Baseball is a long slog.
Unique from the other major American sports, our pastime is set apart for, among other reasons, the immense length of the MLB season. Across six months of play and 162 games, a given season contains winning streaks, losing streaks, and tiny, tectonic shifts in momentum.
By this point in the season, frankly, it can be hard to even know where we started. And when a team plays September baseball as sloppy, inconsistent, and lackluster as the Padres did this week in Arizona, it’s enough to cause even the most ardent MLB fan to start looking forward to the start of football season.
There’s a purpose to September, though, especially for a team located somewhere between rebuild and contention. While we know the this month is typically used by non-contenders to evaluate fringe minor leaguers heading into the offseason, there’s an even more important question to ask as the schedule yawns to a close:
Has this 2019 season been a success?
There are different schools of thought on this question. Some feel that the team has come up short in the development of youngsters and cite persistent questions about this front office’s roster construction methods. Others propose that 2019—by virtue of being an improvement over 2018—represents the kind of small, incremental improvement that foreshadows a big breakout in 2020.
Both arguments have validity, but, as with anything, it’s probably best to revisit expectations before coming to a conclusive performance evaluation. Simply put, did this team achieve its goals?
Setting the goalposts
Back in Spring Training, my sense was that the Padres were truly expecting a winning season in 2019.
After all, the team had signed Manny Machado to a $300MM deal, said “to hell with service time” by promoting FTJ on Opening Day, and, generally, boasted a tantalizing lineup laden with power hitters.
However, a look back at comments from Andy Green and Ron Fowler from that same time period reveal a more conflicted attitude.
“You want to flip the page to the winning process,” Green said in a UT interview in Spring Training. “We’re dead set on winning — and winning as quickly as possible. … That’s the mentality.”
Green obviously was striking a pose of confidence, but, then again, what else do managers do in Spring but boast about their team’s formidability?
Fowler’s preseason tone was more measured (bolds are mine):
“I think there’s more energy on this team, I think there’s a confidence level,” Fowler said in an interview with The Athletic from March 30th. “But we’re young and I think there are going to be ups and downs. But I think this is going to be the most exciting team we have had since we’ve owned it.
Fowler’s comments at the Manny Machado introductory press conference were even more elucidating:
“In a perfect world, he would be available next year — but he’s not. So you have to do what you think is best for your team long term. … We think it’s worth it.”
In the first quote, Fowler refers to “ups and downs”, while the second one indicates that the team would have preferred to sign Machado in 2020—when the team, presumably, expects to win.
Taken together, it seems like the org always expected 2019 to be a wait-and-see year—use internal talent to gear a possible, yet unlikely run at a Wild Card while not really expecting, per se, to be contenders. Does that undermine the following argument?
Argument 1: The 2019 season is a disaster
The Padres came up short in developing several young players, and never invested quite enough to put this team over the top.
Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe, Luis Urias, Austin Hedges, and Wil Myers have all experienced varying degrees of disappointment this year.
Margot has plateaued at the plate. Renfroe looked like he was finally developing into an offensive force in the season’s first half, before a .205 July and .183 August cratered most of his averages back to all-too-familiar levels.
Urias has barely shown glimpses of his purported potential on either offense or defense. Hedges has accrued a 56 wRC+, indicating that he has been essentially 44% worse than any walking stiff waiting for a shot in Triple-A. Myers has been, well, bad.
For a team that has seen an MLB-high 33 players make their debuts since the beginning of 2018, there are still more questions than answers regarding who, exactly, can be counted on to turn San Diego into a winner.
Worse, there’s no viable argument for faith in this front office. The decision to sign Ian Kinsler to a 2-year deal stalled the callup of Luis Urias and possibly challenged his confidence. More players were moved off of their regular positions in 2019—something that has become a troublesome regularity around here.
Not signing Dallas Keuchel, trading away Franmil Reyes for a prospect, and declining to address the team’s shoddy middle relief staff were all moves and non-moves that led to yet another year in the NL West cellar—the club’s 13th straight campaign without a playoff appearance.
Argument 2: The 2019 season is an encouraging entrée into 2020 success
The biggest takeaway of the 2019 season is that the Padres, finally, have a foundational talent in Fernando Tatis Jr..
Across 84 games, FTJ dazzled fans with a signature blend of athleticism, hitting prowess, and Robinson-esque baserunning. Pundits—like real, paid commentators on the sport of baseball—breathlessly categorized the rookie alongside names like Trout, Griffey, and A-Rod.
Beyond Tatis Jr., Machado has been a roughly top-20 third baseman with respectable averages for a player appearing in his first full NL season.
The emergence of Chris Paddack gives the team an Ace-like starter that has been sorely needed, while Mackenzie Gore—recently named MLB Pipeline’s pitcher of the year for 2019—should be ready to anchor the staff at some point in 2020.
The bullpen remains in the capable hands of Kirby Yates, while Andres Munoz looks like he could be an all-out stopper. Luis Perdomo may be ready to take the 7th inning role handled by Craig Stammen in recent years.
There are still questions, to be sure, but with a few year-over-year improvements and perhaps a free agent signing or two, this team could be heading for 90 wins in 2020. The 2019 win-loss record will in all likelihood be an improvement over their win-loss record from 2018, and a similar increase should follow next year.
A matter of perspective
Where you stand on this side of the debate probably says a lot about your tolerance for uncertainty—and your patience with an organization that always seems to be requesting, well, more patience.
There are certainly questions surrounding this club as we look toward 2020. Many of us are tired of questions and finally want a top-to-bottom contender to make this city proud.
So: what do you see when you look at this long and winding 2019 season? Encouraging signs of progress, or troubling signs of a rebuild in jeopardy of collapse?