Re-Projecting the 2021 San Diego Padres

Teams generally pay little heed to the torrent of ZiPS projection posts every winter, rudely making changes to their rosters with no thought to the consequences of making my graphs and tables obsolete! This has been less of a problem than usual as this offseason has been a rather quiet one: 18 of the top 20 free agents on our offseason top 50 are still unsigned with just six weeks to go until the scheduled opening of spring training. The Padres have been the rare exception to this dreadful stasis. Rather than sitting quietly on their hands, hemming and hawing about the state of baseball’s finances, they’ve aggressively sought to make improvements that increase the payroll. In a holiday flurry of moves, they added Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Ha-seong Kim, and Victor Caratini, setting up what could be the most anticipated divisional race in recent memory. It’s a nice change of pace from teams that have practically issued press releases informing fans of just how much worse the product will be in 2021.

That’s not to say that ZiPS didn’t like the Padres before their latest series of moves. In fact, my labyrinthine tangle of algorithms thought that the boys in brown combined to make up the second-best team in the National League. But there was also a clear space between them and the reigning World Series champs, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now, I’m not so sure.

Let’s start by refreshing the team’s depth chart:

The depth here is frightening. When you look at the rotation, you almost forget that Mike Clevinger, a blockbuster addition just a few months ago, will miss the 2021 season due to Tommy John surgery. There is no doubt some injury risk here, as most of the starting pitchers have at least some bit of injury history, but San Diego’s doing its best to make up for that in quantity. With a projected 103 ERA+, Joey Lucchesi would be a number-three starter on an average team, but he may be as low as the Padres’ seventh starter in 2021. The Dodgers have made dizzying starter depth one of the team’s strengths during the Andrew Friedman era, but the Padres are one of the few teams to make a real run at going toe-to-toe with them.

ZiPS Projection – Yu Darvish
2021 10 6 0 3.52 26 26 151.0 124 59 21 46 182 121 3.3
2022 9 6 0 3.69 23 23 134.0 113 55 19 42 157 115 2.6
2023 8 6 0 3.83 23 23 131.7 114 56 19 43 150 111 2.4

ZiPS takes a dim view of Darvish’s injury record, but this is a good time to remind you that projection systems are much better at deducing quality than quantity. Qualitatively speaking, Darvish’s return to stardom since mid-2019 is no fluke, and he richly deserved his Cy Young award votes last year. If he can throw 180 to 200 innings, he stands up against any pitcher in baseball. What’s more, the Padres didn’t even have to gut their 2021 roster to trade for him; only one of the prospects they moved, Yeison Santana, ranked in the team’s top 10. Having never played above rookie ball, Santana was extremely unlikely to have any 2021 impact outside of a trade. And this trade isn’t a rental, with Darvish inked through the end of the 2023 season.

ZiPS Projection – Blake Snell
2021 11 7 0 3.51 26 26 133.3 106 52 17 53 164 121 2.9
2022 10 6 0 3.52 24 24 122.7 99 48 15 50 149 120 2.7
2023 10 7 0 3.53 24 24 122.3 99 48 15 49 149 120 2.6

Snell’s projection is similar to Darvish’s, in that he’s clearly a star, but one whose injury record keeps his projected innings down. I’d take the over on the innings as he showed few issues stemming from the elbow surgery that cost him a month in 2019. The Rays have also been very cautious about letting Snell go long in games, no doubt in part due to his unimpressive performances when facing batters for the third time. That’s not a big deal for the Padres — did I mention they have the third-best bullpen in baseball by ZiPS?

Given Snell’s team-friendly contract, which keeps him in mustard for three more seasons, the Padres had to give up more significant prospects than went to the Cubs for Darvish. But even then, Luis Patiño had a worse projection than every starter in that graphic above. Firmly in win-now mode, the team also couldn’t really afford to play Francisco Mejía over Austin Nola, and Caratini, Darvish’s personal catcher in Chicago, is an excellent complement to their everyday backstop. With Luis Campusano nearing the majors, Mejía may have become expendable in any case, and with Blake Hunt also a real prospect, the organization was nearly stacked here.

ZiPS Projection – Ha-seong Kim
2021 .267 .337 .442 595 93 159 32 3 22 103 60 113 18 110 0 3.8
2022 .268 .340 .456 574 92 154 33 3 23 104 60 114 17 114 0 4.0
2023 .268 .341 .463 568 92 152 33 3 24 106 61 114 16 116 0 4.1
2024 .265 .340 .463 555 91 147 32 3 24 104 61 111 16 116 0 4.0
2025 .263 .338 .456 540 87 142 31 2 23 99 59 105 15 114 -1 3.6

ZiPS absolutely loves Kim, seeing him as the long-term solution at second, and at four-years, $25 million with a mutual option for 2025, his contract is a phenomenally good deal for the club. This is not a case of the computer being over-exuberant about the KBO; ZiPS has never given a hitter coming over from South Korea a projection anywhere near this level. In addition to being very well-rounded, it’s easy to forget that Kim’s also very young at just 25, meaning there’s possibly still some ceiling left in his game. Jake Cronenworth was solid at the keystone, but he will remain a contributor at a number of positions in 2021 and is a credible option any time there’s an injury. In essence, he fills a similar role as Enrique Hernández or Chris Taylor with the Dodgers.

So, how close do the Padres come to the Dodgers? At least according to the grotesquely early NL West ZiPS projections I ran based on current rosters, tantalizingly close.

ZiPS Projection – 2021 NL West
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 98 64 .605 51.4% 43.6% 95.0% 12.5%
San Diego Padres 98 64 .605 48.4% 46.1% 94.5% 12.0%
Arizona Diamondbacks 77 85 21 .475 0.1% 4.2% 4.4% 0.2%
San Francisco Giants 72 90 26 .444 0.0% 0.4% 0.4% 0.0%
Colorado Rockies 64 98 34 .395 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

196 wins are the most ZiPS has ever projected for the top two teams in a division. Combine that with the closeness of the projections — you need a decimal point to separate the two teams in the standings — and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is the best divisional race ZiPS has ever projected, going on two decades of prognostications.

The Dodgers better get used to it. Only Tommy Pham is a free agent after the 2021 season and most of the team’s key contributors are under team control through at least 2023. By our payroll estimates, the Padres have more than $50 million to spend before hitting the first luxury tax threshold in 2021.

The NL West ought to be a lot of fun.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for 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.

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3 years ago

Excellent idea, Dan.