Does the construction of the current San Diego Padres team remind you of the 1998 NL champions?
For only the second time in franchise history, the San Diego Padres made it to the World Series in 1998 with a team built by multiple general managers.
That year the Padres won 98 games and lost only 64. The exciting season literally built Petco Park. Since 1998 owners and general managers have come and gone as the team drifted along, winning only half or more of their games in just three seasons and finishing at the top of the division twice.
Players on that 1998 team said they knew the Padres were serious when ace Kevin Brown, who ended his career with 67.8 WAR, walked in the door. Fast forward to 2020, and this current group of players has undoubtedly taken note of the commitment of organization owners led by Peter Seidler. In November, he made it clear to Dennis Lin of The Athletic that “we’re willing to go above and beyond the budget in certain situations if it’s really going to be impactful. … We’re going to be doing a lot of talk about trades and free agents in all shapes and sizes.”
Since Seidler and this ownership took control, the team has outmatched itself with three historical contracts for Wil Myers ($83 million), Eric Hosmer ($144 million), and Manny Machado ($300 million). Currently, the big news in baseball is that the Padres continue to negotiate with the Boston Red Sox for the services of right fielder Mookie Betts which would add another $27 million to the payroll. However, one goal of the deal would be to shed at least part of Myers’ contract.
Multiple general managers built the 1998 team. Jack McKeon drafted Tony Gwynn. Joe Mcilvaine traded for Trevor Hoffman. Randy Smith acquired Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, Bruce Hurst, Greg Harris, and Kevin Towers added Brown, Wally Joyner, Chris Gomez, Greg Vaughn, Sterling Hitchcock, and Quilvio Veras with the blessing of owner John Moores.
However, Preller alone owns responsibility for this roster except for the lone holdout from a previous regime, Austin Hedges. Shortly after taking over in December 2014, Preller started his remake of the team by jettisoning both players and prospects (including Yasmani Grandal, Rene Rivera, Trea Turner, Max Fried, and Joe Ross). In his tenure, the Padres have finished in fourth place in the National League West two times and in last place three times, with the highest winning percentage of .475 in 2015 (his first full season). The team did improve last year by four wins but ended the season 36 games behind the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers.
So far, this offseason Preller has added Jurickson Profar to the infield mix. Fernando Tatis Jr. should be healthy and ready to build on his electric but injury-shortened first year at shortstop. Hosmer and Machado will man the corners. But outfield and catcher spots appear to be up for grabs.
The current depth chart lists Francisco Mejia, Austin Hedges, Luis Torrens behind the plate; Tommy Pham, Wil Myers, Josh Naylor in left field; Manuel Margot, Trent Grisham, Franchy Cordero in center field; Myers, Josh Naylor, Cordero, and Grisham in right field. The addition of Betts would further scramble the outfield.
The depth chart also lists a possible rotation of a mix of Chris Paddack, Garrett Richards, Dinelson Lamet, Zach Davies, Joey Lucchesi, Cal Quantrill, Michel Baez, and Adrian Morejon. Still, obviously, those numbers will be winnowed down after spring training. One or more of the potential starting pitchers may be included in any trade for Betts.
Paddack, who pitched 140.2 innings and produced a 9-7 record, 3.33 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and ERA+ of 127, will undoubtedly have the training wheels removed and certainly would be the ace of the staff. Beyond that, the picture is murky.
Last season, Richards appeared in only three games (8.2 innings) mainly to remove the rust as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Lamet (4.07 ERA 1.260 WHIP, ERA+ 104) appeared in 14 games winning three and losing five. Newcomer Davies had spent his entire five-year career with the Milwaukee Brewers and produced a 10-7 record last year and 125 ERA+. Lucchesi proved durable but teased with unrealized potential as he pitched 163.2 innings (ERA+ of 101). Quantrill (6-8) pitched 103.0 innings and disappointed (82 ERA+). Baez appeared in relief and acted as an opener leading the group at 141 ERA+ but in just 29.2 innings. In a proverbial cup of coffee (five games and eight innings), Morejon pitched eight innings and netting an unsightly 44 ERA+ and 10.13 ERA.
Of those choices, only Paddack has shown the potential to fill the longtime vacancy of a true ace (rather than one by default) at the top of the rotation. At the end of the playoffs last year, the rumor mill had the Padres in the hunt for an ace, but Preller instead added position players.
Last year’s playoffs and World Series yet again demonstrated the importance of strong starting pitching with sterling performances by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, Walker Buehler, Masahiro Tanaka. In 1998 Sterling Hitchcock pitched brilliantly in the NLCS in particular and was awarded the MVP for the series. Overall in the playoffs, Hitchcock won one game against the Houston Astros and two against the Atlanta Braves thanks to a paltry 0.90 ERA. Brown won two games and lost one on the way to the World Series. The Padres had the misfortune of playing a team for the ages in the 1998 New York Yankees and lost in four games.
Despite the disappointing finish, Padre fans reveled in the journey. No one who had the good fortune to experience the 1998 season in person will ever forget the electric atmosphere at then Qualcomm Stadium. The Q literally shook with the rapture of fans starved for a playoff push.
Obviously, the hunt for October baseball comes down to Preller’s moves and the baseball gods. Although multiple general managers created the second team to reach the World Series in franchise history, the additions made a cohesive unit. At this point in the process, Preller has yet to reveal a coherent plan for the coming season. The roster at the end of Spring Training will give all of us a better idea of the overall vision of the general manager and the organization.