Five keys to a San Diego Padres’ playoff push
A few weeks ago, the San Diego Padres quickly became the epicenter of the baseball world for what may be the first time in team history after the MLB trade deadline. President of Baseball Operations AJ Preller waved his magic wand, like he has each of the last two summers, and put together arguably his most impressive trade flurry to date.
On August 1st, Preller and company shipped off four players, including two prospects, to the Milwaukee Brewers for all-star closer Josh Hader. Hader, who’s club controlled for this season and next, has been one of the game’s upper-tier closers, saving 125 games since 2018 and punching out 541 batters over 316 ⅓ career innings with the ‘Crew.
Preller didn’t stop there, however. San Diego was fully entrenched in the Juan Soto buzz from the second the Washington Nationals made him available and hours before the league’s deadline, the Padres acquired Soto and Josh Bell from the Nationals for a prospect heavy package made up of star-studded names such as CJ Abrams, Robert Hassell III, James Wood, and MacKenzie Gore. Preller’s final move at the deadline brought Brandon Drury to San Diego in exchange for Victor Acosta. The 29-year-old Drury had been having a career year for the Cincinnati Reds, slashing .274/.335/.520 with a 126 OPS+ in 350 at-bats.
Soto and Bell’s arrival to ‘America’s Finest City’, and the package that Preller gave up for the duo, signals that San Diego is fully geared up to make a deep run into the postseason now and in the future. The 23-year-old Soto is one of the game’s greatest young players ever, owning a career .291/.428/.538 slashline over four seasons with an OPS+ of 160 and 469 walks in that span. He’s under team control through 2024 and immediately offers an immense upgrade to a Padres’ lineup that desperately needed it. Though he’s a free agent after this season, Bell’s no slouch at the plate either. The switch-hitting slugger arrived in San Diego batting .301 with a .384 on-base percentage and 14 home runs, steadily approaching the .900 OPS mark.
Even with these additions, however, the Padres’ find themselves only 1.5 games up on the Milwaukee Brewers for the National League’s final wild card spot. They’re fresh off getting stomped by the Dodgers over a three-game set and sit at 61-50 with 52 games to go in the regular season.
With a roster more than capable of making it into October, and truly pushing for the pennant, San Diego needs to turn things around fast to avoid another late season collapse. Below are five keys to the Padres’ playoff push.
1. A Healthy Nando
The Padres have played this entire season without their best player, as Fernando Tatis Jr. has yet to appear in a Major League game after fracturing his wrist in a motor cycle accident revealed in spring training. One of few superstars the game has to offer, Tatis’ absence has certainly been felt throughout the season, particularly at the plate.
Though others, like Manny Machado, have carried the Padres’ struggling offense at times, Tatis has and always will be the spark plug for this team. Since his arrival in 2019, Tatis owns a career slash-line of .292/.369/.596 with 81 home runs, 52 stolen bases, and an OPS+ of 160. He’s finished in the top-five of the MVP voting twice and already captured two Silver Slugger awards as well.
With a mid-August return, per the team, appears to be in the cards, adding Tatis to this shiny new lineup makes the Padres’ that much more dangerous. If he returns and provides anywhere close to the production we’ve seen from him previously, this team could turn things around rather quickly.
2. Offense, Offense, and More Offense
Entering play today, the Padres are barely treading above league average offensive production for the season. They’re 16th in team weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) at 99 and 14th in Wins Above Replacement (13.4), per FanGraphs. While those numbers don’t seem too concerning, where San Diego lacks in comparison to their counterparts is power. The Friars are 23rd in total team home runs (97) and 25th in slugging-percentage (.377), two marks that simply won’t cut it from an offensive perspective in today’s game.
The hope is that the Padres’ have some added thump on the way. Bringing in Soto, Bell, and Drury should up that total, as the trio themselves have crushed 56 home runs and average a .494 slugging-percentage between the three of them. Adding Tatis Jr. back into the mix relatively shortly should also help, as the 23-year-old slugger launched 42 home runs last season and, for his career, owns a .596 slugging-percentage.
3. Right The Ship On The Hill
On paper alone, the Padres’ rotation is amongst the league’s strongest groups and they’ve pitched like it for a large majority of the season. San Diego’s staff as a whole owns the 10th best ERA mark in baseball (3.81) and they’re sixth in total WAR (13.7).
Those numbers, in the past few weeks at least, are a bit deceiving and don’t fully indicate the struggles that a few of these starting pitchers have endured. Joe Musgrove, who recently signed a five-year, $100 million extension, has pitched well below his talents over his last five starts, raising his ERA above 3.00 for the first time all year. Sean Manaea has also struggled, including an eight-run onslaught at the hand of Los Angeles a few days ago, now owning a 4.74 ERA and 1.33 WHIP over 20 starts.
While Yu Darvish has been excellent all season long and both Mike Clevinger and Blake Snell have been better as of late San Diego needs the aforementioned duo to return to their early-season forms in order to win key games down the stretch.
4. Slay The Dragon
In an interview on Sunday night, Padres’ owner Peter Seidler referred to the Los Angeles Dodgers as “the dragon up the road we’re trying to slay”. While the National League West crown is almost certainly out of reach, the Padres do have nine more games against their most hated rival and they’re going to have to figure out how to win a few of those in order to make the postseason.
Los Angeles has, quite frankly, dominated the Friars this year and in 2021. The Dodgers have won 17-of-19 against San Diego and outscored them this past weekend 30-4, hitting as many home runs as the Padres scored in total. Even though there’s a good chance the Padres never reach the Dodgers’ level of dominance, taking a few from them down the stretch may ultimately prove pivotal to making the playoffs.
5. Josh Hader Needs To Be Josh Hader
Hader’s prominence at the big league level over the past five seasons was highlighted above, but the truth is that he hasn’t been his normal, dominant self in 2022. Hader has appeared in 38 games, saving 29 of them, but he’s posted the highest ERA (4.11) and WHIP (1.09) of his career this season. For reference, Hader’s career ERA (2.47) and WHIP (0.88) are well below the marks we’ve seen thus far.
Hader’s biggest issue thus far is he’s allowed seven home runs this season, which is more than each of his two years combined. Transitioning to the more pitcher-friendly Petco Park may help him out in that department, which should help bring his overall numbers down. In his only appearance with the Padres, Hader hurled a scoreless inning and punched out a batter, earning a walk-off win.
Part of the reason why San Diego acquired Hader at the deadline was their lack of confidence in former closer Taylor Rogers. Though he started the season off at a torrid pace, Rogers’ had been pitching rather poorly down the stretch and owns a 4.35 ERA on the season.
Hader’s experience closing games, particularly in the playoffs, adds a dynamic to this roster that they didn’t have before. They’ll absolutely need him to return to his true self if they plan on making a run into October.