The three-horse race many were expecting in the NL West didn’t go as planned, as one team pulled up lame. The San Diego Padres went 79-83 last season, finishing just 4.5 games better than the Rockies and a whopping 27 games behind the second-place Dodgers. Keeping up with thoroughbreds isn’t easy, but the Padres ran a bad race and it has left a lot of people questioning just how good this team can be. To make matters worse, the Padres were actually 18 games over .500 on Aug. 10 and completely collapsed, going 12-34 over the final 46 games. Pitching injuries played a huge part, but to go from 18 games over and finish with a losing record in a seven-week span is incredible. It ultimately cost some people their jobs.
Bob Melvin is now the manager, taking over for Jayce Tingler. Ruben Niebla is a phenomenal hire as pitching coach and one I will talk about further down the preview. Melvin added Matt Williams and former Reds pitching coach and manager Bryan Price to his staff. Oh, and the Giants added 27-year-old Michael Brdar, who was San Francisco’s minor league hitting coordinator. This is a strong staff and a team that has a chance to have a lot of success.
There are already concerns for the Padres offense. Fernando Tatis Jr., whose shoulder is already tied together with rubber bands and chewing gum, suffered a wrist injury while riding a motorcycle in the offseason and could miss up to three months. Players were unable to speak with team doctors and medical personnel during the lockout, so Tatis showed up to spring training with the injury.
For an offense that underwhelmed with a .312 wOBA and a 97 wRC + , the loss of Tatis could be a big deal. The Padres didn’t do a very good job of converting a low strikeout rate into offense, as their 21.6% K% was the fifth-best in the majors. Ironically, Tatis was the team’s best and most dangerous hitter while striking out 28% of the time. He hit 42 home runs and led the team in fWAR with 6.1 and wRC + at 156, meaning he was 56% better than a league-average hitter.
My VSiN colleague Jason Weingarten has a lot of Rookie of the Year shares of CJ Abrams, the Padres prospect that could take a lineup spot in Tatis’ absence. Abrams hasn’t played above Double-A, but he’s been an above-average hitter in the minors and has tons of speed. He’s definitely a player to watch for some hardware if he can make an impression and find a playing spot when Tatis returns.
Even without Tatis, the Padres are solid around the horn. Second baseman Jake Cronenworth had a breakout season last year with a 116 wRC + and was one of many Padres that put a lot of balls in play. Manny Machado was another with a 122 wRC + . Both guys were worth 4.4 fWAR, so they were very valuable pieces. Cronenworth hit 21 homers and Machado hit 28, but it was a down year on the power front for Manny, especially with career-bests in Hard Hit% (52%) and Barrel% (13.3%). Eric Hosmer is a serviceable hitter, though a vastly overpaid one. He was basically a league-average bat last season, but that was an upgrade from his two previous seasons.
Luke Voit is a nice add to the lineup as the DH. He posted a 111 wRC + in 241 PA last season. The universal DH should add a boost to NL teams and Voit fits the bill. Trent Grisham hit 15 homers and stole 13 bases. The more you look at the lineup, the more the Tatis injury stands out because a lot of these guys either underperformed last season or were barely above average. A lot of the bench bats were below-average hitters.
While there are concerns, the Padres were fifth in number of plate appearances with a runner in scoring position, so they created chances. Remember, this is a team that bottomed out late in the year. Through Aug. 10, the Padres were ninth in wOBA at .321 and had a 103 wRC + . From Aug. 11 through the end of the season, the Padres were 28th in wOBA at .290 and had an 83 wRC + , so they were 17% below league average in that span.
They were terrible at the worst possible time and the pitcher injuries exacerbated matters. Sometimes there’s some value in a team that had a bad month or a bad stretch. The Padres are too talented to post similar numbers to the Marlins, Angels, Pirates and Rangers, as they did for 46 games. It feels like an outlier.
Sometimes a team’s biggest additions or subtractions are guys who won’t throw a pitch or take a swing. Analytics departments and coaches are critical elements of the process and can have a lot of influence. Ruben Niebla is one of those important people.
Niebla had a hand in virtually every pitcher that was in Cleveland’s minor league system. He had a lot to do with Corey Kluber’s development into a two-time Cy Young Award winner. He was also very much involved with Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger and so many others that went on to have MLB success or go from non-prospects to legitimate contributors.
Niebla is now the Padres pitching coach and arguably the best coaching hire of this cycle. A lot of people are high on Joe Musgrove and with good reason. Musgrove got out of Pittsburgh and put up dynamic numbers with the Padres with 203 strikeouts in 181.1 innings. It was important to see Musgrove keep up his K% after a huge bump in the shortened season facing a bunch of poor Central Division offenses. My guess is Niebla gets even more out of him, and I think he’s a decent bet for Cy Young at 25-1 or the best price you can find.
Musgrove had a 3.18 ERA with a 3.70 FIP, both of which were career-bests. It wouldn’t shock me if others also take a leap. Yu Darvish actually posted his worst ERA and FIP in a full season. He lost spin rate when the sticky substance crackdown took hold, which was part of his problem, but he also just fell apart late. Darvish had a 6.16 ERA with a .502 SLG against in the second half over 61.1 innings. There were some injuries, along with the spin rate drop, so hopefully he’s healthy going into this season.
Blake Snell was somewhat of a disappointment as well. The Padres realized his struggles in the third time through the order were too much to ignore, so he made 27 starts but only pitched 128.2 innings. He had a lot of strikeouts, but also a lot of walks, and posted a 4.20 ERA and a 3.82 FIP. Niebla can get more out of him. The same can be said for Mike Clevinger, who Niebla is extremely familiar with from their time together in Cleveland. Clevinger missed all of last season, but he’s a guy with a 3.19 ERA and a 3.53 FIP over 542.1 career innings. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a huge weapon in this rotation.
Health is the key up and down the rotation for the Padres. Snell has battled elbow issues and Darvish is on the wrong side of 35. Clevinger is coming off of Tommy John surgery for the second time and a back injury wiped out part of 2020. Adrian Morejon and Michel Baez are coming off of Tommy John. Dinelson Lamet has not exceeded 100 innings since 2017 and may end up pitching out of the bullpen. It looks like Chris Paddack may be a reliever as well.
I do like MacKenzie Gore and Ryan Weathers, so the Padres have some guys to fall back on. The 23-year-old Gore will make his MLB debut this season. Weathers pitched 94.2 MLB innings last season with a 5.32 ERA and a 5.44 FIP, but a three-start stretch in July and August with 20 runs allowed over 11.2 innings blew up his ERA. (author's note: After filing, the Padres traded for Sean Manaea from the A's; Manaea had a 3.91 ERA and 194 K in 179 IP last season)
San Diego should have a solid bullpen again, though injuries and attrition have lowered the ceiling of this group. The Padres were fifth in reliever ERA at 3.62 last season. Closer Mark Melancon is gone and Drew Pomeranz is coming back from a major injury. The only addition was Robert Suarez, who had dominant numbers in Japan.
Player to Watch
SP Joe Musgrove: I can’t say enough good things about Musgrove going into this season. As I mentioned, he kept his strikeout rate high, but it could be even higher this season. Musgrove’s career first-pitch strike percentage (F-Strike%) is 64.3%. Last season was his career-low at 60.8%, after sitting 68.7% during the shortened 2020 season. Of the batters Musgrove started 0-1 against, he struck out 35.5% of them. Musgrove has elite spin rates and did not seem to be impacted by the foreign substance crackdown, except for his slider, which wavered up and down throughout the season. Like so many other Padres, he just ran out of gas in September, posting a 4.64 ERA over his last 33 innings with a .362 wOBA against. All of his other months were good to great. He’s a worthwhile investment and should benefit greatly from Niebla.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any equity on the Padres in the win total or futures markets. The books have seemingly dismissed the last 46 games of the season and have the Padres lined in the upper 80s. I was hoping we’d get some cheaper prices, but that’s not the case. They were on a 93-win pace before the bottom fell out. If anything, I’d have to look Under at this line, which doesn’t leave a lot of margin for error for a pitching staff that has a lot of lingering issues. The offense is probably going to be a middle-of-the-pack unit, at least until Tatis returns. A decade ago, this win total would probably be in the 83-84 range, but oddsmakers are smarter and there’s more data out there, including standings projections that put the Padres between 88-91 wins. I think that’s optimistic, but we’ll see.
Win Total Lean: Under 88.5
May add Joe Musgrove NL Cy Young 25-1