There’s Hope for the Padres… Just Not Right Now by Dan Szymborski September 21, 2021 San Diego’s 2021 season has become a campaign of devolving questions. From the preseason’s burning query of whether or not the Padres could best the Dodgers, we’ve gone from wondering whether they could top the Giants to whether they would make the playoffs at all. Now, as we head into the final week of the regular season, it’s unclear if San Diego can even beat the .500 mark. Even if you’re hopeful about the team — and you probably don’t feel very optimistic after watching this weekend’s games or reading Jay’s piece on second-half collapses — finishing with a winning record is an open question. All of the Padres’ remaining games are against teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today, and none of them can set cruise control; the Dodgers and Giants are fighting for the division, and the Braves still haven’t put away the Phillies. The unraveling of the Padres became even more pronounced over the weekend. A three-game sweep at the hands of the Cardinals pushed San Diego 3.5 games out of a playoff spot, and in dramatic fashion. A clearly frustrated Manny Machado got in a public shouting match with Fernando Tatis Jr. after the latter became visibly angry about umpire Phil Cuzzi’s strike zone; fortunately for the team, manager Jayce Tingler took over the argument and was the one ejected instead of Tatis. Just as ugly was Tatis’ dropped pop-up in the first inning of Sunday’s game, compounded by a throw home instead of to second base for the force. Coming into the season, the ZiPS projections pegged San Diego as a 98-win team, the second-best in baseball — the first time ZiPS had ever projected the franchise to win 90 games, the previous bests being 86 wins in 2007 and ’20 (before the season was pared down to a 60-game schedule). To finish 98–64 at this point, the Padres would have to go 23 and -9, which quite obviously will not happen unless MLB invents some new, bizarre rule. Technically, there’s a path to the Padres ending 2021 on a satisfying note, but the odds are quickly becoming less “roll a double to get out of Monopoly jail” and more Dumb and Dumber-esque “so you’re saying there’s a chance.” ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% San Francisco Giants 104 58 — .642 58.4% 41.6% 100.0% 17.2% Los Angeles Dodgers 103 59 1 .636 41.6% 58.4% 100.0% 15.1% San Diego Padres 82 80 22 .506 0.0% 3.0% 3.0% 0.1% Colorado Rockies 75 87 29 .463 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% Arizona Diamondbacks 53 109 51 .327 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% Coming into the season, ZiPS had the Padres with a one-in-eight chance of winning the World Series; now, it’s one-in-1,607. Perhaps if the season were 200 games, they would have time to right the ship somewhat and make the playoffs, but given how this year has gone, maybe an extended season would have them falling behind the Rockies, too. So what does 2021 mean for 2022? I’ve been projecting standings with ZiPS since 2005, and the Padres will almost certainly be the 11th team forecast to win at least 90 games only to miss by 10 or more. For the other teams in this category, the future was a mixed bag. – The 2005 Dodgers lost Eric Gagne and J.D. Drew to injury, Yhency Brazoban flopped miserably as the closer, and the team lost 91 games. It cost manager Jim Tracy his job at the start of October and then-GM Paul DePodesta his at the end. In came Ned Colletti, and the Dodgers finished with a winning record in six of the next seven years, but only once with as many as 90 victories. – The 2009 Mets went 70–92 in an injury-filled season; most notably, this was the year that Johan Santana, then at his best, first started seeing his elbow go into wonky territory. The next time the Mets had a winning record was 2015. – Despite them going 73–89 in 2012, ZiPS was optimistic about the Blue Jays in 2013 after the team acquired Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, and Josh Johnson and signed Melky Cabrera coming off his All-Star appearance. Dickey and Buehrle proved to be key contributors when the Jays finally went to the playoffs, but it took until 2015 for that to happen. – The Tigers won 88 games in 2007 and then acquired Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Dontrelle Willis, among others, the following offseason. Renteria fell off the cliff at age 31 and never recovered, and Willis’ control followed, resulting in a demotion to the minors. Cabrera delivered as advertised, but by the time the Tigers hit their 2011–14 peak, the rest of the roster looked very different. – The 2013 season was Mike Trout’s stellar rookie year, but not much else went right for the Angels as they struggled to find consistently adequate pitching behind C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver. With apparent breakouts from Kole Calhoun, Garrett Richards, and Matt Shoemaker, Los Angeles exploded for 98 wins, but the team was swept in the first round by Kansas City and hasn’t been back to the playoffs since. – After a 92-win projection in 2007, the Twins went 79–83, the team’s first season under .500 since 2000. Longtime GM Terry Ryan resigned after the season (he ended up taking the job back from his successor in 2011), and Santana and Matt Garza were. The team didn’t go into full teardown mode, though, rebounding quickly with a core headed by a young Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Minnesota eventually did go the fire sale route after 2011, but not before making two more trips to the playoffs (with zero playoff wins). – The 2009 season was a disappointment for the Cubs, and it heralded the end of the Jim Hendry era in Chicago. You probably don’t need to be reminded that Theo Epstein took over and rebuilt the organization from foundation to firmament, breaking its World Series drought as part of four consecutive 90-win seasons before Chicago apparently lost 90% of its population, turning the team into a small-market one that never, ever made money. – Coming off seasons of 105 and 100 wins, ZiPS only projecting 94 wins for the 2006 Cardinals was considered a pessimistic one at the time. But there was strife in the front office between GM Walt Jocketty and VP of amateur scouting Jeff Luhnow, and the team dismissed Jocketty after the 2007 season. John Mozeliak took over for Jocketty and modernized the team’s approach to on-field performance, but it took a few years until the Cards firmly established themselves as one of baseball’s most stable teams. – ZiPS saw few reasons to worry too much about the 2019 Red Sox off winning 108 games and their fourth World Series championship in 15 seasons. Some regression toward the mean was expected (a healthy 14 wins), but the Sox dropped another dime off the projection, thanks largely to the rotation falling apart. The struggles precipitated a retooling that led to the Mookie Betts trade, and Chris Sale eventually needed Tommy John surgery. Boston is in a strong position to return to the playoffs this year. – The projections saw the Phillies as a breakout possibility in 2005, projecting 98 wins thanks to an impressive offensive core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, and Bobby Abreu; all but Abreu were still in their 20s. The offense delivered as promised, finishing second in the NL in runs scored, but holes on the pitching staff led to an 88-win season that wasn’t enough to save GM Ed Wade’s job. It took a couple more seasons until the team finally pieced together a championship-quality rotation. Largest Underperforming Contenders in ZiPS Team Preseason Wins Actual Wins Difference Following Season Wins 2005 Los Angeles Dodgers 94 71 -23 88 2009 New York Mets 91 70 -21 79 2013 Toronto Blue Jays 94 74 -20 83 2008 Detroit Tigers 91 74 -17 86 2013 Los Angeles Angels 93 78 -15 98 2007 Minnesota Twins 92 79 -13 88 2009 Chicago Cubs 95 83 -12 75 2006 St. Louis Cardinals 94 83 -11 78 2019 Boston Red Sox 94 84 -10 65 2005 Philadelphia Phillies 98 88 -10 85 (For the purposes of the chart, I’ve put the 2020 Red Sox at 65 wins, their pace over the shortened 2020 campaign.) There’s both good news and bad news for the Padres here. The bad news first: only the Angels won at least 90 games the season after a disappointment campaign; the year after their projection misses, these 10 teams averaged an 82–80 record. But on the good side, that’s primarily driven by the franchises that chose to blow up rosters and enter rebuilds; they were only projected, on average, to win 81 games in those seasons, meaning that the sadness was not actually predictive. In the larger sample size of all teams projected to win 90 games from 2005 to ’20 who fell short, that pattern remains; ZiPS projected an average of 86 wins the following year, with those 29 teams averaging 87. Failure isn’t actually contagious. Looking at some ludicrously early 2022 projections and using only players under team control, the Padres have less to figure out than their two chief rivals in the NL West. Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Seager, and Kenley Jansen are all free agents this offseason, and there are still a lot of unresolved, mostly horrifying, questions in the whole Trevor Bauer situation. The Giants have an ancient offense, and three-fifths of the rotation that has been key to their surprising success is set to hit the open market, along with Brandon Belt. ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West (Preliminary 2022) Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% Los Angeles Dodgers 92 70 — .568 51.5% 33.2% 84.7% 8.2% San Diego Padres 92 70 — .568 46.8% 35.6% 82.4% 7.5% San Francisco Giants 79 83 13 .488 1.7% 9.4% 11.1% 0.4% Arizona Diamondbacks 70 92 22 .432 0.1% 0.4% 0.4% 0.0% Colorado Rockies 65 97 27 .401 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% From a projection standpoint, the Padres stand on firmer ground for a comeback season than any of the disappointing contenders listed above. But they can’t just hang around and wait for it to happen; there’s precisely zero chance the Dodgers and Giants start 2022 with only players currently in their organization. Many of the underperforming teams above had long playoff runs afterward, but changes had to be made. San Diego’s core, built around stars like Tatis and Machado, is sound, but the team has to take the proper lessons from 2021 and continue to push towards the playoffs. That means being aggressive at finding a Tommy Pham replacement. It means answering the long-term issues at first base in a more resounding fashion. It means continually adding depth to the rotation so that you’re not starting Jake Arrieta down the stretch. Sometimes, good moves don’t work out, but if the Padres follow up this lesson by lacking the courage to continue to make moves this offseason, they will likely regret it.