The Path to the Playoffs for Padres and the Ultimate Prize

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The front office has given fans mixed messages about when the Padres might actually become competitive.  Current predictions seem to be more than two years off. Since hiring A.J. Preller August 6, 2014, as general manager, the Padres have failed to even reach .500, let alone be relevant in the division or baseball in general. In fact, so far this year, the Padres have a .385 winning percentage, the lowest since 1993.

Obviously, a huge turnaround will be necessary for the team to lift itself (to say nothing of long-suffering fans) out of baseball purgatory. The highly rated farm system can give us hope, especially if Luis Urias continues to perform as he has in his very short tenure so far and other prospects play up to expectations when they actually arrive. Also, the paths taken by the last three World Series champions should give fans reason for optimism.

Like the Padres, the Kansas City Royals came into existence in 1969. Unlike the local team, the Royals can lay claim to four trips to the World Series and two titles (1985 and 2015). The Padres have made it to the World Series only twice (1984, 1998).  Through both appearances, the team won only once in Game 2 in 1984 against the Detroit Tigers.

However, the Royals have also been through rough patches, including losing seasons from 2004 to 2012. In 2013, Kansas City started to climb out of its hole, ending the season at 86-76 with the team’s highest winning percentage since 1994. Before returning to the postseason in 2014, the Royals had failed to reach that benchmark since 1985. The Padres’ drought has actually been much shorter, thanks to playoff appearances in 1996, 1998, 2005 and 2006.

In 2014, the Royals needed a wild-card berth but went all the way to World Series before losing in game seven to the San Francisco Giants. The following year the Royals skipped that step, won the division and bested the New York Mets in the World Series, winning all but one game.

In 2006, the Royals hired Dayton Moore as general manager, and he presided over losing seasons until 2013.  Ned Yost, the current manager for Kansas City had managed the Milwaukee Brewers from 2002-2008, then joined the Royals in 2010. Together they helped lead the Royals to the promised land with the aid of players like catcher Salvador Perez who won the MVP in the series. As often happens after a World Series run, the Royals have fallen back to earth and currently have an even worse winning percentage (.316) than the Padres.  Their season’s most positive result will be a high draft pick.

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs, with Theo Epstein as general manager, ended a World Series drought that had lasted since 1908.  Hired by the Cubs in 2011, Epstein  had also created miracles in Boston in 2004 when the Red Sox broke the “curse of the Bambino.” Epstein started his career under Larry Lucchino with the Padres but followed him out the door when the Red Sox hired the latter as president and CEO.

Current Cubs general manager, Jed Hoyer, also has a history with the Padres, as he replaced general manager Kevin Towers in October of 2009.  In his very short tenure of two years, Hoyer has been credited with bringing a more analytic approach to the draft and player acquisition. But he jumped ship in 2011 and helped preside over the Cubs’ World Series victory in 2016.

In their much longer tenure in MLB, the Cubs have qualified for the playoffs 21 times if one counts their appearances in the 1800s and early 1900s. Far more recently, the Cubs had a playoff drought lasting from 2009 through 2014, but since then have reached at least the National League Championship Series. In 2016, the Cubs prevailed over the Cleveland Indians winning Game 7 in 10 innings.

Credit: AP Photo

Last year’s champion Houston Astros also began as an expansion team, five years earlier than the Padres. In their existence, the team has appeared in the playoffs 11 times, finally winning the World Series in the team’s second appearance last year.  In 2005, the Chicago White Sox swept the Astros in four games.

Current Astros general manager and president of baseball operations Jeffrey Luhnow started his career in baseball in the Cardinals organization and became vice president of scouting and player development in 2006. In 2011 the Astros hired Luhnow as general manager, and he fired manager Brad Mills after the 2012 season.  Bo Porter took over but lasted only a short term before the Astros replaced him with A.J. Hinch, a former Padres’ executive.

Hinch, a catcher, played eight seasons in the big leagues and retired in 2005. That year the Arizona Diamondbacks hired him as general manager of minor league operations, and the following year he moved up to director of player development.  In May 2009 he replaced Bob Melvin as the D-Backs’ manager. Hinch had never managed or coached at any level and was fired in July 2010, Shortly thereafter, the Padres hired Hinch as vice president of pro scouting.  In August 2014, he resigned and in September became the Astros’ field manager.

The following year the Astros’ 86-76 record secured a wild-card berth for the team’s first playoff appearance since 2005. The team lost to the Royals in the American League Division Series and did not make it to the playoffs the following year. But in 2017 the Astros went all the way, winning over the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games partly because of Hinch’s masterful use of his pitching staff including Justin Verlander, who had been acquired at the last possible moment at the trade deadline. The series’ MVP award went to the rather diminutive infielder Jose Altuve.  In 2007, the Astros saw beyond Altuve’s 5’ 6” height and have been richly rewarded.

Although even a .500 season seems out of reach now and in the foreseeable future for the Padres, the long and winding roads taken by the Royals, Cubs, and Astros to the ultimate prize prove that almost anything is possible in baseball.

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