Regardless of moves, Padres sunk if Big 3 underachieve again

Aug 18, 2023; San Diego, California, USA; San Diego Padres right fielder Fernando Tatis Jr. (23) celebrates with designated hitter Manny Machado (13) after the game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

No matter who the Padres bring in to improve the 2024 roster, it won’t matter if their three best hitters underachieve again.

Yes, the Padres need more depth. Badly. Their outfield consists of Fernando Tatis Jr. and a host of non-roster invitees and unproven A-ball prospects. Their rotation, below Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and Michael King, is murkier than La Jolla Cove after a storm surge.

However, it is clear that the Padres are only going far if their big stars carry them. Yes, depth is necessary. But teams reach the highest heights because their star players rise to the occasion.

Generally, the Padres’ big stars (at least ones currently still employed by the Padres) underachieved last year. Juan Soto was the only one of the three that were within the top 13 players in NL MVP voting last season. Now he’s gone.

Manny Machado certainly had a challenging season. Statistically, he had his worst season in San Diego since 2019, his first year with the Padres. His .782 OPS was the lowest of his Padres career and his 115 OPS+ and 2.9 bWAR the second lowest. He slugged .462, tied for his worst in a Padres uniform.

Indeed, he dealt with injuries the majority of the season. He underwent surgery on his throwing elbow a few days after the season ended. His toughness and grit are beyond question.

The recovery time might bleed into Spring Training or even have him starting the regular season as a designated hitter. Hopefully, 2024 is a much healthier one for Machado.

We all saw what a (mostly) healthy Machado looks like in 2022, even with a bum ankle for a chunk of the season. He’s a 6.8-WAR, near .900 OPS, MVP runner-up kind of player. He is the de facto leader of this team, and the Padres absolutely need him at his best in 2024.

Frankly, Machado is the least of the worries among the “Big 3.” Simply, a healthier season should do the trick.

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Xander Bogaerts came to San Diego already under the microscope. Plenty of fans and experts were skeptical of the Padres handing a 30-year-old shortstop an 11-year deal. That certainly comes with skyscraper-high expectations.

To be fair, Bogaerts did not have a catastrophic season. To most standards, he actually had a solid opening act with the Padres. Most teams would love a shortstop worth 4.4 WAR and a 120 OPS+. However, for Bogaerts, fair or not, expectations are much higher.

He was an All-Star in three of his final four years in Boston (the one being the All-Star Game-less 2020 COVID season). Between 2019 and 2022, he batted .304 with a .879 OPS and 133 OPS+.

He averaged 5.5 WAR in his final two years in Boston. In the final five years with the Red Sox, he earned at least one MVP vote yearly.

In his first season with the Padres, he batted .285, with a .790 OPS and, 120 OPS+, and 4.4 WAR, with zero MVP votes, far below the standard of his final seasons with the Red Sox.

If the Padres are to avoid having that contract called a disaster, Bogaerts needs another few seasons north of 5 WAR and a .800 OPS.

Finally, the figure taking up the most oxygen in the room is Tatis.

Some grace is required for his first season back after not playing Major League Baseball for 18 months between October 2021 and April 2023. Sure, it’s self-inflicted, but the fact remains he had a tough hill to climb to get back to MVP form after a long layoff.

That being said, his season at the plate was disappointing for his lofty standards. His 113 OPS+ was the worst of his career by over forty points. He had never turned in a season with an OPS lower than .937 until his pedestrian .770 mark this past season.

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The doubters will say it’s because he got caught cheating with Performance Enhancing Drugs, and now his offensive output will crater. It’s not hard to see that a take like that is, frankly, unintelligent. His average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and expected slugging percentage were all 89th percentile or better in 2023. That is not too far off from where he was in 2021 when he finished third in MVP voting.

His value certainly was buoyed by one of the best seasons on defense any outfielder has had in recent memory, ultimately winning him glove awards in Gold and Platinum. However, this is strictly talking offensive output.

Look no further than 2023 NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr., who had a fairly milquetoast campaign in 2022 (112 OPS+, .764 OPS) after recovering from a torn ACL. Sometimes, they just need a year.

Even if Tatis ends up being somewhere between his 2023 self and his pre-suspension/injury version, that is an All-Star level player and worth every penny.

If the Dominican star can get back over 30 homers, with an OPS over .850 again, the Padres should be back in business.

While these three stars can’t do it by themselves, they also need to do their part. They largely didn’t in 2023, relative to their contracts. Whoever they bring in to fill out the roster, these three stars need to elevate the team. If they get back to their career averages, the Padres will be a force once more.

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