2021 ushers in an unprecedented era of Padres baseball

Padres Fernando Tatis Jr.

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Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Once-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 Padres did something few other teams in franchise history had done — won a playoff series. 2021 looks to be even better. 

If there is any fanbase in Major League Baseball who is overdue for a championship-caliber team and time in the spotlight, it’s the fans of the San Diego Padres (though my friends up here in the Pacific Northwest may beg to differ). Year after year, decade after decade, baseball in San Diego has been one of futility, incompetence, and full of empty promises unfulfilled.

Sure, fans had Tony Gwynn for 20 years, the modern Ted Williams, one of the best pure hitters to ever play the game. Conversely, fans have also had to endure the likes of the fire-sale in 1999, the epic struggle to get a new ballpark built downtown before Petco Park was erected, Matt Holiday missing home plate in 2007, the Ryan Ludwick trade, the September 2010 collapse, the epic fail of 2015 and the ensuing sell-off, the pleas for patience, over and over, all with the most boring uniforms in the history of baseball. And that’s just from the last 20 years or so. From 2011 to 2019, the Friars averaged 90 losses per season.

Since the Padres’ last World Series appearance in 1998, every single one of their N.L. West division rivals have reached the World Series, and the Diamondbacks, Giants, and Dodgers have won five titles in those 21 years. Every other fan base in the division has pointed and scoffed at the inferior Padres for years on end.

But no more.

2020 was the spark that set the fire for what is to come. It was only the beginning, and what a beginning it was. It started with a complete overhaul of the Padres’ uniforms and colors, going full-on brown and yellow with a call back to past great Padres uniforms along with a new, fresh twist. Then, after COVID-related delays, the season started, and it was clear this ballclub was different. Slam Diego happened, taking the world by storm, with everyone questioning unwritten rules and putting several players on the map. Fernando Tatis Jr. became an international superstar. Manny Machado validated his enormous contract and became an MVP contender, along with his compadre at shortstop.

It became cool to be a Padres fan. From the fresh, new brown gear, to the fun team on the field, to an actual nickname, the national media finally gave the Friars some overdue love and respect. It certainly helps that their star shortstop is one of the most likable, charismatic, flamboyant characters in the entire sport.

After the Padres won their first playoff series in 22 years as they dramatically beat the Cardinals, another glass ceiling broke. It became clear this team was different and just getting started.

On the other hand, the sweep at the hand of the eventual World Series champion Dodgers was a stark reminder of just how far the Padres still need to climb to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy in a future October.

The days after Christmas have been a whirlwind for the Padres organization and its fans. The biggest news of the entire offseason in baseball dropped Sunday night with the announcement that the Padres had traded for Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young winner, miffed from his early exit in the 2020 World Series. This was a clear attempt to replace the devastating news of Mike Clevinger’s upcoming absence for 2021.

Many would have viewed that trade as satisfactory to bolster a rotation missing one of their best pieces. Except, A.J. Preller is never really satisfied. Just when the cascade of news, tweets, and articles came crashing down about Snell pitching in San Diego, they acquired yet another proven, All-Star pitcher in Yu Darvish. This tandem, along with Dinelson Lamet, who turned into a legitimate ace in 2020, with a 2.09 ERA and 205 ERA+ in 12 starts, has fans and experts wondering, could this be the best starting rotation the Padres have ever had? Someone who has watched probably more Padres baseball than anyone else on earth seems to think so.

2021 brings optimism and excitement, perhaps never before experienced among the Friar Faithful. Sure, the Padres have had two seasons in franchise history in which they were coming off of a World Series appearance in 1985 and 1999, but it was clear in both of those years that they wouldn’t be competing on the same level as the previous campaign. Padres fans have been conditioned to expect their favorite players to be sold off in trades the minute they became expensive or are at the peak of their value (Adrian Gonzalez, anyone?). They are conditioned to expect a fire-sale after one semi-successful season.

2021 will be different.

The Padres return not one but two players who finished in the top four of the previous year’s MVP race. When was the last time that happened in San Diego? Try never. They return their budding ace in Lamet, who, by most accounts, will be healthy by the start of the season. They return their NL Rookie of the Year runner-up in Jake Cronenworth. Trent Grisham, fresh off of his first career gold glove and San Diego’s first Gold Glove in the outfield since Mike Cameron in 2006, is also back in 2021. Wil Myers, Comeback Player of the Year snub, coming off of his .959 OPS in 2020, also looks to return. Eric Hosmer had his best season as a Friar in 2020. Not many people discuss the fact that Drew Pomeranz will be back in the bullpen after having one of the more dominant seasons for a reliever in 2020.

When was the last time the Padres returned this much talent and production from a previous year that was so successful? I would argue, never. Along with the additions of Snell and Darvish, throw in Korean star Ha-Seong Kim, the infielder coming off of a 30-homer performance in the KBO, and the Padres have one of the deepest rosters in baseball.

Plus, this is just talking about the big league club. I am over 900 words into this article and have not yet mentioned that the Padres swung these deals for Snell and Darvish and yet still kept MacKenzie Gore (MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 overall prospect), CJ Abrams (No. 21), Luis Campusano (No. 46) and Robert Hassell (No. 74) down on the farm. The future, and now present, is very bright. The Friars are still considered to have an upper-tier farm system.

This regime led by Preller clearly has a talent for locating top prospects and turning them into enviable trade chips. They have shown the ability to replenish almost anyone they lose to a trade. I expect nothing less here after losing Luis Patiño and other prospects Friar fans were hoarding.

Another key ingredient to the special sauce that is 2021 is that it’s not a one-year, World-Series-or-bust kind of thing. Like a Duralast car battery, this is built to last. This is the start of a run. The window is wide open.

Never in the history of the Padres organization have they returned so much talent from a playoff year while adding proven, All-Star pieces to build on that success, along with still maintaining a future as bright as a summer day at Pacific Beach.

America’s Finest City now contains one of America’s finest baseball teams.

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