA and a 5.13 FIP; his strikeout rate is low (7.40 K/9), his walk rate is high (4.07 BB/9), and his velocity is down a tick. He has added horizontal movement to his slider and he’s throwing it more often after scaling back on the breaking pitch last season. However, opposing hitters have been all over the rest of his arsenal, hitting for a .433 wOBA (.471 xwOBA) against all other pitches. Darvish has been solid through five starts of his own, but most of his underlying numbers are a little worse than usual, and he just landed on the IL with neck tightness. There’s no reason to fear the worst, but Darvish, 37, might just be at the point in his career where we have to expect a slow decline and nagging injuries.

That could spell a problem for a Padres team running low on starting pitching depth. Matt Waldron has looked like a capable back-end starter over his first three outings, but the knuckleballer is already something of a wild card, and the options behind him are uninspiring. Pedro Avila was DFA’d, Brito hasn’t pitched well out of the bullpen this year, and Vásquez is struggling at Triple-A. The Padres rotation was so successful last season not just because of its top contributors but because of its depth. That won’t be the case in 2024.

Meanwhile, the biggest problem in the bullpen is the lack of high-end talent. Robert Suarez is San Diego’s only reliever with great stuff and a big league track record. Matsui has big potential but needs to prove himself, while Peralta has a history of success but poor peripherals and pitching modeling numbers. De Los Santos currently leads the bullpen in FIP and WAR, but that’s just further confirmation that this group would look a lot better if everyone were pushed down a spot.

Ultimately, the pitching staff will make or break this season for the Padres. The offense looks strong (Wednesday’s shutout loss aside), and the defense should be formidable with Tatis in right, Ha-Seong Kim at shortstop, and a healthy Machado back at the hot corner. The rotation, on the other hand, is full of questions from top to bottom. What’s more, the Padres lack the bullpen to compensate when their starters struggle and the depth to compensate if their starters get hurt. San Diego’s playoff odds are a little less than a coin flip right now, and that feels about right. Heads, the key members of the rotation stay healthy and perform as expected. Tails, the Padres are left on the outside looking in once again.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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1 month ago

Cronenworth? Profar? Can anybody spell Small Sample Size?

Even odds both are hitting below the Medoza line by July. .

1 month ago
Reply to  gblasius

Considering that neither one has hit below the Mendoza line over a full season I would feel more than comfortable betting against that. Easy way to double your money…

1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

OK. So maybe no Mendoza line for both. But cmon, these guys have been crap for a long time. Why would you write about them as being revelations in the month of April, other than as filler?

1 month ago
Reply to  gblasius

Cronenworth was an all-star in 2021 and 2022 and has a comfortably above-average career WRC+ of 110, even factoring in an awful 2023. I’m not sure where you’re getting “crap for a long time…”

Last edited 1 month ago by peli
1 month ago
Reply to  gblasius

Cronenworth accrued 10 wins from 2020-2022. Obviously his value is worse at 1B, but he’s not chopped liver.

1 month ago
Reply to  dontcare

Also if you look at batted ball metrics he is absolutely hitting the crap out of the ball, at least in comparison to his old self. Lots of barrels.

1 month ago
Reply to  carter

Yeah, I’m not smart enough to analyze what has changed between 2021-2023, but he looks much more like his 2020 self (which I’m guessing had more to do with the juiced balls). Lots of loud, hard line drives. That’ll play.

1 month ago
Reply to  gblasius

Well if those guys crap out over time this year, the players doing crap right now will not be crap over time either and it’ll balance out. Bogaerts isn’t gonna finish the year with a .200 AVG.