2023 MLB Season Preview: San Diego Padres

Image: Denis Poroy / AP

2022 Record: 89-73 (.549 win%, 2nd in NL West)

2023 Payroll: $251,146,115 (3rd)

2023 Projected Lineup:

1. RF Fernando Tatis, Jr, .282 AVG/.364 OBP/.611 SLG, 7.3 fWAR (2021 Stats)

2. LF Juan Soto, .242 AVG/.401 OBP/.452 SLG, 3.8 fWAR

3. 3B Manny Machado, .298 AVG/.366 OBP/.531 SLG, 7.4 fWAR

4. SS Xander Bogaerts, .307 AVG/.377 OBP/.456 SLG, 6.1 fWAR

5. 1B Jake Cronenworth, .239 AVG/.332 OBP/.390 SLG, 4.1 fWAR

6. DH Nelson Cruz, .234 AVG/.313 OBP/.337 SLG, -0.8 fWAR

7. 2B Ha-Seong Kim, .251 AVG/.325 OBP/.383 SLG, 3.7 fWAR

8. C Austin Nola, .251 AVG/.321 OBP/.329 SLG, 0.2 fWAR

9. CF Trent Grisham, .184 AVG/.284 OBP/.341 SLG, 2.1 fWAR

10. DH Matt Carpenter, .305 AVG/.412 OBP/.727 SLG, 2.3 fWAR

2023 Projected Starting Rotation:

1. RHP Yu Darvish, 194.2 IP/3.10 ERA/0.95 WHIP, 4.2 fWAR

2. RHP Joe Musgrove, 181.0 IP/2.93 ERA/1.08 WHIP, 3.5 fWAR

3. LHP Blake Snell, 128.0 IP/3.38 ERA/1.20 WHIP, 3.7 fWAR

4. RHP Michael Wacha, 127.1 IP/3.32 ERA/1.12 WHIP, 1.5 fWAR

5. RHP Nick Martinez, 106.1 IP/3.42 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

2023 Projected Top 4 Relievers:

1. CP Josh Hader, 50.0 IP/5.22 ERA/1.28 WHIP, 0.8 fWAR

2. RP Seth Lugo, 65. IP/3.60 ERA/1.17 WHIP, 0.2 fWAR

3. RP Luis Garcia, 61.0 IP/3.39 ERA/1.213 WHIP, 1.6 fWAR

4. RP Drew Pomeranz, 25.2 IP/1.75 ERA/1.13 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

What Does Baseball Mean to San Diego?

Historically, San Diego has been a small-market franchise which has been stuck in a perpetual state of mediocrity. Having made only two playoff appearances in two decades prior to 2020, general manager AJ Preller’s grand vision and proclivity for blockbuster deals is a welcome change for Padre fans accustomed to a subpar product on the diamond. The superstar-laden roster is a fantastic development for a team that has struggled for attendance the past. 

The Padres call the gorgeous Petco Park their home (my second favorite ballpark, behind my native Fenway), which has gone through quite the shift in attendance figures in only a few years. Until 2021, Petco Park consistently ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of average attendance. From a small-market team, this was expected. But now, they have boasted a top-5 attendance ranking the past two years, 3rd in 2021 and 5th in 2022. 

Unsurprisingly, most of this improvement can be chalked up to their salvo of acquisitions, starting with then-Dodgers star Manny Machado in 2019. Who doesn’t want to watch a lineup chock-full of home-run hitting, base-stealing superstars? So potent is this offense that they have even been dubbed “Slam Diego”, marking a decisive shift in how San Diego is viewed from an outsider’s perspective. 

No longer is this franchise to be seen as a middle-of-the-pack team, unwilling to spend or sacrifice prospects, never able to overcome the mediocrity which has plagued them for so many years. With at least 3 of their superstars secured for the next decade, the Friars are setting themselves up to be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.

It must also be noted that the Padres, along with teams like the Mets (think Lindor, Scherzer, and Verlander), are pioneering a new style of management for historically frugal franchises. No longer should owners be afraid to spend a little money, and no longer should franchises shy away from super-long-term deals, like those given to Fernando Tatis last year, and to Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts this year. 

Five years ago, the Padres were in the bottom three in the league in payroll. Now, they are in the top three. Such liberal spending for a historically poor franchise has been a clear signal for much richer teams to catch up (*cough cough* Red Sox *cough cough*). 

Star power speaks volumes in terms of both team performance, and from an attendance/merchandise standpoint. Fernando Tatis ranks second among active players in jersey sales, behind only Mookie Betts, and San Diego as a team ranks eighth in merchandise sales, according to Lids. 

Depending on how the Padres spending spree works out in the long-term, a new school of thought within baseball general management could be birthed. In many ways this school of thought attempts to prevent a Trout-Shohei-Angels situation, in which stinginess and mismanagement has essentially wasted once-in-a-generation players, at least in terms of winning baseball games. 

Outside of perhaps Anthony Rendon, the Angels have very little to offer in terms of help (my apologies, Luis Rengifo). San Diego goes above and beyond in this regard, surrounding Tatis with stars and superstars– not just solid role-playing pieces.

2022 Offseason Recap:

The Padres once again had a very busy offseason this year, adding to their roster in significant ways while also securing long-term deals for multiple stars.

The biggest news of the Padres offseason was the signing of long-time Boston SS Xander Bogaerts, who in December inked an 11-year deal worth $280M (AAV $25,454,545). Bogaerts’ new contract is the seventh largest ever for a free agent, and only further reinforces the win-now mindset adopted by AJ Preller and the San Diego front office. 

Is he worth all that money, though?

Well, on one hand, he’s still an elite player– one that any team would be happy to have in their lineup. Last year, he won his 5th career Silver Slugger award, batting .307. He is still yet to see any considerable dropoff from his peak in 2019, and should age well considering his playstyle. 

Plus, a $25M-ish a year AAV is not too shabby, considering many had predicted he would sign for a number closer to $30M a year. This places him as the 26th highest-paid player in the league, in the Yu Darvish/Paul Goldschmidt-range, which I would say is perfectly fair for a perennial all-star.

On the other hand, San Diego is now locked into paying Bogaerts over $25M a year for eleven years. This deal expires in 2033, when Bogaerts will be 41 years old. Historically, we have seen deals akin to this go poorly, such as the deals given to Robinson Cano (10 years), Albert Pujols (10), or the Padres’ own deal with Eric Hosmer (8), among others. 

Although a few years of elite production can be expected in the short term, the likelihood of this contract panning out well for the Padres in the long term is slim. Many experts expected teams to give Bogaerts a much shorter deal—six, maybe seven years. Long term, I’m not a huge fan of this deal, but it fits the Padres current plan perfectly, which revolves around immediate success at any cost.

This deal also solidifies the rumored plan to permanently shift Fernando Tatis to the outfield, after his injury concerns and subpar defense at shortstop (more on that later).

The Padres also gave contract extensions to two major pieces.

First, Yu Darvish was extended until 2028. The veteran with a reported 11-pitch arsenal has seen a resurgence in recent years after struggling with injuries. He, along with Joe Musgrove, will headline the rotation in 2023. He’s crafty, so he should stand the test of time. He’ll make an average of $25M over 6 years.

Secondly, Manny Machado signed an 11-year extension worth $350M. Machado is coming off of what was arguably the best season of his career, finishing secnd in NL MVP voting while hitting .297 and homering 32 times. The deal has an AAV of just above $31M per year, but what should be noted is the structure of the deal over the 11 total years. In 2023, ‘24, and ‘25, Machado will only be getting paid $13M a year. After that, his salary jumps up to $21M and then $35M for the latter half of the contract. 

What this means is that the Padres will have considerable financial flexibility over the next few seasons, leaving room for trade deadline deals or more key free agent deals. In my opinion, it’s a clever workaround to payroll concerns in the short-term, and still a worthwhile investment in the long-term. Machado has proven consistent both in terms of performance and availability, never having missed significant time due to injury in his entire career (knock on wood). 

San Diego also made some other additions, which may have flown under the radar due to their recent mega-deals. I liked the signings of Seth Lugo, Nelson Cruz, and Matt Carpenter.

Lugo is very solid, having plenty of experience as a setup man with the Mets, and will be a valuable addition to the bullpen to set up Josh Hader. He also has experience as a starter earlier in his career. This may prove valuable, as San Diego is yet to find a solidified 5th starter in the rotation. He adds stability and experience to what was already one of the better bullpens in baseball last year, which held the 6th highest fWAR.

As for Cruz and Carpenter, they will likely be in a platoon at DH. Cruz took a significant step back with Washington last year, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was an All Star in 2021, hitting 32 home runs. Also, he was on Washington, where opportunities to thrive offensively are few and far between. 

Even if he did regress, he should benefit from the platoon, where he will almost exclusively see left-handed pitching. In his career, he is higher across the board against lefties– walking more, striking out less, and posting an OPS of more than 100 points higher. 

Carpenter is another intriguing signing. Last season in The Bronx, he posted some rather absurd numbers. In only 154 PAs, he put up 15 HRs, batting .305 and posting a 217 OPS+ (actually higher than Aaron Judge’s 211). Of course, this was a small sample size, but it was a promising sign of a late-career resurgence from a guy that in 2018 hit 36 home runs. 

As with Cruz, he as well should benefit from exclusively seeing opposite-handed pitching. His numbers across the board are higher against righties. They are both getting up there in age, especially Cruz, but a limited role as a DH facing only opposite-handed pitching should be a great way of getting the most out of the two. 

What these guys also bring is experience, which may have been San Diego’s greatest downfall the past few seasons. Cruz has played professional baseball longer than many players have been alive, and Carpenter has played in countless DSs, CSs, and WSs during his tenure with St. Louis. I see this as a clear upgrade from Josh Bell at DH last season.

2023 Regular Season Preview:

The NL West looks like it’s going to be a season-long fight between the two heavyweights, LA and San Diego. The past decade has not been very competitive, however, as in 9 of the past 10 seasons, the Dodgers have finished atop the division, the lone exception being San Francisco in 2021.

The goal is simple for the Padres: dethrone the Dodgers. This year is the best opportunity yet for San Diego, as years of building has culminated in this team.

And while the Padres undoubtedly improved in the offseason, the Dodgers got worse. LAD had a net loss of 14.3 fWAR this offseason, by far the highest in the league. Losing Trea Turner was the biggest hit, but losing solid pieces like Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger (specifically his defense), Tyler Anderson, and Walker Buehler (Tommy John) all will make repeating as NL West champions more difficult in 2023. That being said, they are still elite, and among the top teams in the league, and another NL West title is not to be written off.

Although the Padres’ offense is what everyone will be talking about, it tends to overshadow what is actually a very underrated pitching staff. Darvish, Musgrove, and Snell all had pitching fWARs of over 3.5, and have all improved significantly in past years. 

Yu Darvish was playing at a Cy Young level for the first half of 2021 before injuring his hip mid-season, at which point his numbers took a nosedive. In 2022, he cut his BB% and HR/9 nearly in half from where they were in the 2nd half of 2021. He put up a 3.10 ERA in 2022, compared to his abysmal 6.16 ERA in the second half of 2021. If injury-free, the WBC champ should continue to see success, even as he gets older in age.

Joe Musgrove has really come into his own in San Diego. He built upon his impressive first season, throwing the first no-hitter in Padres history, with another solid season, in which he posted a 2.93 ERA and made the first all-star appearance of his career. He’s clearly found a good spot in San Diego, and improvements in limiting hard-hit balls and inducing ground balls means that it is likely that he keeps it up. Last year, he gave up the 4th slowest average exit velocity to opposing batters, at 85.9 mph.

Blake Snell has seen significant regression from his incredible 2018 Cy Young campaign in which he finished with a 1.89 ERA, and his first year in San Diego was rather shaky. A career high in barrel% and hard hit%, and his highest BB% since his rookie year was very concerning for the Padres after giving up 4 top prospects for him. Luckily, he turned it around in 2022. While his SIERA in 2021 was the 3rd worst of his career, 2022 was the best. Yes, even better than 2018. Although SIERA is a great stat, that doesn’t mean Snell is poised to have another Cy Young campaign. It is, however, a promising trend in the right direction, and I think he can continue to prove valuable.

Lastly, Josh Hader should return to his usual self in 2023. A slump that he’d been in during his last few weeks in Milwaukee, combined with the adjustment period of being traded, caused the implosion that was a 19.06 ERA in August.

In September and October, however, he dropped that number to 0.87. I think that a full offseason in San Diego to become fully adjusted will do wonders, and the Padres will finally get the elite closing option they traded for.

The Padres picked up Michael Wacha this offseason, who had a solid year with Boston after struggling in his time with the Mets and Rays. They don’t, however, have a set 5th starter. Right now, Nick Martinez looks like the guy, but this is still up in the air depending on his performance to start out the year.

Player to Watch #1: LF, Juan Soto

Soto’s 2022 was a little strange. After turning down a ridiculous 15 year, $440M contract with the Nationals, and a flurry of trade deadline rumors, the Padres were the ones to finally come up with the young superstar. While the first 4 years of his career were historically good, his 2022 was a bit of a step back. 

While in 2021, he posted a 7.0 fWAR, 2022 only saw him put up a 3.8 fWAR. In around 100 games for Washington, he got off to a bit of a slow start, but still ended up with respectable numbers. After the trade to San Diego, however, he struggled to get into a groove, hitting only 6 HRs and posting only a 131 OPS+ (disappointing for Juan Soto standards).

After a full offseason with the Padres, Soto should have no trouble returning to his elite form. In this year’s WBC, he hit 2 HR and 3 2B in 4 games, posting a 1.500 OPS. He’s my pick for NL MVP.

He becomes a free agent in 2025, at which point a team will have to pay him something in the range of the contract Washington offered him. San Diego’s window with Soto must be capitalized on if they don’t choose to extend him in the coming years. It will undoubtedly cost a lot, which San Diego might not be at liberty to afford with the several other long-term deals currently in place until the 2030s. I suppose the plan now is to win now, and reevaluate later.

Player to Watch #2: C, Luis Campusano

For the services of Juan Soto, San Diego gave up their top 3 prospects– CJ Abrams, Robert Hassell, and MacKenzie Gore. Their number 4 prospect was Luis Campusano, one of the better catching prospects in the league right now. He’s had some Major League playing time, stints of 11 and 16 games in 2021 and ‘22, respectively. 

He looks to be the catcher of the future for the Friars. Over 162 games over 2 years in AAA with the Chihuahuas, he posted 29 HR, 105 RBI, and a .875 OPS. But in his time in the majors thus far, he’s been a bit underwhelming, never breaking through to become a real late-season contributor. 

His Spring Training, however, has been a promising development. So far, in only 24 ABs, he’s hit 3 HR. He’s got a ton of pop, and his swing kind of reminds me of a less-polished Tatis, especially on the follow-through. Given a full adjustment to the Majors and a refinement of his game with age, he can shape up to be a very solid piece, and perhaps one of the better-hitting catchers in the league.

There are concerns, however, with his defense. A much more offensively-inclined player, his below-average defense may be a concern as a backup to Austin Nola* and hopefully the starting catcher in time. 

What the Padres do with Campusano will be something to keep an eye on. At best, he could become one of the best-hitting backstops in the league, but his defense and a recent legal debacle could see that potential never come to fruition.

*Nola just got hit with a pitch in the nose– so Campusano starting may happen sooner than expected.

Player to Watch #3: SS/CF, Fernando Tatis, Jr

The man who was regarded as one of the most controversial players in the entire league now finds himself alone at the top. Arguably baseball’s brightest young star in 2021, Tatis’s 2022 found him riddled with injuries before being suspended by the MLB for 80 games after violating the league’s PED policy. The Padres’ deep playoff run allowed his total suspension time to be knocked down an extra 12 games, but he’ll still have to miss the first 20 games of the season.

Although the suspension cost the Padres’ arguably their best player right before he’d return from injury, I think that it was a blessing in disguise. In December of 2021, a motorcycle accident broke his left wrist. He had surgery on the wrist in March, but nearing his return to the field, there were still questions about how strong it was and whether or not it would hold up over time. He’d also been dealing with problems with dislocation and tearing in his left shoulder. Several times during the 2021 season he had scares, injuring his shoulder but opting to continue to play instead of getting surgery. After his suspension, however, the opportunity to do so arose without the downside of having to sacrifice time on the field. 

Shortly after the suspension, he underwent an operation to repair the labrum in his shoulder, and shortly after that he underwent a second operation on his wrist, which will further strengthen it for the long-term.

This means that upon his return from suspension, we will see a fully-healthy Fernando Tatis, something that hasn’t happened for multiple years now. While last year would’ve seen him return in August with a torn labrum and a sketchily-healed wrist, risking his long-term availability, none of that needs to be worried about any longer. He’s now free to play as hard as he wants. 

Another interesting development around Tatis is his now-official move to the outfield. This has been rumored for some time now. Injury concerns from playing short along with the fact that he was dead last in 2021 in UZR makes this decision an easy one. His replacement, Xander Bogaerts, has seen a recent renaissance in his defensive performance. 

After being an average to below-average defender his entire career, he emerged as one of the best defensive shortstops in the AL in 2021, posting a career high in Outs Above Average, Defensive Runs Saved, and UZR. Bogaerts credits this to a stringent workout plan in his last offseason with Boston. Ha-Seong Kim, himself one of the best defensive middle-infielders in baseball, moves to second, while Soto will move from RF to LF.

San Diego experimented with Tatis in the outfield in 2021, where his defensive stats weren’t great, but also not terrible. Generally, right field should be a good spot for Tatis, as it’s not as physically and mentally demanding but still allows the Padres to make use of his great arm.

After some initial struggles to get back into form in spring training, Tatis has appeared to get back on track. Given 20 games on the bench to start the season, Tatis should be able to be reinserted into San Diego’s potent offense without any hiccups and make an immediate impact towards their push to win the NL West.

Position Group to Watch: Top of the lineup

Once Tatis returns, the Padres’ vision of a dream lineup will finally be realized. It’s a lineup that looks like it was made in MLB The Show franchise mode. Imagine having to face Tatis, Soto, Machado, and Bogaerts consecutively (not to mention U-M legend Jake Cronenworth). T

hat’s a top 3 which arguably consists of 3 top-10 hitters in the MLB, and I would argue is better than the Betts/Turner/Freeman combo of last year’s Dodgers. Add on top of that a perennial all-star, 5-time Silver Slugger and you have the best top half of a lineup in the league. 

If this top half performs to their potential– and there is little reason to believe they won’t– they have a clear path to winning the division and emerging as title favorites. This is a team that won 89 games last season with essentially only Machado (Soto was only there for 2 months or so), and while dealing with clubhouse problems. With a fresh slate, Machado, a healthy Tatis, a normal Juan Soto, and Bogaerts, very little should be able to slow this offense down. 

Expect to see a lot more of “Slam Diego”. 

2023 Record Prediction: 98-64

As last year’s NLDS proved, this Padres team is as cohesive as they have ever been. Never was the talent of the team doubted, but they consistently struggled with finding a real groove until then. Building on top of this, their offense will only get more potent, with the addition of Bogaerts and the aforementioned DH platoon, and they will also get a fully-healthy Fernando Tatis back from his 80-game suspension. There really is no reason for San Diego to take any step backward in 2023.

But will it be enough to dethrone the Dodgers as top dog in the NL West?

My answer is yes, albeit a hesitant one. Without a doubt, I think the Padres have the talent and the potential to overtake the Dodgers, but whether they can play consistently enough to do so is still up in the air. Their NLDS performance gives me confidence that they can, after showing up on the biggest stage, beating the Dodgers. 

San Diego currently has the 6th best odds to win the World Series, right behind the Mets and right ahead of Toronto. If this team can click, and play to their potential, they will be dangerous.

Categories: 2023 Season Preview, Articles, Season Analysis

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