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Padres 2023 season preview

A formidable foe down south

MLB: San Diego Padres at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Another year, and the biggest spender in the National League West has designs on winning the division. This is nothing new for the Los — wait, that preview is tomorrow. Today is about the San Diego Padres.

The Padres were already competitive balance tax payers in both 2021 and 2022, but this year they ratcheted things up. For 2023, per both Cot’s Contracts and Roster Resource at FanGraphs, the Padres estimated payroll is just shy of the $273-million third tax threshold.

San Diego’s investment in their players the last few years has produced success on the field, with two postseason appearances in the last three seasons, including beating two 100-win teams in the playoffs last season for their deepest run in 24 years. But it’s also been a boon off the field, with revenues rising to the point that the Padres now pay into revenue sharing rather than receive money from it, noted by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred at spring training media day in Phoenix last week.

But because Peter Seidler and the San Diego ownership group broke rank in essence, Manfred — who is employed by MLB owners — publicly wondered whether or not all that spending was such a good idea.

“The question becomes: How long can you continue to do that, and what happens when you have to go through a rebuild?” Manfred said, per Kevin Acee at the San Diego Union Tribune. “But they have done a really, really good job of capitalizing on their talent to drive their revenue.”

San Diego keeps spending to try to ward off that eventual rebuild, and right now the foundation looks quite solid.

The Padres were already good last season, and that was without Fernando Tatis Jr., first due to a broken wrist then by an 80-game suspension in August for testing positive for Clostebol, a performance-enhancing drug. But then San Diego added Juan Soto (and others) at the trade deadline.

They headed into the offseason with a pretty good offense, then went and signed shortstop Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280-million deal. That $280 million ranks as only the third-largest Padres contract of the last five years says a lot about how far San Diego has come.

Now the heart of the Padres lineup looks much more menacing, with Soto, Manny Machado, Bogaerts, and — after his suspension is up in late April — Tatis. ZiPS projects all four players to have at least 4.4 fWAR, topped by Soto’s 6.5, with these wRC+ projections: Soto 164, Tatis 156, Machado 127, Bogaerts 123.

That’s a devastating quartet, at least when they are all in the lineup together.

While on the field, Tatis has been incredible, hitting .292/.369/.596 with a 153 wRC+ in his three major league seasons. He had two top-four MVP finishes and led the National League in home runs in 2021. But his career has been rife with injuries, missing time in his 2019 rookie campaign with a hamstring strain and a stress reaction in his back. In 2021 he dislocated his shoulder twice, then last year had two surgeries on his wrist and a procedure on his shoulder in September.

Tatis before his PED suspension last August played in only 273 of a possible 498 Padres games (55 percent).

But those four hitters aren’t alone. At FanGraphs, ZiPS projects the Padres to have 10 regulars with an above-average wRC+, including 37-year-old Matt Carpenter and 42-year-old Nelson Cruz, the latter coming off his first bad season at the plate in a decade and a half.

PECOTA at Baseball Prospectus has the Padres scoring the third-most runs in MLB in 2023, narrowly behind the Mets and Dodgers. If San Diego scores the 778 runs projected by PECOTA, it would be the third-most in franchise history, and fourth-most in runs per game, the latter including the truncated 2020 campaign.

The point here is, the Padres offense is deep, and will be a force to be reckoned with.

Pitching depth

It’s easy to laugh when an owner of a bad MLB team puts his foot in his mouth, like Rockies chairman and CEO Dick Monfort did in January, as recounted by Patrick Saunders at the Denver Post in January. But even amid Monfort’s boogeyman-ish message that spending is bad, he may have stumbled upon a semblance of a point.

“I look at the Padres and they have a really talented team, but they have some holes, too,” Monfort said. “They’ve got three, maybe four starting pitchers, and then they’re sort of like us. They have Musgrove, Snell and Darvish, so I don’t know.”

The “and then they’re sort of like us” is akin to “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” here, but maybe Monfort was onto something.

San Diego won all three games of the NLDS against the Dodgers started by those three pitchers, and during the regular season the trio of Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and Blake Snell combined for a 3.11 ERA, 121 ERA+, 3.38 FIP, and 1.060 WHIP in 504⅔ innings over 84 starts.

In the other 78 games, Padres starters had a 4.68 ERA, 81 ERA+, 4.83 FIP, and 1.357 FIP. Sean Manaea and Mike Clevinger, who made 50 of those starts, left via free agency. The Padres filled the void by signing Nick Martinez, Seth Lugo, and Michael Wacha. Lugo has been primarily a reliever the last five seasons and hasn’t started a game since 2020, but will at least have a shot at the rotation. Same for Martinez, who began last season in San Diego’s rotation but pitched most of the time out of the bullpen.

San Diego is even entertaining thoughts of a six-man rotation, but at the very least those three pitchers will contribute in some way, whether its by starting or pitching in relief.

“You can say you want six [starters], but you also have to have quality. You don’t want to have to cover four innings several times through the rotation,” manager Bob Melvin told AJ Cassavell of in the first weekend of February. “So if we have the guys to do it, then we’ll do it. If not, we can go back to five.”

2023 outlook

A full season of Soto plus anything at all from Tatis adds length to a formidable lineup, and the pitching depth is improved as well. The Padres haven’t won the National League West since 2006, but I think that drought ends this year.