The 2020 season has been very surreal for the San Diego Padres so far.
After taking two of three from the American League West-leading Oakland A’s and sweeping the Colorado Rockies, the San Diego Padres find themselves in unfamiliar territory. The team last reached the postseason 14 years ago, one of only five appearances in the franchise’s 50-plus years of existence. But this year, the only reasonable obstacle on the way to the playoffs would be a shutdown of the baseball season thanks to COVID-19.
At this point in this surreal year in this surreal season, literally, anything seems possible – even the Padres winning the World Series. Stranger things have already happened.
Spring Training started as usual, but at 4 p.m. March 12, the league suspended games for at least two weeks, leaving everyone from ownership to the ballpark ticket takers in limbo. At that time, most of us had yet to grasp the reality of the burgeoning global pandemic.
That two-week hiatus extended into July, and the Padres didn’t begin the season until the 24th when the presumed ace of the staff, Chris Paddack, led the team to a 7-2 victory against the Arizona Diamondbacks. On August 17, a little less than a month into the 60-game revised edition of the season, the Padres sat at 12-12. Although a middling record, just breaking even represented a vast improvement over team results in recent years.
Then the Padres put on the afterburners and started winning a whole lot more than losing, compiling a 29-17 record as of September 11. Even the most skeptical observers in this city starved for a championship can’t help but believe in this team right now. This version of the Padres can take down opponents with a grand slam in one game and shut them out in the next.
On September 7, Dinelson Lamet pitched 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball, which ended in a 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies thanks to a Greg Garcia pinch-hit single scoring a pinch-runner Jorge Mateo in the bottom of the ninth inning. The next day, with recent addition Mike Clevinger on the mound, the very same team beat the very same opponent 14-5. Taking the Slam Diego approach, Wil Myers hit a grand slam in the five-run first inning and followed that with a lead-off homer in the seventh. In fact, the Padres have hit six grand slams since August 17.
At the revised trade deadline on August 31, General Manager A.J. Preller took a huge risk by making drastic changes in a roster that had achieved a 22-15 record to that point. In a swap of 16 players for 10, he added Clevinger, reliever Trevor Rosenthal, catchers Jason Castro and Austin Nola, and first baseman/DH Mitch Moreland, among others.
While the addition of an ace to the rotation and reliever to the bullpen filled obvious needs, some of the moves, especially the brand new catching duo, could have led to confusion and upheaval. Instead, the new pieces have fit in so far, and the team as a whole has just kept winning if not one way then another. In fact, the changes could work against National League opponents who will be facing pitchers and hitters they’ve had little or no experience against.
Preller had added another critical piece in the offseason when he traded pitcher Eric Lauer and infielder Luis Urias to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Trent Grisham and pitcher Zack Davies. Sandwiched in among flame throwers Clevinger, Lamet, and Chris Paddack, Davies has become the team’s secret weapon of the pitching staff.
At 2.48 (to Lamet’s 2.24 ERA), Davies has the fifth-lowest ERA in the National League and is tied for first in wins with seven. Over the past three seasons, his fastball has averaged 88.8 mph. This year, that average actually dipped to 88.3 mph, a whopping 62 points below league average. It’s all about location with Davies’ five pitches, and opposing batters have found his change-up particularly befuddling of late.
Who could have predicted that late in the season, three Padres players would find their way into the debates over worthy candidates for the Cy Young (Dinelson Lamet), Most Valuable Player (Fernando Tatis Jr.), and Rookie of the Year (Jake Cronenworth) Awards? For years, San Diego players haven’t been mentioned in those conversations. After all, the last MVP winner was Ken Caminiti in 1996, the last Cy Young winner Jake Peavy in 2007; the last ROY was Benito Santiago in 1987.
At the risk of jinxing this magical carpet ride, the 2020 Padres conjure up memories of 1998. Can the addition of Clevinger have the impact of a Kevin Brown, one of the last pieces of the puzzle put together by General Manager Kevin Towers? Can Dinelson Lamet come close to Sterling Hitchcock’s stunning performance capped by his 0.90 ERA and NLCS MVP award? Can Fernando Tatis Jr. follow in the legendary Tony Gwynn’s footsteps?
And what about Manny Machado, who has found his groove after a season and a half? And, by the way, who is this Jake Cronenworth guy? A relatively unheralded prospect, Preller picked him up in the offseason trade for Tommy Pham with the Tampa Bay Rays. Not only can he play multiple positions, including first base, which could come in handy with Eric Hosmer out with a broken finger, but he can also flat hit. He’s batting .315/.371/.538/.909 OPS+ 145 in his first season in the big leagues.
According to FanGraphs, the Padres have a 100 percent chance of making the playoffs along with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays, and Oakland Athletics. If the playoffs started today, the Dodgers would face the Miami Marlins. The Padres would play the Philadelphia Phillies.
In a surreal season in a surreal year, anything seems possible for this Padres team.