Once upon a time, Padre’s general manager AJ Preller – in an aggressive attempt to overthrow the reigning NL West champion Dodgers – made a series of big moves to go all-in, including acquiring a starter kit that had once been a of Tampa. Bays post-season pitching heroes. Does it sound familiar?
That’s what happened in the winter of 2014-15, when the Padres made bad advice to win right away, and came away with big names (Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel and James Shields among them) at a very high cost ( including Trea Turner, Max Fried, Yasmani Grandal, Zach Eflin, and the No. 13 pick in the 2015 Draft). It was loud and impressive and risky, but it resulted in a poorly fitting list that probably would not win, and it did not. They fired their boss in June and finished in fourth place. The franchise was sent into a hole it had only recently been able to dig out of.
This time, Preller has reportedly done it again trades for Blake Snell from Rays and Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini of the Cubs as well as allegedly sign reputable Korean player Ha-seong Kim. It has a lot of echoes from 2015, because it’s still Preller, it’s still loud and impressive and risky, and all these years later, the Dodgers are still at the top of the division.
But this time it’s different. This time, the Padres are ready to do this, Dodgers or not. This time, the Padres have a legitimate claim to be the best team in baseball by 2021 – and they are almost certainly not finished.
In fact, the Padres already had those kinds of issues, to be one of the few World Series competitors, even before this week. But we’ll get to that.
Now there is great praise for a team that has not had a winning record in a full 162 match season since back in 2010. Between 2011-19, only one team lost several matches. It has been a long time in the wilderness, where for many years the most interesting thing about the Padres was if and when to bring back the brown uniforms. (They did, for 2020.)
This is a particularly big requirement considering that their division happens to include the Dodgers, who have won the last one eight NL West titles – and World Series, just two months ago. That’s not how Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler are. goes anywhere. They are not.
And yet: Padres were, almost anything, the second- or third-best team in the shortened 2020 season. They had third most wins, behind only the two pennant winners; they were essentially tied with the Dodgers for fifth and pitching WAR; they were others only for the White Sox in position player WAR. They had third best slugging percentage, scored third most races, and stole most bases. Only one team – the Dodgers – converted more turns into hard hit balls, and no team cut the hunt just as much from 2019.
Now, look forward to 2021, and let’s use FanGraph’s projected WAR leaderboards to do so. At the moment we are looking at this, late on Monday night in the east, FanGraphs has included Snell in Padre’s rotation, but have not yet added Darvish, so let’s do it for them. We take out the 1.2 WAR projected for Zach Davies, which is on its way to Chicago as part of the Cubs’ return, and we will replace it with the 4.2 projected for Darvish, in roughly similar rounds. Take the +3.0 WAR upgrade – we do not want to do the same for Caratini, since backup catchers do not move the needle much and he is not projected that different than sitting in San Diego – and you get … this.
It is more or less dead heat. This is a rounding error. It’s a draw.
It’s not a dead-accurate prediction, and it does not take into account that neither team has finished trading. The Dodgers have not even started, especially with third baseman Justin Turner, who is still a free agent, and they can just turn around and sign Liam Hendriks or switch for Francisco Lindor tomorrow. What it does is show you how close they are.
It also shows you how far the Padres have come. Six weeks ago, right after the free agency started, we used the same method to rank all 30 teams. The Dodgers were, not surprisingly, No. 1. But even then, the Padres were No. 2 – as we said then, “2020’s biggest breakout team will enter 2021 well positioned to aim for a World Series ring” – but San Diego was almost five wins behind. Snell and Darvish (while pulling Davies) catch them straight up.
But it is also important to realize how they came to this point. In a way, it is not the industry itself that is the most interesting part of this story, but how San Diego enables itself to once again consider such things.
All of this began in 2016, after the Padres in 2015 cratered and collapsed; as MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell wrote at the time, they “rebuilt their farm in nine months”, trading for and preparing potential clients such as Adrian Morejon, Eric Lauer, Josh Naylor, Manuel Margot and Chris Paddack, who themselves have become part of the core or turned into trades for Mike Clevinger, Emilio Hedenske and Trent Grisham. Cassavell did not even mention it Fernando Tatis Jr. came back all the time hoisting for Shields that summer, because even the most optimistic Padres fan could not see that the starburst explosion happened, and sometimes you have to be lucky as well as good.
It continued with the big money signings of Eric Hosmer (2018), Manny Machado (2019), and to a somewhat lesser, but still important degree, Drew Pomeranz (2020). It came from the draft, with the number 1 choice used on MacKenzie Gore (2017) and Xavier Edwards (2018), which was packed into the agreement for Tommy Pham and Jake Cronenworth. It continued with trades for Austin Nola, Grisham, Clevinger and almost all the bullpen; it really went into hyperdrive in the 2020 deadline, when Preller bought eight Major Leaguers, most any team had picked up in the month leading up to the deadline since moving to July 31, 1986. (There will be nine when the injured pitcher Austin Adams later debuted.)
This is how they got here, to the point where they traded away high-level talent – and make no mistake, they have unloaded significant talent from their system for Snell and Darvish, led by 21-year-old Luis Patiño, who may get them alone to regret the Snell trade one day – makes so much sense. This is not the fateful press from 2014-15, which never came to work, because that group had not built the foundation. This group has.
Now, with Snell and Darvish each collecting Cy Young votes in recent seasons, they’re doing something no one else has ever done:
Padres would be the first team to acquire two boxes in a single offseason, both winning or finishing top 2 in the Cy Young poll in one of the previous 3 seasons (t / t @EliasSports)
Snell: won ’18 AL
Darvish: 2. for ’20 NL
… and they’ll be doing it in a day!
– Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) December 29, 2020
As a Padres podcast tweeted, “It’s like 2015, but without the existential fear. “
WAR projections do not win rings. The Padres have much more to prove than the Dodgers. But Los Angeles is universally considered the best team in baseball – for obvious good reasons – and the Padres can now say, for the first time in perhaps the history of their franchise, that they belong in the same conversation. It is a culmination of many years of work, and a pivot after the last time they tried this flop so high. We bet that this time will go a little better.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and program manager for Ballpark Dimensions podcast.