The Padres had plenty of players step up and produce at a high level in 2020. However, there were some that lagged behind. Which ones need to rise up in 2021?
Spring Training is less than a week away, and the Padres will begin perhaps the most anticipated season in franchise history. The franchise has lofty goals for this upcoming season. For them to achieve these goals, they will need even more players to step up than did in 2020. Which players need to improve from 2020 the most? The simple answer to this question would be “all of them that didn’t have career years.” Let’s dive a little deeper and rank three Padres that need an encouraging Spring Training and a rebound regular season the most.
The criteria for a player needing improvement are that, first, they had an average or below-average season for their standards in 2020 (no, MVP finalists Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado are not on this list). This means they previously had success at the big league level and need to find it again. Secondly, they are young enough to still improve and grow as a player. Lastly, their success will be vital to the Friars’ championship hopes for 2021.
When the Padres acquired Pagan from Tampa Bay just over a year ago, they gave up their previous everyday center fielder in Manuel Margot. This meant the Padres expected Pagan to be a vital part of the bullpen. For most of the season, he was anything but steady. He got off to a very rocky start during his first four appearances when he owned a 12.27 ERA, or five earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. In save situations, he made 14 appearances with a 7.24 ERA and allowed four home runs. He set a career-high with 3.7 walks per nine innings and went from the 93rd percentile in whiff rate to 50th.
This all came just a season removed from a stellar performance in Tampa Bay. In 2019, he had a borderline All-Star season with a 2.31 ERA and 192 ERA+ in 66 games, including 20 saves. At 29 years old, Pagan has plenty left in the tank to rebound and find his 2019 form again. It shouldn’t be overlooked that he found his footing towards the end of the season, posting a 2.57 ERA in his last seven regular-season games of 2020. As an encore, he pitched five scoreless innings in San Diego’s two postseason series. If he can just harness that, he will become a critical part of the back end of San Diego’s bullpen, especially since, as of now, they have not re-signed Trevor Rosenthal.
To some extent, Pham’s struggles last year were due to injuries, not just inexplicable poor play. Pham missed half of the season due to a broken hamate in his right hand. This affected his ability to grip a bat and swing. It was clear it bothered him even after he returned. Between 2017 and 2019 with the Cardinals and Rays, Pham averaged a .856 OPS and 130 OPS+ over 410 games. Those numbers plummeted to .624 and 74, respectively, with San Diego in 2020. His discipline at the plate is superior to most, and the Padres brought him back for 2021 in hopes he puts together a regular “Tommy Pham” type of season in the left-field slot.
Fielding, Pham has averaged about 4 Defensive Runs Saved in the outfield. In 2020, that bottomed out to -1, with a lot of that due to being slowed by that injury. If the 32-year-old can recapture his career average form, the Padres will have a reliable on-base threat setting the table for the big thumping bats in the middle of the lineup. It appears that all Pham needs is to remain healthy, and he should return to form.
Paddack is easily the returning Friar that needs to improve the most. After a stellar rookie campaign in 2019 that saw him post a 3.33 ERA and 126 ERA+ in 26 starts, he fell flat in 2020. All across the board, Paddack’s numbers were worse than his rookie year. He struggled to find command and ended up allowing the fourth-most home runs per nine innings among pitchers who tossed at least 50 innings. His 4.73 ERA and 91 ERA+ were far below what he displayed in 2019. He went from the 73rd percentile for exit velocity allowed and 81st for hard-hit rate allowed in 2019 to 10th and 5th percentiles, respectively, last season. The batting average against his fastball skyrocketed from .204 in 2019 to .308 last season due to a lack of location consistency and a lower spin rate.
Rumor has it Paddack is putting in the work to be better in 2021, perhaps adding a new pitch. One would assume, with his hard-nosed attitude, he is motivated to put his 2020 season well behind him. With the recent acquisitions in the starting rotation, the pressure is off of Paddack to be a leader and ace of this staff, and he can just focus on his craft. With the additions of Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, and Joe Musgrove, along with the emergence of Dinelson Lamet to stardom, Paddack is now the fifth starter in the rotation. If he can find his 2019 self again, with perhaps a new wrinkle or two added to the mix, the Padres will have a starting rotation that looks set for a championship run.