The best way to describe how difficult -- how relentless -- it has been to be a fan of the San Diego Padres over the last 10-12 years is to note that the one moment the Padres had the unfocused attention of the baseball world is probably the franchise's most self-destructive decision.
That moment was the 2015 offseason spending spree that then-new general manager A.J. Preller kicked off, trading for (deep breath) Matt Kemp and Justin Upton and William Myers and Derek Norris and Brandon Maurer and Will Middlebrooks, and then signing James Shields, who at the time was the most enticing free agent pitcher remaining. He finished it off by trading for Craig Kimbrel, because at that point, why not? The Padres had been a mostly nondescript, conservative, not entirely relevant team for far too long, and Preller, an ambitious, hotshot thirty-something wunderkind, wanted to shake things up. So he went nuts. It was Prellerpalooza. It was the most that many of us had thought about the Padres in years. It was a blast.
And it did not work. It quite definitively did not work. The 2015 Padres were worse than they were in 2014, and it was obvious from the get-go. You can see what Preller was thinking: This franchise is moribund and stagnant, so I'll blow it up and see what happens. What happened was the Padres were still bad and not any more exciting on the field. So it is to Preller's credit that he recognized Prellerpalooza was a bust and rather than doubling down on it, he took down the rafters, canceled the next tour and retreated. You had to admire it. Teams are constantly tearing down and building for the future. Preller, in his first days on the job, took one big giant swing. He missed. But he shot his shot. And when that didn't work, he started over. Some GMs start over immediately. You have to love that he went for it.
So, we are now in Season Three of the Post-Prellerpalooza Padres Reconstruction, and we've all gone back to ignoring the Padres like we have for the previous decade, but guess what? The Padres are quietly sort of interesting! After winning two out of three on the road against a listless Cardinals team that seems to be entering into some sort of midlife malaise, the Padres, wouldn't you know it, are starting to make a little noise. They're still in last place in the tough National League West, but they're only a game behind the Giants and a game-and-a-half behind the Rockies, a team that was in first place a week ago. They have a better record than the Mets, the Twins and the Blue Jays -- three teams that considered themselves contenders heading into this year. They're 22-17 since May 1. The Padres aren't half bad!
It's a little early for the Padres to start calling themselves contenders, even in the muck that is the NL West. But they currently have the highest winning percentage of Preller's reign, with one of the youngest teams in the sport and MLB Pipeline's top farm system in the game. It certainly looks like Preller and company are starting to get this ship turned around. Let's take a look at five things the Padres are doing right this season, and how they may portend to a better future ... and maybe another Prellerpalooza someday.
1. The bullpen: If you want to see why the Padres are rising and, say, the Cardinals are fading, look at their series this week. The Cardinals' bullpen has been racked by injuries and mismanagement, to the point that there are only two relievers manager Mike Matheny trusts, and one of them is 21 years old. Meanwhile, the Padres on Tuesday threw out a bullpen game for the third time in three weeks ... and the relievers were fantastic, even taking a perfect game into the sixth inning. Wednesday, they threw three more shutout innings to hold on for their second 4-2 win in a row. Brad Hand has been the standout -- and could be some handy trade bait next month -- but the Padres have options everywhere, from veterans like Craig Stammen and Kirby Yates (who has given up three runs in 27 innings) to youngsters like Adam Cimber and Jose Castillo, who struck out all four batters he faced Thursday. The Padres throw a ton of different looks at you, and the supposedly vaunted Cardinals lineup was befuddled all three games of the series.
2. Eric Hosmer: Remember when everyone was making fun of the Padres for supposedly overspending on Hosmer. Well, he's off to the best start of his career, entering Thursday with a .370 on-base percentage, playing his usual mean first base and even upping his walk rate. Hosmer might not be a superstar, but he's an undeniable plus in a lineup, and, more importantly, he's a constant: The Padres are in the process of introducing a ton of new players to their roster, so having a guy who puts up a 135 OPS+ without sweating too much, turns out, to be rather handy.
3. Organizational depth: The Padres do have the best farm system in the game, but their major contributors this year haven't necessarily been those top prospects. They're just guys who have hung around the system long enough to improve and eventually break through, even if they didn't do it until their mid or late 20s. Christian Villanueva is a stealth Rookie of the Year Award candidate; Travis Jankowski and Hunter Renfroe have contributed in the outfield; Joey Lucchesi, before he got hurt, was probably their best starter and Jordan Lyles has had his moments both as a starter and a reliever. None of these guys are stars, but they have been positive contributors for minimal cost. They are signs of a healthy system and a franchise that knows what it's doing. And none of the stars of 2019, the reason the farm system is ranked so high, are even here yet.
4. They're finding strange, intriguing talent in unusual places: Franchy Cordero (before he went on the disabled list) doesn't just have a great baseball name; he also, as my colleague Mike Petriello put it, has the speed of Dee Gordon and the power of Joey Gallo, even if he hasn't figured out the plate discipline yet. Franmil Reyes has massive, almost terrifying power. Luis Perdomo has a blazing fastball and a weird ability to hit triples. Eric Lauer has picked off a baserunner in five consecutive games. (The Padres are on pace to break the all-time record for pickoffs, actually.) The Padres are widely considered to have one of the most innovative, creative front offices, and you can see it in their ability to find quirky talents where many teams wouldn't even think to look.
5. They're keeping it loose and flexible: Manager Andy Green has already received plenty of plaudits for inventiveness as a manager, and he's had to pedal as fast as he can this year, considering injuries to Myers, Austin Hedges, Dinelson Lamet and other players the Padres were counting on. This has led to a kitchen-sink approach, including having your starter be "bullpen" three times in three weeks. (And having it work!) The Padres are a team that is clearly open to anything, and Green is the manager who is making it work.
Look, the Padres aren't making the playoffs this year. Fangraphs gives them 0.8 percent odds. But they're better, and they're interesting, and they're improving, and for a team that has Fernando Tatis Jr. and MacKenzie Gore and Luis Urias and Cal Quantrill and Michel Baez and Adrian Morejon coming, along with whatever other gems are hanging around their system, they're already in a good place. Preller made a huge splash when he took over the Padres, and it was a high-profile flop. He has been a lot quieter since then. And that quiet approach is starting to pay benefits. The Padres aren't there yet. But they're coming. We're going to be talking about the Padres a lot more over the next five years. This is just the start.