The San Diego Padres were expected to be a World Series contender, but it’s safe to assume that few outside America’s Finest City, to include baseball “experts,” saw them being the best team in baseball at the end of May.
As of May 29, the Padres have a 34-19 record, 1.5 games better than the San Francisco Giants (32-20) and 2.5 games better than the Los Angeles Dodgers. Despite their significant offseason improvement, in which they acquired a trio of ace pitchers on top of some tremendous depth pieces, the Padres were still expected to chase the Dodgers all season for the National League West crown. The division race is certainly close, but the script has flipped thus far.
The biggest reason for this dramatic shift at the top of the landscape has been the craftiness of Padres President of Operations/General Manager AJ Preller. Hailed as a “rock star GM” after a flurry of trades in 2015, Preller regained that title this past winter. Start with those three aces.
“The Big Three”
Yu Darvish was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in the offseason in a trade that included right-handed pitcher Zach Davies. Darvish is performing at a Cy Young level with a 1.75 ERA, and his 10.8 K/9 ranks top 10 in all of baseball. The key to his success this season has been his cutter, which ranks at an astounding -7.93 wCT/C.
Lefty starter Blake Snell, on the other hand, has shined on occasion but has been mostly lukewarm. He’s had a few outings he’d rather forget this season. His BB/9 is at an inflated 5.73, and his .327 BABIP is nothing short of brutal. Snell has hit some streaks of bad luck and found himself battling command issues in most of his starts. Despite this, his 13.7 K/9 is among the best in baseball, and he’s shown he has the stuff to mirror his 2018 Cy Young season. The current campaign is still quite long, and Snell has the time to … shall we say, flip the script.
Joe Musgrove needed only two starts to cement himself among the greatest in franchise history. He pitched the Padres’ first no-hitter on April 9 against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park, which, ironically enough, is also the birthplace of Slam Diego.
Musgrove is on pace for the best season of his career. His .233 BABIP is leaps and bounds better than his .293 career BABIP. His 2.26 ERA, 2.76 FIP, and 12.29 K/9 are on track to become career bests. Best of all, for the Padres at least, Musgrove is the third head of the three-headed monster at the top of their rotation.
Adding to all that, Chris Paddack is rediscovering the stuff he had in his 2019 rookie campaign. After being moved to the bullpen towards the end of 2020, he is keeping himself in the rotation in 2021. Adrian Morejon had season-ending Tommy John surgery, clearing the way for Ryan Weathers, who is making a strong case to keep this a six-man rotation.
Next man up
The Padres’ depth has been on display throughout April and May. Earlier this month, five starters were on the IL. For a lot of teams, that would put coaches and executives in a panic. This team has moved right along. Ha-Seong Kim has shined much brighter than a gem on defense. He’s a diamond in the rough. The former Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) superstar has filled in defensively for both third baseman Manny Machado and shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr., and has shined at both positions. Kim appears to be figuring things out at the plate, but his glove has more than made up for his lack of offensive production. Kim could go down as Preller’s biggest acquisition over this past winter.
The absence of so many starters has forced manager Jayce Tingler to get creative with his lineup from night to night. Some nights, Jake Cronenworth will start at second base. Others, he’s starting at first for Eric Hosmer. Kim has also made appearances at second. Jurickson Profar and Jorge Mateo have formed a platoon in center while Trent Grisham has been out this season. Brian O’Grady has gone from the alternate site to Petco Park, then back to the alternate site, then … well, you get it. The rough situations befallen on the team have forced Tingler to demand flexibility from his players. So far, they have responded.
Scoreboard watching in May
The Padres were the first team to 30 wins and have overtaken the top spot in many experts’ power rankings. But they haven’t separated themselves from the pack just yet. The Dodgers, who have had their own bouts with bad luck this season, are still on the Friars’ heels. And then there’s those Giants.
The Padres’ rivals from way up north have gotten off to a surprising start. Kevin Gausman is off to the best season of his life by far. Johnny Cueto is showing flashes of his younger self when he’s on the mound. It’s also fair to say that 2021 Buster Posey looks like 2014 Buster Posey. As the season rolls into June, a lot of baseball still has to be played.
The shuffling appears to finally show signs of settling. Grisham is due back in a few days from a 10-day stay on the IL. Austin Nola has landed on the IL again, and Victor Caritini has stepped in as the team’s primary catcher. Caratini was acquired in the Darvish trade. This has been a topsy-turvy season so far for a lot of teams. The Padres have met these early challenges head-on, and the results of their efforts are seen in the standings. Preller has made moves that are making him look more like a mad scientist than a rock star. He has loaded the rotation with aces and brought on a deep supporting cast to complement his superstars. They have flipped the script early in the season, but flipping script for the franchise remains Preller’s and the Padres’ focus this season.