Hello again, Padres fans! Somewhat improbably, we’re just days away from pitchers and catchers reporting for Spring Training. Add in a dizzying off-season that saw our Friars complete a number of deals, we’re left looking at, based on most projections, our Padres possibly taking the field as the #2 team in MLB?!?!? Someone help me, this is uncharted territory for me as a Padres fan, I’m not used to such praise.
That’s not to say the team is perfect. Below, I’ve compiled a number of issues/questions the team will need to answer if they’re really going to make back-to-back postseason runs for the first time since 2006.
Will the Veterans hold up?
Let’s start with what I see is the biggest question mark (or marks, if you will) on the team. Much maligned Padres vets RF Wil Myers and 1B Eric Hosmer played very well last year, posting numbers that would rank among if not be the best they’ve ever posted in any season in their history. Add in the play of 3B Manny Machado, he of the 3rd place finish for the NL MVP, and the arrival of C Austin Nola replacing the black hole of offensive suck that previously existed on the Padres, and suddenly, the Padres offense turned into a veritable juggernaut.
But 2021 ain’t going to be 2020 redux, for multiple reasons. First and foremost, despite all odds, it looks like MLB will play a full season, or at least close to it, and last time I checked, 162 games is A LOT more than 60. Whereas last year’s offense could simply have been a product of several players having simultaneous hot streaks, 2021 will bring us the ebbs and flow of play we’re more accustomed to as fans. Case in point, let’s look at the bat of C Austin Nola. Before getting traded to San Diego, Nola was terrorizing opposing pitchers, slashing .306/.373/.531 while providing a very good glove behind the plate. After the trade, however, Nola only slashed .222/.324/.381. Yes, I can hear you, small-sample-size and whatnot (and it was still WAY better than what Austin Hedges and Franky Mejia gave us the last 2+ years). But that’s my point. You can point to the offensive production of Myers, Hosmer, and a few others, and they all scream potential outlier, based on what each of those players have historically produced. Myers slashed .288/.353/.606, his best line since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2013, and well above his career slash of .254/.329/.447, and significantly better than what folks are projecting for him. Hosmer slashed .287/.333/.517, his best line since 2017, when he played for the Royals. Like Myers, he was also well above his career average of .278/.336/.435, and 2021 looks like a return to mediocrity, based on projections. Pham, well, Pham was hurt most of the year. Yes, he looked good in the post-season, but having 2 surgeries, one for your hand and another for your “extra-curricular activities” along with turning 33 shortly into the season don’t exactly inspire confidence in future greatness. Simply put, that’s four guys that we’re counting on to produce beyond their career averages, without much of a track record that they can.
On top of that, the Padres will not be able to get familiar against just a few teams; as we all know, the Padres faced only Western division foes from both the AL and NL, as part of COVID mitigations. This year, it’s a full slate, with the Padres facing off against 19 different teams over the course of the season. That’s a lot more variance, and a lot more opportunities for opponents to figure out a way to get Myers/Hosmer/Pham/Nola out, and do so consistently, especially if the DH isn’t available.
Spring Training won’t answer this question, at least, not for the entire season. But it will provide a window into whether last year’s production was a sign of things to come, or was simply a good-sized hot streak, especially given the playing history of our vets. Here’s hoping 2020 was a sign of things to come, because...
Our Bench is a little suspect.
The Padres had one of the best offenses in baseball in 2020, and they’ll return starters at all 8 defensive positions. We also got a potentially huge boost on New Year’s Eve when highly regarded infielder Ha-Seong Kim signed a 4-year, $28 million contract. The highly versatile and seemingly best friend of super-duper-star Fernando Tatis Jr., Jurickson Profar will return to San Diego on a 3-year, $21 million deal. The Padres also added catcher Victor Caratini and outfielder Brian O’Grady, guys with some intriguing stat lines in the high minors and in limited MLB action.
But that’s just it; it’s a lot of potential. Kim in particular looks like a very talented player, but the KBO ain’t MLB (it’s somewhere between AA and AAA ball, from what I gather). And gone are veterans like Mitch Moreland, Greg Garcia and Jason Castro, leaving the Padres with little in the way of proven bench pieces at the outset of the offseason. If any of the bench pieces falter, let alone the starters, falter, there’s little at the upper minors level that could provide immediate assistance: Josh Naylor, Edward Olivares, Luis Torrens, Ty France, and a host of other players all departed during the 2020 season as part of a variety of trades. And this doesn’t consider what could happen if, say, CF Trent Grisham regresses a bit, or if 2B Jake Cronenworth shows that last year’s season-ending swoon, where he batted .183/.275/.268 over his final 23 games, was actually a sign of things to come. The Padres could sign one of the plethora of free agents, still sitting at home, to shore things up. But that would do little to help hold the line if 2 or more starters struggle, especially early.
The Bullpen could use some help.
Don’t take my word for it; multiple places are listing the Padres’ bullpen as a question mark going into 2021. Yes, the team added impact pieces to their rotation (hello, Blake Snell and Yu Darvish!) but have done little to address a relief corps that saw the departures of Trevor Rosenthal and Kirby Yates (no, I’m not counting recent signings of Keone Kela and Mark Melancon as the answers; they look more like Spring Training arms/potential buy-low options, not season-long solutions).
Basically, the bullpen comes down to the status of 2 arms: Austin Adams and José Castillo. They’re expected to be fully healthy after injuries limited each of the past 2 seasons. If they’re healthy, they each have electric stuff and would allow the team to slide Emilio Pagán and/or Drew Pomeranz to the back end. Suddenly, the Pads bullpen looks pretty good, possibly even one of the best in baseball.
But, we said that about the 2020 bullpen, and we all know how that turned out until several trades finally righted the ship. Those injury concerns might persist, and it’s not like Adams or Castillo have an extensive track record, even when they are healthy. If they struggle to become their dominant selves, the Padres don’t have a ton of room to maneuver. Their bullpen is already somewhat congested with pitchers who are out of options. And teams with limited room to maneuver often get fleeced or have to pay big when it comes time to make a trade.
So those are my concerns. Truth be told, I haven’t been this excited for a Padres season in YEARS. From top to bottom, I see a team that can take just about any team in MLB, especially if Dinelson Lamet can stay healthy, and if any of our 3 young lefties emerge as a viable contributor. If the teams’ young stars like Cronenworth, FTJ, Grisham, or even Luis Campusano or Jorge Ona continue to develop, and they catch a few breaks, we might be looking at our 3rd World Series run ever in team history.
Let’s hope I’m worrying over nothing. If I am, let me know why in the comments section.
Baseball, welcome back; I missed you.