Ladies and gentlemen, your biggest mystery team of the 2018-2019 hot stove season!
At first glance, the Padres appear to be a typical rebuilding team. They finished with the second-worst record in the National League last season. Their starting rotation was a disaster, with San Diego's starters finishing dead last in the majors in park-adjusted ERA. They experimented with countless lineups and defensive configurations, with one of the team's two players signed for more than two seasons spending a chunk of the year out of position at third base, while also missing half the year due to injuries. You'd typically expect a team operating under those conditions to be two, three, or more years away from rising toward playoff contention.
- 2018 Result: 66-96, fifth place in NL West
- Key free agents: Freddy Galvis, A.J. Ellis
- Needs: Starting pitching, relief pitching, third base
Thing is, the Padres under general manager A.J. Preller are anything but typical. Yes, Preller has engineered some classic rebuilding moves, his biggest coup picking up lefty reliever Brad Hand for nothing, watching him blossom into an All-Star, then flipping him last summer for one of the best catching prospects in baseball, Cleveland's Francisco Mejia. But last winter, with the Friars coming off seven straight losing seasons, Preller threw an eight-year, $144 million contract at Eric Hosmer, a good but not great first baseman coming off a career year. Even with one of the cleanest balance sheets in the league this was a curious move. Hosmer's 2017 success stemmed in large part from a flukish .351 batting average on balls in play. Moreover, the Padres were unlikely to be contenders until Hosmer hit his 30s, at which point his decline phase would likely begin. Preller pulled the trigger anyway.
The good news is that San Diego's balance sheet remains mostly clean, even after the Hosmer deal. Only three players (Hosmer, WIl Myers, and newly signed rehabbing starting pitcher Garrett Richards) are under contract through 2020. Even better, the Padres have built the best farm system in the game, thanks to savvy trades and impressive scouting and development work. The 2016 acquisition of shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. from the White Sox could prove to be one of the best trades in franchise history, given that Tatis has grown into a consensus top-three MLB prospect.
The question then becomes what to do with all this available money and brimming young talent. In their 50 seasons of existence, the Padres have been one of the least successful franchises in all of North American sports. They've made the World Series just twice, and never won one. They've been run by a number of awful owners. They've collected a bunch of high draft picks, and botched most of them. (Seriously, peruse this list starting in the mid-90s at your own peril.)
With long-suffering franchises like the Cubs and Astros finally getting over the hump to win it all, the Padres are now the most overdue organization in baseball to find some real success. The Hosmer deal signaled that both Preller and the team's current owners might not be satisfied with remaining wallflowers anymore. Could San Diego shoot the moon this offseason?
There are reasons for cautious optimism. The baseball world watched closely as 2017 laggards Atlanta and Philadelphia immediately leapt into contention last season. The Braves in particular had a similarly loaded farm system and an impressive stable of young major leaguers, many of whom broke out in 2018.
In addition to the veterans Myers and Hosmer, the Padres can now trot out an enticing offense-defense catching combination in Mejia and Austin Hedges. Twenty-one-year-old Luis Urias projects as an Opening Day starter at either second base or shortstop. Meanwhile, the outfield is absolutely overloaded with talent, with Myers joined by younger names such as Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, Franmil Reyes, and Manuel Margot. Even if the Padres don't make a big splash this winter, it's a near-lock that they'll deal one of their outfielders for some pitching help.
The true believers are hoping for more. Call it an extreme long shot, but the mere fact that the Padres are being mentioned as even remotely possible suitors for Bryce Harper is a damn miracle, given how thoroughly one of America's loveliest cities has become such a wasteland for elite baseball talent. An ace like Noah Syndergaard would require a trade as opposed to a player choosing San Diego over 29 other teams, but the Padres have been rumored as at least a theoretical (albeit unlikely) landing spot for Thor, if the Mets were to pull the trigger (also unlikely).
The most likely scenario is that the Padres make a well-placed trade or two, but fall short in their quest to land either an all-world hitter, or a top-of-the-rotation starter like Syndergaard, Corey Kluber, or Trevor Bauer. Check back a year from now, though. If the Pads do follow the path of 2018's NL East upstarts in Atlanta or Philly and become contenders, the next step could be to roll the dice and go all in for a shot at a World Series. In Hot Stove season, we can always dare to dream.