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2023 MLB Season Preview: San Diego Padres

Can the Padres’ trade deadline and offseason splurges help them build on last year’s playoff berth?

MLB: Spring Training-Arizona Diamondbacks at San Diego Padres
Juan Soto makes a sliding catch in spring training. A defensive rebound could be in the cards for him this year.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The San Diego Padres’ willingness to ink lucrative long-term deals has been one of the biggest stories of the offseason. Across their two most noteworthy moves, a pair of 11-year contracts in the signing of Xander Bogaerts and the extension of Manny Machado, the team has guaranteed $630 million dollars. This is to say nothing of the new Yu Darvish pact, which will earn the veteran right-hander $108 million in exchange for his age-36 through -41 seasons.

These transactions are certainly present-minded, with little production expected to come the tail-end of the contracts, and the Padres wouldn’t have it any other way. The team is built to win now. The Friars have a trio of crucial players set for free agency after this year and next, some of their marquee trade acquisitions of recent years in Juan Soto, Blake Snell, and Josh Hader. While the club seems likely to engage in extension talks with these stars, they would be hard-pressed to count on all of them declining to test the free agency waters.

Between the impending departures of some of these stalwarts and the Dodgersstrangely quiet offseason, putting LA on track for less than 90 wins for the first time since FanGraphs began projecting win totals in 2014, the time is now for the Padres to recapture the NL West crown for the first time since ‘06.

San Diego Padres
2022 record: 89-73 (2nd in NL West; lost in NLCS)
2023 FanGraphs projection: 91-71 (1st in NL West)

The biggest story for the Padres last year was their trade deadline haul. The day after the deadline, just after they had acquired Juan Soto, Josh Bell, Josh Hader, and Brandon Drury, their record stood at 61-46. But for the rest of the regular season, they only managed a 28-27 split. That’s because every single one of these players performed worse after they arrived in San Diego:

Padres’ 2022 Deadline Acquisitions, Before and After Arrival (wRC+ or ERA+)

Player Before After
Player Before After
Juan Soto 152 130
Josh Bell 143 79
Brandon Druy 131 105
Josh Hader 95 11

wRC+ is an all-encompassing, park-adjusted offensive metric where 100 is league average. ERA+ compares a pitcher’s ERA to the league average (100), while also adjusting for park. Bell and Drury have moved on, but why should we think that Soto and Hader will bounce back and net the Padres their coveted NL West win this year?

Let’s start by looking at Soto, who despite the decline was still 30 percent better than the league during his half-season out west. It’s easy to write off his initial 52-game cameo as the young star just going through an adjustment period. He did struggle mightily in the field the entire season though, grading out as worst among qualified outfielders in terms of Statcast’s Outs Above Average.

But the Padres already have a solution for that, as they plan on moving Soto from right field to left, his initial position upon debuting for the Nationals. There, he won’t have to rely on his arm as much, which has almost always graded out poorly according to Defensive Runs Saved. Along with him settling in for an entire season in San Diego, this position change should serve to increase his comfort and could translate to better marks at the plate as well. Even if he remains at a 130 wRC+, which seems unlikely given that his batted ball metrics improved after an initial downturn in San Diego, slightly better defense would still make him around a four-win player. The more probable outcome is that he returns to being a six- or seven-win superstar.

As for Hader, a higher release point on his sinker seemed to be messing with his ability to deceive hitters. When his release point was lower, the pitch spun with more pure backspin than expected due to his unique wrist angle. As his release point has inched higher, his wrist angle and spin axis have remained the same, nullifying the divergence in expectation vs. reality.

The Padres likely caught onto this; after a six-run blowup against the Royals on August 28, Hader allowed just one earned run over his last 16.2 innings of the season (including the playoffs), striking out 24 and walking just three. The sinker regained its status as his most valuable pitch during this time.

I’m less worried about a potential Bogaerts (or Michael Wacha, for that matter) adjustment period because he won’t have to navigate a mid-season team switch. Additionally, while the Padres lost a number of guys aside from Bell and Drury, their new acquisitions and the return of Fernando Tatis Jr. should more than make up for them.

The one major obstacle remaining for the new juggernaut is a lack of depth. This is the price they’ve had to pay (aside from gobs of money) in order to turn their glut of top prospects and average major leaguers into current All-Stars. But what makes the top-heaviness of the Padres especially worrisome is the lengthy injury history of some of their stars (especially Tatis Jr.) and the advanced age of some others (like Darvish).

Altogether, this is a high-variance team. But their tantalizing ceiling just might make their construction all worth it. San Diego is the favorite to take the NL West and they could even give the Braves and Mets a run for their money atop the NL as a whole.

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