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With Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, the Padres Are Coming for the Dodgers’ Crown

San Diego was the breakout team of the 2020 season. After trading for two aces, it’s poised to be even better in the years to come.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The hot stove hadn’t yet had time to cool from the Padres’ last big move, sending four young players to the Rays for Blake Snell, when San Diego struck again: Yu Darvish will reportedly also be a Padre next season, as the team is finalizing a trade to acquire Darvish and backup catcher Victor Caratini from the Cubs in exchange for pitcher Zach Davies and four more youngsters.

The dual moves affirmed San Diego GM A.J. Preller’s aggressive team-building philosophy; they invigorated a dormant, languorous offseason just aching for activity. But perhaps most of all, they sent a message two hours up the California coast: Your move, Dodgers.

That braggadocious assumption isn’t hyperbole. With Snell and Darvish (and Korean infielder Ha-seong Kim, who reportedly agreed to a deal with San Diego on Monday) in the fold, the Padres are just a rounding error away from the Dodgers in projected 2021 WAR, according to FanGraphs.

The Dodgers have a clear advantage in the outfield, with 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts and 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger still in their primes. But the Padres might be better positioned everywhere else on the diamond, with FanGraphs’ projections giving them the advantage across the other position groups. (The figures in this chart don’t add up exactly because of rounding.)

Projected 2021 WAR

Position Group Dodgers Padres Difference
Position Group Dodgers Padres Difference
Infield 14.8 16.7 Padres +1.9
Outfield/DH 12.2 7.1 Dodgers +5.1
Starting Pitching 15.0 16.5 Padres +1.5
Relief Pitching 2.3 3.4 Padres +1.1
Overall 44.3 43.6 Dodgers +0.7

Projections aren’t sacrosanct, and margins this slim so far out from the season aren’t particularly meaningful. But that’s the point: The Padres are now close enough to the Dodgers to look like they’re equals.

If the Snell trade was part Rays’ financial shenanigans, part Padres’ effort to replace the injured Mike Clevinger in the rotation, the Darvish deal is an outright robbery. With three years and $59 million remaining on his contract, the 34-year-old Darvish isn’t as cheap as Snell, nor as young. But he’s also one of the best pitchers in baseball, having recovered from 2018 injuries and a rough early adjustment with the Cubs to return to the top tier of MLB pitchers.

Since the 2019 All-Star break, 80 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings. Among that group, Darvish ranks:

  • Fifth in ERA (2.40)
  • Third in FIP (2.54)
  • Fourth in strikeout rate (34.6 percent)
  • Second in walk rate (3.4 percent)
  • Fifth in ERA-based WAR (6.5 wins)
  • Fourth in FIP-based WAR (5.4 wins)

Snell won the 2018 AL Cy Young award; Darvish finished second in NL voting in 2020. According to MLB researcher Sarah Langs, the Padres are the first team to acquire multiple pitchers with such recent high Cy Young finishes in the same offseason—and they did so in the span of about 24 hours.

The new-look Padres rotation is, to use an esteemed industry term, absolutely bonkers, leading the majors in projected WAR even with Clevinger sidelined by Tommy John surgery. Darvish, Dinelson Lamet (a fourth-place Cy Young finisher in 2020), and Snell rank fifth, 12th, and 15th, respectively, in 2021 projections among individual pitchers, according to the Steamer system. No other team has even two pitchers in the top 15. (The Dodgers and Nationals are close, with Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin all just 0.1 projected WAR behind Snell.)

In 2022, Clevinger will return to the mound for the Padres while Darvish, Lamet, and Snell are all still under contract. MacKenzie Gore, the top pitching prospect in the world, will reach the majors soon, too.

And the cost to build this extraordinary rotation was eminently manageable. According to the rankings at both FanGraphs and Baseball America, the Padres kept six of their top seven prospects, losing only pitcher Luis Patiño to the Rays from their top group. We covered the Snell return on Monday; the reported package for Darvish is even lighter, with the Cubs essentially pivoting to a far-off future despite winning the NL Central just last year and keeping World Series heroes Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Báez under contract for just one more season each.

In addition to Davies—a cromulent mid-rotation starter, with nowhere near Darvish’s upside—the Cubs receive four prospects: shortstops Yeison Santana and Reggie Preciado, and outfielders Owen Caissie and Ismael Mena. The oldest of the bunch is Santana, who just celebrated his 20th birthday this month. FanGraphs prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen rates all four prospects with a “high” level of risk and estimates that three of them won’t reasonably arrive at the MLB level until 2025. So check back in half a decade, or longer, to see how this trade really worked out for the Cubs.

(This piece is focused on the Padres, but again, the Cubs won their division just last year! Now their rotation ranks 30th in projected 2021 WAR, a smidge behind the Orioles’. With the Ricketts ownership group apparently mandating drastic spending cuts, Theo Epstein got out just in time.)

The Padres might not be done making winter moves, but the Snell-Darvish double whammy looks like a capstone to a remarkable franchise turnaround. Before 2020, the Padres hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2010, or a playoff berth since 2006. Preller’s initial deal-making flurry flopped, costing the franchise young players like Trea Turner, Max Fried, and Yasmani Grandal. But with a rebuilt farm system that gave Preller both promising players and the depth to make trades, a once-in-a-generation trade heist—Petco Park should protect the “James Shields for Erik Johnson and Fernando Tatis Jr.” fax like the National Archives preserves the Declaration of Independence—and an ownership group willing to spend, not just for Darvish but for free agents Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer as well, the Padres have transformed into a juggernaut in waiting.

San Diego won the third-most games in the shortened 2020 season, and that lofty showing wasn’t a fluke: The Padres had the second-best run differential in the majors, behind only the Dodgers. They also ranked second in BaseRuns differential, which measures a team’s “expected” runs based on granular statistics like number of strikeouts and home runs. And they ranked second in projected 2021 WAR before the offseason got underway—but that was with Clevinger, and the Padres were still five wins behind the Dodgers, closer to ninth place than first.

Fronting the rotation with two new All-Stars helps close that gap; so does signing the 25-year-old Kim, who hit .306/.397/.523 with 30 home runs and more walks than strikeouts in the KBO last season. A natural shortstop, Kim will slide to second base in the Padres’ infield, giving the team shortstop-caliber defenders at second, short, and third.

As with any player who hasn’t yet been exposed to a steady diet of MLB fastballs, it’s unclear just how well Kim’s bat will translate. But his age, defensive versatility, and baserunning skill all give him a larger margin for error than, say, ByungHo Park, a KBO masher who couldn’t find his hitting stroke in MLB. Kim’s projection range is understandably wide, with Steamer giving him a modest figure and ZiPS expecting him to produce like an All-Star candidate for the next half-decade.

The Padres didn’t need Kim; they already had Tatis and Machado on the left side of the infield and 2020 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Jake Cronenworth to man second base. But why not add more depth and talent when it’s attainable? They’re trying to beat the Dodgers at their own game.

The reigning World Series champions remain the presumptive favorite, of course, both in their budding rivalry with the Padres and in MLB at large. They might well create separation from San Diego this offseason by signing Trevor Bauer or trading for Francisco Lindor. But unlike some other prospective challengers, the Padres aren’t cowering in the face of a dynasty next door. They’re leaning on all of their resources and exploring all the ways to build a roster—through prospect call-ups, trades, and free-agent signings—to prevent the Dodgers from sitting too comfortably on their throne.

San Diego fans can only stand to benefit after so many years adrift. Perhaps the most cutting encapsulation of the Padres’ lost decade is a list of their Opening Day starters from that period, following Jake Peavy’s trade at the 2009 deadline.

2010: Jon Garland (career 1.3 bWAR with San Diego)
2011: Tim Stauffer (4.2)
2012 and 2013: Edinson Vólquez (-1.5)
2014: Andrew Cashner (3.2)
2015: James Shields (2.6)
2016: Tyson Ross (7.2)
2017: Jhoulys Chacín (2.6)
2018: Clayton Richard (1.1)
2019: Eric Lauer (1.3)

The Opening Day question now isn’t whether the Padres have an ace, but which one to tap for the start; the 2021 Padres have three legitimate candidates to shoulder the lofty hopes of the franchise and take the mound when a new season begins. That number will rise to four when Clevinger returns; maybe five, if Gore is excellent as promised; or six, if 2020 Opening Day starter Chris Paddack harnesses his talents too.

In the 2010s, the Padres ranked 29th in total team wins. But they might be the team to beat in the 2020s—or, at least, the team best positioned to wrest that crown from the one team that’s already won a title this decade. They’re not wasting any opportunity to meet that challenge, or fulfill that promise.