The Padres—not the Mets—are MLB’s Biggest Disappointment of 2023

The Padres—not the Mets—are MLB’s Biggest Disappointment of 2023

TORONTO, CANADA - JULY 19:  Juan Soto #22 of the San Diego Padres sits in the dugout during their MLB game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on July 19, 2023 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Cole Burston/Getty Images

It’s been 10 days since the New York Mets completed an unforeseen yet necessary teardown of their $350 million roster, in effect preemptively writing the end to arguably the most disappointing chapter in their history.

Just don’t call them the biggest disappointment of 2023. That belongs to the San Diego Padres.

It’s been more stops than starts for the Padres, who’ve yet to go more than three games over .500 and are five games under at 55-60. They’re 13.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West and 4.5 games out in the wild-card race.

It all smacks of a lack of fight in the dog, and you can take it from Juan Soto that this is the case some days. As he relayed to Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune and other reporters after the Padres lost their fourth straight game on Wednesday, sometimes it’s as if “we just give up.”

Kevin Acee @sdutKevinAcee

“Days like this series, we just give up. Like literally, we just give up instead of keep grinding, keep pushing. We’ve got to forget about yesterday and keep moving.”

Mariners score five runs in 8th to complete sweep of Padres, who go down feebly again

Where the Padres are now arguably isn’t as offensive as where the Mets are, with a formerly star-studded roster in ruin and a 52-62 record. Even setting aside how San Diego’s opening payroll was about $100 million lighter, here we have cases of a 101-win team from 2022 falling very far and an 89-win team from ’22 falling less far.

But whereas the Mets were always a risky bet despite their gargantuan payroll, the Padres were supposed to be a safe one. At the outset, FanGraphs gave them the second-best chances for a division title (55.4 percent) and for winning the World Series (11.1 percent).

Those chances now stand at 0.3 and 3.0 percent.

The Padres Are Good, Actually

The weird thing is that the Padres are actually a good team. At least in the abstract.

Per their plus-56 run differential, they should have the fourth-best record in the National League. That would certainly be more befitting of a team that does everything well.

No, really.

The Padres offense and pitching staff, the latter of which is headlined by NL Cy Young Award front-runner Blake Snell and unhittable closer Josh Hader, are 5 percent and 9 percent better than average, respectively. They’re also one of the league’s better baserunning teams and defensive squads.

San Diego Padres @Padres

Two thirds of the Earth is covered by water. The other third? By @tatis_jr.#BringTheGold

Point being: This should be working. And at least one Padre thinks it still will.

“It’s never too late, man,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts said Wednesday, per AJ Cassavell of “We’ve all been preaching that we’re going to get on a run, and we haven’t so far. All of the guys in this room still deeply believe that it’s going to happen.”

There’s a real-life example of what could happen if the Padres’ luck evens out happening on the North Side of Chicago with the Cubs right now. Especially if it starts right away amid a stretch of 20 out of 26 games against other NL wild-card contenders, the Padres may yet pull the same trick that led them to the National League Championship Series last year.

The Padres Are Actually Bad

As easy as it is to see why things should be working for the Padres, it’s equally easy to see why they’re very much not.

Soto is doing his thing in getting on base at a .413 clip with a team-high 24 home runs, but the help he’s supposed to be getting offensively just isn’t there. Bogaerts and 2022 NL MVP runner-up Manny Machado have seen their composite OPS dip 120 points from last year. Fernando Tatis Jr. was hot between April 20 and June 20 but has gone frigid with a .601 OPS since then.

San Diego’s bullpen, meanwhile, has been defined by volatility. Hader may have a 0.86 ERA, but even he can’t fully account for one of the league’s worst save conversion rates.

There are excuses to be made here, and some are even good ones.

Machado (hand) and Bogaerts (wrist) have prior injuries that could explain their production dips. Tatis may simply be out of gas after missing all of 2022 due to a suspension and three surgeries. Robert Suarez, who was a sensation out of the bullpen late last year, has largely been a non-factor since returning from an elbow injury.

There is nonetheless something about Soto’s words that rings true. Something that gets at how the Padres are good at playing the game but bad at beating people at it, especially those their own size.

It’s vaguely there in their league-worst 6-18 record in one-run games, but it’s more evident in a concerningly long track record of underperformance against good teams. They’re 71-83 against teams with .500 or better records since the start of 2022, including 7-22 against the Dodgers.

All this perhaps raises the question of whether last year’s NLCS run is a true reflection of what these Padres are capable of. And knowing that their remaining schedule isn’t on the easy side, what it definitely does is reinforce the likelihood that their season is beyond saving.

What Happens Next Will Be Crucial

Barring a Cubs-like surge, there are hopes to be found in that 2023 doesn’t represent a last hurrah for the Padres.

Most of their key guys are due back in 2024, including Soto, Machado, Bogaerts, Tatis and the underrated Ha-Seong Kim. With Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish likewise due back in the rotation, whether there’s a foundation for continued goodness in San Diego is not in dispute.

Whether the Padres of tomorrow will achieve the kind of greatness that’s been clearly in sight yet frustratingly just out of reach, though, will come down to president of baseball operations A.J. Preller.

He’ll have some major decisions to make this winter, starting with whether he still wants three-time Manager of the Year Bob Melvin calling the shots on the field. Shocker though it would be, Dennis Lin of The Athletic surely isn’t alone in pondering whether he could be made a scapegoat for this season anyway.

With Snell and Hader due for free agency, gigantic holes are also about to open up in the pitching staff. Put together, it’s conceivable they’ll command upwards of $50 million in average annual value.

If the Padres are going to spend that kind of money, would it make sense to go after Shohei Ohtani instead?

The word in January from Bob Nightengale of USA Today is they plan to do just that. And why not? There’d be no denying his capacity to fill Snell’s shoes, much less to boost a designated hitter spot that ranks 29th in rWAR.

Of all scenarios the Padres may face this winter, certainly the worst would be one in which Snell and Hader leave and Ohtani takes his history-making tour elsewhere. That’s where there’d be sense in not going all-in on 2024, in which case it would make more sense than it already does for the Padres to shop Soto ahead of his walk year.

Probably the only thing that can be ruled out is the Padres pulling a Mets and blowing it up. They’re in too deep and, for all their failings, not close enough to rock bottom. The team may be giving up, but the organization should not.

There is nonetheless a warning it should heed, and it has to do with which core stars are getting long in the tooth. Machado, Bogaerts and Musgrove are past 30, while Darvish is pushing 40.

If what the Padres are trying to do doesn’t work soon, it may not work at all.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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