The San Diego Padres are off to a torrid start in 2019. Are they the real deal or is this team due to come back to earth?
On Friday, April 12, the San Diego Padres took over first place in the National League West. Yes, you have read that line correctly. Only the Seattle Mariners (13) and the Tampa Bay Rays (10) can boast more wins. For a team that won only 66 games last year, after starting the season at 4-10, this could be considered nothing short of a miracle.
The players believe in themselves and their mates. Padres’ fans find themselves wondering if this start means the team can actually compete and even contend in 2019, a year or two before the front office envisioned such a possibility.
Indeed, as reported by Kevin Acee in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Padres’ management is monitoring its first-place team…in an effort to determine how real its chances of contending are….” Should the team just wait in the weeds or actively search for a veteran starting pitcher?
Or, is this start just a mirage, a combination of the schedule, unsustainable pitching performances and a bit of blind luck?
The schedule has certainly favored the Padres, as most of their games have been played within the NLW, a division considered to be one of the weaker. So far, the Padres have faced the San Francisco Giants seven times and the Arizona Diamondbacks four. The team even took two of three from the St. Louis Cardinals, the only opponents outside of the division so far.
The performance of the starting pitchers, especially the rookies, has been otherworldly for the most part. After all, they skipped the traditional stops on the way to the big leagues. In his first start for the Padres, Pedro Avila (22) became the third Padre pitcher to win his major league debut. He loaded the bases in the first inning but got out of the jam and gave up only one run in five-and-one-third innings. Avila had made one start in Double-A before his successful debut.
Nick Margevicius, also 22, made his first start March 30, the very day he was called up. Before that he played for the Class-A Fort Wayne TinCaps and the Class-A Advanced Lake Elsinore Storm. Margevicius doesn’t rely on a high-octane fastball (topping out at around 91 mph), but the 6’5” lefty shows good command and can rely on his changeup, and, to a lesser extent, a curveball. So far, he has a 1-1 record, an ERA of 1.69 and a WHIP of 0.625.
Right-handed Texan Chris Paddack (23) has an even lower ERA of 1.04 in 8.2 innings. Last year he played for San Antonio (AA) and Lake Elsinore (A+). Paddock doesn’t have a win to his credit but pitched well enough in both his starts for the Padres to come out on top. In his debut against the Giants, he lasted five innings, giving up just two hits and one run. Thanks to Avila, Paddack got an extra day off.
These young pitchers will need those days off and cannot be counted on to continue this level of performance. Opponents will adjust, as they have to the grizzled veterans of the rotation, Joey Lucchesi and Eric Lauer who are both in their second season. A rotation made up of rookies and second-year veterans will have to be protected for the long-term health of their arms as well as the team’s fortunes.
Last year Lucchesi had an 8-9 record with 4.08 ERA, 1.29 WHIP. He started this year with two wins (against the D-Backs and Giants) but he lasted only four innings in his second start against San Francisco and gave up seven runs. Lauer (6-7, 4.34 ERA, 1.54 WHIP last year) pitched six innings in the opener against the Giants and came away with a 2-0 win. Can the Padres rely on the two to increase their innings substantially from Lauer’s 112 and Lucchesi’s 130?
Matt Strahm, who had patellar tendon surgery in 2017, will be kept on a short leash as well. In his transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation, he’s pitched 7.2 innings in two games. His 7.04 ERA and 2.217 WHIP do not inspire confidence so far.
And what about the bullpen? Closer Kirby Yates and Craig Stammen have already been called upon frequently. Trey Wingenter got the save in place of Yates Thursday night against the Diamondbacks after Robert Stock and Brad Wieck combined to fritter away a 6-1 lead in the seventh inning. In the past, the bullpen has been dependable year after year. Will that streak continue or will overuse hurt performance?
While the infield defense has been solid (for the first time in years), the outfield has been an adventure at best. Going into the season, outfield depth seemed assured, with Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot, Franchy Cordero, Franmil Reyes and Travis Jankowski vying for playing time or even spots on the roster. But injuries to both Cordero and Jankowski have reduced manager Andy Green’s options.
In the meantime, the defense has suffered. Myers does have a positive 3 DRS (defensive runs saved), but neither Renfroe nor Reyes especially is known for defensive prowess. In the meantime, Reyes has gotten off to a very slow start and is batting .167/.270/.400.
The offense in general needs to improve dramatically, as the team has averaged just 3.5 runs a game. The leadoff position continues to be a multiple-choice situation, with no one seizing the opportunity.
At the end of this month, the schedule will get much tougher when the Padres face winning teams like the Mariners, Nationals, and Braves. The team hasn’t yet faced the Los Angeles Dodgers, their nemesis for some years. The Dodgers may be a bit of a mess right now, but a team that has made the postseason multiple years in a row is not likely to continue this level of sub-par performance.
No matter what happens throughout the season though, Padres fans finally have reason to celebrate with the Padres leading the division. The excitement has been contagious. Let’s just enjoy the ride while it lasts.