In just a few short weeks, it has become significantly more difficult to feel optimistic about the San Diego Padres, who enjoyed a brief reign as the coolest team in baseball immediately after acquiring Juan Soto and also Josh Bell, Josh Hader, and Brandon Drury at the trade deadline. Since those moves, there’s been bad news both on and off the field. Most immediately detrimental to the team has been Hader’s performance, as the former lights-out relief pitcher has an ERA of, seriously, 19.06 in his eight appearances with the Padres so far. But even more frustrating and impactful in the long term was Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 80-game PED suspension that came down on Aug. 12; Tatis had been out all year with a wrist injury, but his hoped-for return near the end of this season added fuel to the Padres’ fire, giving them the belief that, however good they were, they could be even better come playoff time.
These serious setbacks could be at least overlooked in the short term if the current Padres team was getting the job done, but at best they’re only halfheartedly achieving a passing grade. Since their first game with Soto in the lineup on Aug. 3, the Padres have gone a mere 13-13. Though Hader has slumped more spectacularly, the cool non-Soto bats the Padres added have also seen a huge dip from what they were doing with their old teams, as Drury’s OPS has declined from .855 in Cincy to .628 in San Diego, while Bell put up .877 in Washington and just .612 so far on his new team. (Soto’s power has dropped off too with the pitcher-friendly home park, but to nowhere near the same degree.) And while the Brewers have been playing worse than that and allowed San Diego to keep what’s now a 2.5-game lead in the final wild card slot, .500 baseball with no real chance at improving the roster is not what anybody was picturing after the new-look Padres’ inaugural victory.
But the breaks have gone San Diego’s way over the past few days, which have brought three straight one-run victories over the Giants. On a Monday night game that included a lengthy power-outage delay, Bell and Drury came through and helped build up a lead that just barely survived eighth-inning struggles from relief pitcher Robert Suárez. On Tuesday, Blake Snell set the tone with six shutout innings, the Padres took advantage of some Giants errors, and again the bullpen just barely held on for a 4-3 victory. Wednesday saw the Padres take a 5-0 head start thanks largely to some big hits from Manny Machado, and even though the Giants chipped away at both Joe Musgrove and then reliever Adrian Morejón, Hader came on for his first pitches since getting wrecked in Kansas City on Sunday and ended the game with the tying run stuck on second.
This counts as progress! But there remains plenty of room to improve and not a ton of time to work out the Padres’ many kinks. Machado’s bat is working wonders, like it has all year, and there are guys below him like Trent Grisham and Jake Cronenworth who you could imagine getting hot for a series, but even with the add-ons (or maybe because of them, in the non-Soto cases) this offense can’t measure up to how the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Braves are slugging in the late season. The pitching, though better, has been worryingly inconsistent despite a ton of established talent on the payroll, and they don’t seem like they could out-duel the Mets or even a full-strength Phillies staff in a playoff series. The biggest red flag, if you don’t believe in luck, is that the Padres are an MLB-best 26-13 in games decided by one run, which is a huge boost in the standings that doesn’t come from any definitive baseball-playing superiority.
It sucks, really, that San Diego put more effort than anyone into manifesting an awesome team for the stretch run and has instead turned out to rightfully be the National League’s last team in. But there are still 30 games to go that can either, best-case scenario, give the Padres renewed confidence heading into October or, worst-case, crash their year completely. Specifically, starting Friday the Padres travel to L.A. for the first of three series still left on the schedule against the Dodgers this year. Baseball’s winningest team has spent the whole season playing measuring stick for other World Series hopefuls, and these meetings will be no different. So far this season, the Padres have managed just two wins out of 10 against the Dodgers, including a three-game sweep in early August where they got clubbed by a combined score of 20-4. They can still make the playoffs, I guess, if they deliver repeat performances throughout September, but it’ll be impossible to take them seriously as a true threat to the best. The Padres have the highest stakes and more to lose than anyone else playing in this final month of the season. For the sake of the future of MLB roster construction and risk-taking, I hope they find their groove.