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Daddy Issues: The Padres Have Let Us Down Once Again

San Diego entered the 2021 season as the talk of MLB, with an ascendant Fernando Tatis Jr., a star-studded lineup, and a completely revamped pitching staff. How did its playoff hopes fall apart?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2021 season brought the most hype for any campaign in San Diego Padres history. There was sufficient reason for excitement: a stirring rise in 2020; Fernando Tatis Jr.’s ascension to superstardom; Manny Machado’s third-place finish in National League MVP voting; and an offseason that featured trades for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove. The arms race between the Padres and Dodgers invited comparisons to the Yankees–Red Sox arms race from the early aughts. We at The Ringer celebrated with a whole week of Dodgers-Padres material as part of our season preview. I predicted San Diego would win the World Series.

Oops.

Now, rather than asking whether the Padres will compete for the franchise’s first title, or win 100 games for the first time, or at least make the Dodgers sweat, the most pertinent question is whether San Diego will even finish with a winning record. The Padres are 78-78 after losing three straight to Atlanta over the weekend, officially eliminating them from playoff contention. With remaining series against the Dodgers and Giants, more losses are likely on the way.

A final losing record would add copious insult to injury—and San Diego sure has suffered from injuries over the last few months. Where did the Padres’ dream go so wrong?

It didn’t, at least for a while. On the morning of May 31, after taking two of three in a weekend series against Houston, the Padres led the NL West by half a game. At 34-20, they were tied for the majors’ best record. They boasted the majors’ best ERA (2.69) by nearly half a run.

Yet since that final divisional peak in late May, the Padres hold a 44-58 record—24.5 games worse than the Giants and Dodgers over that span. During that time, San Diego has won fewer games than the Rockies and Royals and ranks just 21st in ERA.

The first problem is that the lineup hasn’t mashed like it did last season, dropping from third in runs per game to 14th. The starters have been fine—especially a phenomenal infield core of Jake Cronenworth, Machado, and Tatis, who leads the NL with 41 home runs. Each member of that trio ranks among the five most valuable players at his position, according to FanGraphs.

More broadly, the seven Padres with the most plate appearances all boast above-average batting lines. But none of the other 17 Padres with at least 10 trips to the plate has been above average. Granted, six members of that group are pitchers, who aren’t expected to hit—but that still leaves almost a dozen prospective depth pieces, from Jurickson Profar to Víctor Caratini to Ha-Seong Kim, who didn’t give the lineup any depth.

Put another way, only the top position player trios for the Blue Jays (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Marcus Semien, and Teoscar Hernández) and Astros (Carlos Correa, José Altuve, and Kyle Tucker) have been more valuable than the Padres’, as Tatis, Machado, and Cronenworth have combined for 14.6 WAR, per FanGraphs. But every other Padres position player has combined for just 5.0 WAR, which ranks 21st among teams’ combined WARs outside their top three players.

This graph illustrates a number of team-specific trends from this season. The Blue Jays and Astros pair exceptional cores with strong supporting casts; there’s a reason they rank third and first, respectively, in overall position player WAR. Teams like the Giants and Rays don’t have superstars anchoring their lineups, but their red bars rise high because those league-leading rosters are predicated on depth. On the other end of the spectrum, the Pirates and Orioles are special: Their non-top-three players have combined for negative WAR.

And for the Padres, the stars have set a brisk pace the rest of the roster hasn’t maintained. Only the Phillies—who rank fourth with their top trio and 20th with everyone else—have a comparable split, so it’s fitting that Philadelphia is close to San Diego in the standings, just with the benefit of playing in the division with the weakest first-place team rather than the strongest.

Even with that imbalance, however, San Diego had cruised through a majority of the season in playoff position. As late as July 27, a day after the team attempted to bolster its lineup by trading for All-Star Adam Frazier, the Padres’ playoff odds still touched 90 percent. From that point on, the graph showing their daily playoff probability is a horror story.

Much of the problem stems from a disastrous run of injury luck. The Padres lost the most days due to player injury this season, according to the Baseball Prospectus injury ledger, and the fifth-most WAR.

On offense, Tatis and center fielder Trent Grisham missed significant time, and Austin Nola’s injury woes—he played in just 18 games before the All-Star break—meant the team essentially punted on catcher production for months. Even with Nola back in the fold, the Padres rank 29th in catcher WAR this season, ahead of only the Orioles. (Hey, maybe catcher Adley Rutschman, who’s the no. 1 prospect in the world and hitting .286/.399/.513 in the upper minors, is ready for the majors now, Baltimore? But I digress.)

Injuries especially ravaged the pitching staff. San Diego had seven pitchers projected before the season to amass at least 1.0 WAR: five MLB starters, top prospect MacKenzie Gore, and ace reliever Drew Pomeranz, who placed second in MLB Network’s ranking of relief pitchers over the offseason. But among those arms, only Musgrove met his expected innings total; altogether, the group fell 26 percent short of its projected innings and 36 percent shy of its projected WAR.

Padres’ Best-Projected Pitchers

Pitcher Projected IP Actual IP (Change) Projected WAR Actual WAR (Change)
Pitcher Projected IP Actual IP (Change) Projected WAR Actual WAR (Change)
Yu Darvish 184 162.1 (-12%) 4.1 2.8 (-32%)
Joe Musgrove 164 173.1 (+6%) 3.2 3.1 (-3%)
Blake Snell 146 128.2 (-12% 3.1 2.2 (-29%)
Dinelson Lamet 123 44.1 (-64%) 2.7 0.6 (-78%)
Chris Paddack 122 108.1 (-11%) 2.0 1.8 (-10%)
MacKenzie Gore 75 0 (-100%) 1.0 0.0 (-100%)
Drew Pomeranz 56 25.2 (-54%) 1.0 0.5 (-50%)
Total 870 642.2 (-26%) 17.1 11.0 (-36%)

Then their replacements got hurt, too. Adrián Morejón, the next starter up, pitched twice before requiring Tommy John surgery. Prospect Michel Báez, who threw for the big league team in 2020, also needed Tommy John. A slew of relievers populated the IL, most notably Keone Kela, an offseason acquisition who in May underwent—you guessed it—Tommy John.

All those injuries made the Padres so desperate for innings down the stretch that they received seven starts from Jake Arrieta (10.95 ERA) and Vince Velasquez (9.00 ERA), who had previously been released by teams in need of pitching. San Diego lost all seven of those games by a combined score of 53-32 as the club’s run prevention stats continued on their trajectory in the wrong direction.

It didn’t help that as all the injuries coalesced and the playoff race intensified, the Padres faced a hellacious September schedule, full of games against the Giants and Dodgers. Of course, that means the Padres also didn’t take care of business when they benefited from an easier slate earlier in the season—such as by losing the season series to the Rockies and dropping more games to the last-place Diamondbacks (eight) than the Giants and Dodgers combined (six).

As strange as it sounds after such a catastrophic collapse, the Padres’ outlook for the future remains bright: This group still has a reasonable path to heights the franchise has never previously reached. Outfielder Tommy Pham is the only notable contributor who will reach free agency this winter, so the team could basically try again and hope the injury odds even out. Tatis and Machado are signed to long-term deals and form an excellent foundation for a contender, and a rotation fronted by Darvish, Musgrove, and Snell still looks mighty enticing.

Yet such a disappointing season can’t help but reverberate into the future. Off the field, organizational changes are coming as the team reckons with the whimpering of its 2021 hopes. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild and farm director Sam Geaney are gone, and second-year manager Jayce Tingler may soon join them. As The Athletic recently reported, the team is confronting a “leadership void,” with Tingler specifically “facing increased scrutiny and second-guessing in his own clubhouse.”

On the field, even if the Padres can’t expect to suffer so many costly injuries as they did this season, they’ll still be relying on a bunch of pitchers who have recently been injured—most notably Mike Clevinger, who expects to return from Tommy John surgery after missing all of 2021. Adding more and better depth, for both position players and pitchers, is a must if San Diego wants to compete in a terrific division.

The shallowing of the Padres’ farm system could prove costly here. Where the Padres once could count on waves of youngsters matriculating to the majors, that prospect churn has slowed to a trickle. A year ago at this point, the Padres’ farm ranked second in the majors, according to FanGraphs; now it’s 18th.

Of course, the point of prospect development isn’t to win the “best farm system” title, but to turn those lower-level successes into wins for the MLB club, either via prospect graduations or trades for established big leaguers. Someone like Musgrove should help the 2022 team more than any prospect traded away in general manager A.J. Preller’s spree—especially because the Padres haven’t sacrificed any major prospects other than Luis Patino, who fetched Snell, a Cy Young Award winner on a reasonable multiyear deal.

Rather than the young players lost to trade, the most deleterious impact on the Padres’ prospects over the last year is the setback to Gore, a 22-year-old southpaw with an elite pedigree: He was the third overall pick in the 2017 draft, then a universal top-10 prospect—and the league’s top pitching prospect, period—before the 2020 season. But he’s struggled with his control and his mechanics, which led to a midseason makeover. He hasn’t pitched in Triple-A since June; over the whole season, across multiple minor league levels, he’s walked 28 batters in 50 1/3 innings. Worst of all is the message sent by the Padres’ handling of him: This is now two seasons in a row that San Diego, desperate for pitching, turned to the likes of Ryan Weathers and 35-year-old Arrieta rather than Gore.

At the end of last season, Gore ranked second on FanGraphs’ prospect list. Now he ranks 102nd, a fall of 100 spots, with his “future value” dropping from 70 to 50 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He’s suffered just about the worst year imaginable for a young pitcher that doesn’t involve an arm surgery.

Gore may well bounce back. Player development is not linear. But his tumble down the prospect ranks serves as a fitting microcosm of his franchise’s larger experience this season. His sheen, and the Padres’, has dimmed. Now, just months after being feted by the baseball world, the Padres have ample work to do to restore those lustrous hopes next season.