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Will the Padres Regret Not Going All In?

Before Mookie Betts became a Dodger, San Diego was reportedly trying to acquire him. Not only did the Padres let him get away, but their road in the NL West became even more daunting than usual.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

PECOTA release day is a grand February tradition in which the folks at Baseball Prospectus reveal the aggregated results of 1,000 simulated baseball seasons in an attempt to predict—or at least set baseline expectations for—the forthcoming year in baseball. It’s a little like Groundhog Day in that it’s an annual event that heralds the coming of spring, but also like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in that it involves a computer that can tell the future.

On Wednesday, BP revealed that in the average season in the PECOTA projections, the Dodgers and Padres would finish 1-2 in the NL West. This is an entirely reasonable, middle-of-the-road prediction, though the margin of victory for L.A.—23 games—is positively dizzying. The Dodgers’ median projection of 102.5 wins is the highest in the history of the system, and frankly feels appropriate for a club that won 106 games last year and stands to add two top-10 global prospects (infielder Gavin Lux and pitcher Dustin May, who both played a bit last season) and just swindled the Red Sox for Mookie Betts and David Price.

The Betts trade unleashed a national furor, as it turned the Dodgers from the best team in the NL on paper into an intergalactic juggernaut, the city’s hottest club this side of 1 Oak. The Red Sox punted on competing for the near future, to near-universal condemnation. Even the Twins, heretofore an under-the-radar contender with holes in its pitching staff, insinuated themselves into the deal and upgraded a key area of weakness by trading prospect Brusdar Graterol for Kenta Maeda.

But up until the weekend before the deal leaked, the Padres were a serious contender for Betts. A deal would have made them serious contenders for the division title, both because Betts would’ve become the best position player in franchise history the second he pulled on a brown jersey, and because trading for him would’ve prevented the Dodgers from doing so.

Even without Betts, the Padres have been able to build on their promising—if sometimes frustrating—2019 season by reshuffling their pitching staff and converting their previous glut of corner outfielders into pieces that fit together. But after adding free agents Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado in back-to-back offseasons, general manager A.J. Preller failed to land a similarly splashy player this past winter.

The Padres should be commended for the clever and proactive moves they’ve made in the past few months, but PECOTA—while certainly fallible—offers another reminder of the length of the road they have left to travel before they can challenge the Dodgers. Cleverness will get a team only so far, and the Padres could end up wishing they’d supplemented it with a little brute force.

The Padres’ primary opponent is quite formidable. The Dodgers have won seven division titles in a row—they’re what you’d get if you took the Yankees and swapped out the DH for freeways and massive geological instability. The Padres, meanwhile, haven’t won more than 90 games since 1998 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2006. And even when the Padres were bad they weren’t interesting. They floated along as something less than an afterthought, the last team you’d think of when listing all 30 MLB franchises. Before last season, a ranking of the most interesting San Diego baseball players of the past decade would include more college players (Stephen Strasburg and Kris Bryant) and characters from Pitch than actual Padres.

But in 2019, the Padres turned into a kind of hipster favorite. They signed Machado to a $300 million contract, announcing themselves as serious big-market players. That spring, a farm system built through savvy drafting and trades began to bear fruit in the form of Fernando Tatís, who was even better than Machado when not sidelined by back and hamstring injuries, and pitcher Chris Paddack, whose jaunty self-confidence inspired a level of slack-jawed fawning among Ringer staff usually reserved for obscure NBA wings.

Both Tatís and Paddack were acquired in trades for pitchers (James Shields and Fernando Rodney, respectively) who were broadly considered to be in the twilight of their careers. Preller has continued along this Dipotovian approach to team building in the past seven months. For good or ill, most high-profile trades resemble the recent Red Sox–Dodgers deal for Betts: One club (the seller) trades good, expensive players to another (the buyer) for younger, cheaper players who could one day evolve into good players or at least are under team control longer.

The Padres don’t do that, exactly. They entered last season with a surfeit of good infielders, catchers, power-hitting corner outfielders, and back-end starters—but very little in the way of top-end starting pitching, or players who could provide passable defense in center field and enough offense to stay in a big league lineup.

Eight months ago, while the Padres were sitting around .500 and showing that their window of contention was not quite open, I suggested that rather than dig directly into his big bag of prospects for ready-made solutions, Preller could trade from areas of depth to reinforce his club where it was weak. And so he did.

A little more than a month later, Preller glommed onto the deadline trade that sent Trevor Bauer from Cleveland to Cincinnati, and pried center field prospect Taylor Trammell from the Reds. The cost was outfielder Franmil Reyes and pitcher Logan Allen, both of whom were young and talented, but redundant on a Padres roster that had half a dozen power-hitting corner outfielders and a rotation made up mostly of no. 4 starters.

And so it continued during the offseason. In November, the Padres traded second baseman Luis Urías and left-hander Eric Lauer for outfielder Trent Grisham and pitcher Zach Davies, who in addition to having a face and frame that will keep him from getting into R-rated movies until he’s about 50 has been a consistently above-average starter his entire career.

In the weeks that followed, Preller turned outfield prospect Buddy Reed and third-string catcher Austin Allen into Jurickson Profar, who could take the place of Urías and the retired Ian Kinsler at second base. Then he traded right fielder Hunter Renfroe and infield prospect Xavier Edwards (a “slapdick prospect” in the words of Rays Cy Young winner Blake Snell) for Tommy Pham and two-way prospect Jake Cronenworth. Neither Pham nor Grisham is Willie Mays defensively, but both can at least theoretically play center in a pinch, which is more than can be said for most of last year’s crop of outfielders.

The Padres also beefed up their bullpen, with free agent Drew Pomeranz and right-hander Emilio Pagán, who was acquired from Tampa Bay for a package centered on outfielder Manuel Margot, a good defensive center fielder who provides as much offense as your average episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Every single one of these trades and free-agent signings looks good in a vacuum. They all provide substantial upside without unreasonable risk. But while these moves are individually clever, the whole picture leaves a lot to be desired.

The Padres, as currently constituted, have a phenomenally talented left side of the infield with Tatís and Machado, a promising catcher tandem of Francisco Mejía and defensive wizard Austin Hedges, and maybe the best bullpen in baseball. More than that they have depth—if Profar falters, Greg Garcia can deputize at second, and if Hosmer or Grisham is slugging .300 by Memorial Day, new manager Jayce Tingler can pencil in Wil Myers to replace them.

But take a look at all this depth and talent, distributed more efficiently than last year, and a farm system that’s still turgid and swollen, and tell me where the Padres are better than the Dodgers. The bullpen, certainly, as San Diego’s Pomeranz-Pagán–Kirby Yates troika is nigh unhittable, compared to the Dodgers’ collection of big-name relievers who are for the most part trying to figure out how to correct the struggles they’ve suffered in the past season or two.

After that, even the Padres’ greatest strength—the Machado-Tatís partnership—is more or less nullified by the Dodgers’ left side of Justin Turner and Corey Seager. Talented as Mejía is behind the plate, his stock has fallen to the point where the Dodgers’ second-year backstop, former Louisville man Will Smith, is just as highly regarded, if not more so. And it only gets worse when you start comparing Cody Bellinger to Franchy Cordero, Max Muncy to Hosmer, and so on.

The fatal disparity between the two comes in the rotation, where even after trading away Maeda and letting Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu leave as free agents, the Dodgers have more good starters than they can use. The Padres, meanwhile, have a rotation of Davies, Joey Lucchesi—who while reliable is nowhere near as good as Walker Buehler (or Clayton Kershaw, or Price)—and a bunch of question marks.

Paddack, the Padres’ presumptive no. 1 starter, maxed out at 140 innings last year and even in so doing wore down as the season went on. Garrett Richards has pitched like an ace whenever he’s been healthy … but hasn’t been healthy since 2016. Dinelson Lamet is entering his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. More importantly, the Padres don’t have an ace to compete with Buehler, not unless Paddack improves not only his durability but his per-inning performance. After Paddack, the next Padres prospect with Buehler-level upside is Gumbylike southpaw MacKenzie Gore, who’s still a year away.

Looking at this rotation, it’s hard not to notice the Padres’ sleepy free agency. So far this winter they’ve signed six notable free agents: Gordon Beckham, who at this point in this career is just someone who can chase down grounders at spring training, and five relief pitchers. Even if you accept that the luxury tax threshold is an acceptable hard-and-fast salary cutoff for a team with playoff aspirations, the Padres are some $55 million short of that boundary.

What would this roster look like if the Padres had beaten the meager package the Dodgers gave up for Betts and Price? They could easily have lowered the price in outgoing talent by just choosing to take on more salary, as the Dodgers required the Red Sox to send cash along in the deal. Or what if they’d put that $55 million to work by pursuing Strasburg or Ryu, or both, in free agency? It wouldn’t have closed the gap to the Dodgers, but it would have reduced the team’s biggest area of uncertainty and reduced the pressure to shoot the moon on durability with Paddack and Richards.

There’s a difference between cleverness and wisdom. The Padres are good enough to make the playoffs, fun enough to demand attention, and young enough to do both for years to come. Preller deserves a lot of credit for building such a team through keen scouting and a great eye for opportunity on the trade market. It’s a good foundation, considering that the Padres operate in less than ideal circumstances, which includes not only their competition but the budget set down by ownership.

But the Padres are still a step behind the Dodgers—23 steps, according to PECOTA—and with each passing year, it becomes more and more likely that Preller and the Padres will regret not forcing this window open sooner.