The last time the San Diego Padres reached the World Series, 1998, and they had the misfortune of running into the history-making, 114-win New York Yankees. That series resulted in a victorious sweep for the Yankees, and the Padres franchise soon fell into a dormant period that lasted until AJ Preller, San Diego’s president of baseball operations was inspired. in ownership, began poaching star players a few years ago.
San Diego’s first attempt at a competitive moonshot under Preller failed before it even caught fire, but the reboot has legs. The original signing of Manny Machado and the emergence of Fernando Tatis Jr. mixed to provide an exciting taste of the playoffs in 2020. That winter, Peter Seidler took control of the team, having previously been the lead investor in the ownership group but not the chairman.
Since then, the Padres have been performing in a way that every fan base dreams of but few see. They went after almost every superstar that was already there in some way shape or form, plus a few other established stars, and shed some of them – most notably Juan Soto at the trade deadline last season. When Seidler’s Padres and John Middleton’s Philadelphia Phillies met in the NLCS last season, it felt like a refreshing burst of openly stated (and spent) ambition. And with Tatis back from suspension and Xander Bogaerts signed, the Padres enter 2023 as baseball’s latest attempt at a superteam.
Now, the Padres may still have a super season, may even reach the World Series, but the path is not the one Preller and Seidler envisioned without a doubt, nor the one the fans hoped for when they bought it. they have the full share of the team’s season tickets. this spring. Instead, sitting at 23-27 after visiting the Nationals and heading into a weekend series with the Yankees, the Padres are in the running for the most disappointing team in baseball.
Beyond the sinking feeling, there is actual danger at hand. With Memorial Day marking the start of reality, of sorts, the Padres’ odds of making the playoffs took the second-biggest dive in baseball since Opening Day by FanGraphs calculations. From the close of the locks in March, they are already at 57% and in danger of being overtaken by the fierce Arizona Diamondbacks.
Meanwhile, as we wait for the gap between their expectations and their reality to fully unfold, the 2023 Padres hammer home a painful reminder about the nature of baseball: Trying to build a superteam always ensures that you can’t.
What the 1998 Yankees say about baseball greatness
The Yankees weren’t technically under new ownership during their mid-’90s rise, but it was a new kind of ownership. Having been banned from baseball in 1990 after paying a gambler for dirt on Dave Winfield, George Steinbrenner returned in 1993 with – at least temporarily – a new attitude about the relative value of free agents. agents and homegrown talent.
The 1998 Yankees team that broke the all-time wins record was the first to feature contributions from all of the Core Four, as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are notable. It was no accident.
Claire Smith of the New York Times, in December 1997, reported that Steinbrenner had developed a “newfound objectivity in trading prospects.” That offseason, the Yankees essentially avoided dealing with the top names on the block: Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown, one of whom was lost to the Padres. The Yanks instead made the more modest additions of Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Brosius.
It was not a strong team in the beginning. A 1-4 start led to questions about manager Joe Torre’s job security, but the Yankees went into overdrive. By July, they were on the course of history, and Buster Olney documented the wonder of the industry.
This history happened, you’ll recall, at the same time as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run, but the Yankees didn’t have those kinds of individual standouts. Their best players finished third in the AL MVP and Cy Young voting, respectively (although the MVP vote looks ridiculous now). Instead, they seem to have an answer to almost every problem time throws at them.
“They have their own little ‘Truman Show,’” Orioles pitcher Scott Erickson said after a loss, referring to a well-disguised script. Surely, the logic went, a team shouldn’t have to dig out a dynamic rookie starter – Orlando Hernandez – through an emergency start necessitated by David Cone’s painful run to his mother’s Jack Russell terrier. “All is well for the Yankees.”
That magic isn’t exactly magic, though. This is the case sometimes, but mostly it stems from successfully building depth through personnel decision-making and player development. Brosius, acquired by the Yankees as a player to be named later in a deal that jettisoned veteran starter Kenny Rogers, may have accidentally summed up the key to a superteam as the Yankees turned heads last July.
“The core of the team,” he told Olney, “is the team.”
You can never have too many great baseball players
The Padres’ roster heading into this season has fueled conversations about excess. After the Padres signed Bogaerts, questions included “How many shortstops does a team need?” The influx of capable shortstops, however, was less of a Twister act for manager Bob Melvin than it was a fundamental issue.
However, there is a difference to be made in the ways Preller and Seidler assembled this team. Spending money can’t drag a team down alone, no matter how much your uncle wants to complain about high salaries; team owners willing to dish out long-term, big-money deals should also be willing to cut bait if necessary. Finding help in free agency isn’t financially viable, but if Seidler doesn’t care about that, there’s no need for fans to get their hands on it.
Trades, however, do not have an undo button. And in many areas of the Padres’ roster, years of moving for immediate big-league help have eliminated any sign of excess talent. Too many shortstops? It’s not a problem. Too few competent hitters in the big leagues? Problem.
This is what the Padres experienced in this early season turmoil. The 2023 team suffered from Manny Machado’s slow start and subsequent injuries, yes. They need more from pitchers Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell. The problem that isn’t quite solved by time and reversion to the mean, however, is a severe lack of offensive support beyond the stars.
Only three Padres hitters have produced a park-adjusted OPS+ mark of 110 or better, meaning at least 10% better than the league average, so far this season. They are exactly the three you think: Soto, Tatis, Bogaerts. The division-leading Dodgers have seven such players, as do the new Texas Rangers — who have paired big spending with some clear wins in player development. The Rays have nine.
Overall uneven, the Padres lineup lacked threats to keep scoring. San Diego is in the middle of the pack in team OPS+ but relies heavily on walks to get there. The lack of hits hindered their practical production and left them sixth worst in MLB in runs per game.
To make matters worse, their best potential solutions — young hitters they can pass on now — are often playing for other teams. Since the end of the 2019 season, the Padres have traded a surprising number of players for solid major-leaguers. There are 27 former members of the organization – more than a full roster’s worth – who are playing elsewhere in the majors this season and could theoretically still be under San Diego team control. .
To be clear, many of the deals are profitable to acquire top-level talent, but doing this style of business in bunches can have a compounding effect as inevitable mistakes to come. For example, among 27:
That’s all without mentioning the future impact of getting rid of a farm system that ranked among baseball’s best three years ago.
Dealing with so many young, unknown talents for the little established major leagues is FOR the most part a losing strategy in the long term, made with the rational purpose of creating a critical mass in the short term. But in early 2023, the risks of the Padres’ admirable but dire efforts to be extraordinary loomed large.
Great teams – from the 1998 Yankees to the recent Dodgers to the potentially huge 2023 Rays – have followed more balanced approaches to the now vs. late quandary, even if their payroll numbers are huge. The teams may be expensive and star-studded but there remains an appreciation for options, for homegrown talent, for uncertainty that may require improvisation. That restraint can make them frustratingly frugal opponents or sneaky superteams. The difference is mostly invisible before the 162 games provide their inevitable, unpredictable obstacles.
History tells us that the 2023 Padres are likely to be closer to who we think they will be than who they have been thus far. The grueling 162-game slate is coming for less talented teams than San Diego. But theirs is a much harder problem to solve without continuing the spiral. Baseball spreads the burden of winning thinly over many shoulders. Knowing you have some superhuman standard-bearers locked in for the next decade is a great start, but most of the load will have to be carried by the unusually talented players who come and go, the overlooked common man in the majors.
The core of the team, in other words, must be the team.