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The Headline-Making Padres Aren’t Contending. That Doesn’t Mean Their Plan Has Failed.

The Manny Machado–led Friars find themselves in fourth place after winning the offseason and could emerge as sellers, but the 2019 window still exists, and their real window hasn’t even opened yet

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Despite not having made the playoffs since 2006 or doing much to get excited about until last winter, the San Diego Padres entered the 2019 season looking like the most interesting team in the National League. They not only landed last offseason’s best free agent, Manny Machado, but stood poised to deploy the fruits of one of the best farm systems of the 21st century. General manager A.J. Preller called on the best position player prospect (Fernando Tatís Jr.) and one of the best pitching prospects (Chris Paddack) in the NL to start the season, in contravention of the established norm by which teams trade a bit of short-term production for a lot of long-term salary suppression.

But while fans (and presumably the team itself) hoped that the Padres would be good right away, with so many rookies in key spots and with the implacable Dodgers in the same division, it wasn’t necessarily the expectation. If everything went perfectly, they could win the division; with a few setbacks, they could put together something like the Astros’ 2014 season, in which a few highly touted prospects came together after a long rebuild to go 70-92 before making the playoffs the following season; or they could finish anywhere in between.

Two and a half months into the season, San Diego is 36-37, in fourth place in the NL West. The Padres probably always needed a lot of things to go right in order to contend this year; so far a lot of things have gone right, but not enough, so they’re playing .500 baseball, give or take. In addition to the novelty of seeing Machado, Paddack, Tatís, and the rest of the rookies in the same uniform for the first time, that uncertainty was the reason the Padres were so exciting. Seeing this team pan out to the median outcome might be a little disappointing, but Preller’s club is still destined to remain in the headlines.

Coming out of the weekend, San Diego is 12 games behind the Dodgers, who are once again streaking off on a pace to win 100 games or more. The Padres’ Baseball Prospectus playoff odds are down from 26.1 percent on Opening Day to just 7.6 percent, with just a 3.7 percent chance of making it to the divisional round. The Padres came into the season prepared to start contending either this year or next, and with his team so far out of first, Preller is taking stock of his options.

Last Wednesday, the Padres sent Paddack, their best starting pitcher, down to Single-A to rest his arm. Shortly thereafter, Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Preller is considering trading “virtually every position player.” Only Machado, Tatís, and Eric Hosmer are guaranteed to survive the cull, if and when it comes.

This sounds an awful lot like a transition from buying to selling, but that’s not precisely what the Padres are doing, or at least thinking about doing. Because despite looking like a possible playoff team heading into the season, their window of contention isn’t quite open yet; in addition to their cornucopia of improving rookies, the Padres will soon be able to call on another wave of prospects in 2020, players who either aren’t quite ready or haven’t been able to find playing time. Even their established veterans are relatively young: Machado and catcher Austin Hedges are only 26, Wil Myers is 28, Hosmer is 29.

But this team is also talented enough and close enough to a playoff spot (just four games back, despite being in fourth place) that it would be premature to give up completely on trying to pry that window open in 2019. Preller, a Dipotovian wheeler-dealer, has plenty of options, and about six weeks until the trade deadline in which he can choose one.

The Padres could have made Preller’s decision easy by playing to one extreme or the other, but so far the season has been a mixture of realized expectations and moderate disappointments. Tatís has been stupendous, hitting .338/.392/.626 with eight home runs and eight stolen bases in just 37 games, but he’s also missed 35 games with a hamstring injury. Machado’s been good, batting .261/.343/.448 with 23 extra-base hits and his customary world-class defense at third base, just not good enough so far to satisfy sky-high expectations. Paddack was not only exceptional right out of the gate, he was electrifying, and Kirby Yates—somewhat surprisingly for a 5-foot-10, 32-year-old career middle reliever named Kirby—has been the best closer in baseball.

On the other hand, the Padres’ other two top-30 prospects, infielder Luis Urías and catcher Francisco Mejía, have both failed to stake out a spot in the lineup, and the non-Paddack starters have been inconsistent, both individually and overall.

Hedges, perhaps the best defensive catcher in baseball, has long had a tempestuous relationship with his bat. This season he’s hitting just .183/.251/.317 in 50 games, and Mejía’s struggled as well (.167/.207/.259 in 19 games), eliminating the Padres’ primary fallback plan behind the plate. And while the Padres have several respectable mid-rotation starters (Eric Lauer, Joey Lucchesi, Matt Strahm, and Dinelson Lamet once he returns from Tommy John surgery in the next few weeks), Paddack is the only pitcher with surefire playoff-quality stuff.

Machado, Hosmer, and Tatís at the very least are locked into their positions long term. Wil Myers is also signed through 2022, and their recent big league struggles notwithstanding, Urías and Mejía will also need regular playing time as well.

Milwaukee Brewers v San Diego Padres
Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Prospects poking through to the majors creates a roster crunch. The Padres are about to see this at catcher, where Mejía is expected to become the full-time starter soon, which would necessitate Hedges to either accept a backup role or be traded. And they’re already seeing it in the outfield. Franmil Reyes and Hunter Renfroe are both power-hitting right-handed corner outfielders. Neither plays great defense, hits for average, or walks that much, but both hit for tremendous power. Renfroe is slugging .647, and Reyes has 19 home runs in just 238 plate appearances. Renfroe, a 2013 first-rounder, is under team control through 2023, and Reyes is under team control through 2024. Because they’re so similar, there’s no sense in platooning them, and both have not only earned regular big league at-bats, but need them in order to develop. To accommodate that, the Padres have played Myers, who’s more of a first baseman than a center fielder, in center for 37 games this year. And with Josh Naylor (another first-rounder best suited to first base or a corner outfield spot) breaking onto the big league roster, that roster crunch is only getting worse.

The Padres also have two Triple-A corner infielders, Ty France and Jason Vosler, with at least some trade value but little chance to ever find regular big league playing time with the Padres, who between these seven, Hosmer, and Machado, have nine players for four spots in the lineup.

What the Padres don’t have is a reliable center fielder. Myers is untenable there defensively. Manuel Margot, a former top-20 prospect acquired in the November 2015 trade that sent Craig Kimbrel to Boston, has held down that position since 2017. Margot is a good defender, but he’s never exactly been Ken Griffey Jr. at the plate. Through 2018, Margot was a career .254/.300/.397 hitter, and in 2019 he’s taken a step back to a .232/.280/.311 batting line.

San Diego doesn’t really have a better internal option; Travis Jankowski and Franchy Cordero are both on the IL and are more fourth-outfielder types right now anyway, and minor league speedster Buddy Reed might not end up being any better than Margot when he’s ready. That’s not necessarily a bad position for Preller to be in, because he can deal from this surplus. The simplest way to view most high-profile baseball trades is through the lens of contender versus rebuilder, prospects for established big leaguers. What matters most in these cases is whether the players involved will be good; what positions they play matters less.

But the Padres aim to compete now and for the next several years, which means that to them, timeline is less important than position. It would therefore make sense for Preller to trade one or more of his corner bats for a passable big league center fielder. That center fielder could be a veteran on a short-term deal—even an expensive one, as the Padres are $87.5 million under the luxury tax threshold in 2019 and more than $107 million under in 2020. Or he could be a young player auditioning for a spot on the team next year or beyond, depending on which timeline Preller chooses to prioritize and where the best deal is.

The same goes for pitchers. The Padres just need live arms at this point, and while a top-end starter like Noah Syndergaard, who was a rumored San Diego trade target last year, would be great, the Padres ought to be after everything from back-end rotation filler to high-quality relief arms to set up Yates, who is signed through 2020 and wants to stay in San Diego.

The concept of trading from a position of strength to fill a position of weakness is fairly straightforward, but the situation regarding Paddack’s demotion is anything but. Conventional wisdom says that young power pitchers need to be handled with care, that too high a workload at too young an age or too recently after injury can lead to Tommy John surgery or worse. This presents a conundrum for would-be contenders who rely on young power pitchers, most notably the Nationals with Stephen Strasburg in 2012 and the Mets with Matt Harvey in 2015.

There’s no real surefire solution to this problem. The Nats shut down Strasburg and lost in the first round of the playoffs, while the Mets kept pitching Harvey up until the last game of the World Series but lost, and Harvey’s never been the same.

Paddack is not only just 23, he’s never thrown more than 90 innings in a professional season, and has already had Tommy John surgery. And his performance early this season proves he’s an arm worth protecting. The Padres were already doing that by stretching his time between starts and watching his pitch counts—Paddack’s career high through 12 big league starts is only 92.

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants
Chris Paddack
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

On one level, reducing Paddack’s workload is good for both player and team, as they share a long-term interest in all the joints in his right arm working properly. But even with modern, bloated pitching staffs, it’s tough to carry a pitcher like Paddack on the big league roster all year if he’s not going to make 30 starts. And placing Paddack on the IL with some nebulous ailment like “fatigue” is one option but technically against the rules.

Paddack has struggled in his past three starts, going 0-2 with a 7.53 ERA, though an equivalently talented 30-year-old locked into a long-term contract delivering a three-start stretch like that would make his next start without hesitation. Moreover, the fact that he’s been sent to Single-A rather than Triple-A shows that this is about parking him on some roster where he can get some rest instead of finding his groove again.

Here Paddack’s interests diverge from his team’s. If he were in the majors, or even on the major league IL, he’d be accruing service time and hastening the arrival of arbitration and free agency as well as their attendant multimillion-dollar paydays. But if the Padres keep him in the minors for more than a couple of weeks, it will push his free agency back a year. It would be negligent to overlook the service-time implications of that move, particularly given how much credit Preller and the Padres got for bringing Paddack and Tatís up to the big leagues on Opening Day.

In keeping with recent baseball tradition, the Padres’ interest in keeping Paddack with the club for as long as possible on as low a salary as possible could be satisfied if Paddack needs more than a handful of starts off. Short of some kind of specific rest position for young pitchers in the next CBA, this is one scenario in which there is no satisfactory solution for both player and team, and when the two are in conflict, the team wins out. Perhaps if the Dodgers had stumbled out of the gate early and the Padres had played well enough to be in first place in mid-June, the calculus of Paddack’s situation would be different, but for now, 12 games out, there’s no reason to risk Paddack’s health by overworking him, and if Paddack stays down, the Padres reap the added benefit of keeping him under team control longer.

Paddack will be just one factor in San Diego’s success or failure in 2019 and beyond. While the Padres would prefer to be in first place, their current position is workable in both the short and long term. They have both time and talent to spare, and the novelty of having new exciting players in home uniforms at Petco Park buys Preller and the front office time to turn this cool, fun 80-win team into a genuine 90- or 95-win team in 2020 and beyond. There will come a time when fans, local media, and ownership lose patience—and if the recent history of rebuilding projects across North American sports is any indication, that time will come sooner than anyone suspects. But for now, the Padres can be patient with their young core and embrace the flexibility their wealth of young talent affords them. Playing entertaining .500 ball won’t be good enough for very long, but for now, it counts as progress.

Player stats are current through Sunday’s games.