SAN DIEGO -- The gap was supposed to begin closing in 2019. The Padres signed Manny Machado during Spring Training, then they promoted a host of top prospects early in the season. A division title still seemed out of reach. But the Padres had at least hoped to make some progress toward that eventual goal.
And yet, Tuesday night’s series opener between the Dodgers and Padres felt an awful lot like the late-September showdowns between these two clubs in years past. The Friars entered their final series at Petco Park long since eliminated from postseason contention and trailing Los Angeles by 30 games in the National League West.
San Diego starter Ronald Bolaños struggled with his control, and Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy hit a fourth-inning grand slam. The Padres’ best efforts at a second consecutive comeback win fell short -- despite Manuel Margot’s dash around the bases in the fifth inning, ruled a triple and an error. They lost, 6-3, and the gap grew to 31 games.
On the same date a year ago, that number was 25. Despite all that offseason roster shuffling, the gap has actually grown by six games.
To be fair, this Dodgers team is widely believed to be better than the 2018 edition. The Padres, too, are better than they were a year ago. But not by as much as they’d like to be.
“It just hasn’t been good enough,” said Padres general manager A.J. Preller in his weekend news conference, following the team’s dismissal of manager Andy Green. Then, Preller offered some reason for optimism.
The Padres have played dreadful baseball in falling to 6-15 this month. But there are positives to be gleaned from their performance earlier in the season -- particularly with young players like Chris Paddack and Fernando Tatis Jr., neither of whom is still playing. Another group of prospects -- including three of MLB Pipeline’s top 31 overall in MacKenzie Gore, Taylor Trammell and Luis Patiño -- will report to big league camp with the club next spring.
With top-tier young talent, the gap doesn’t always close incrementally, Preller said.
“In baseball, we don’t really believe that if we looked up and it was 78 wins or 81 wins instead of whatever it ends up being … it’s not necessarily a linear process,” Preller said. “It’s not like you go from 78 to 81 to 84 to 90. We’ve seen teams throughout the league, even ones that will play in October this year, that have had the process where they go from 69 wins to playing in the postseason.
“You’ve seen teams in the past, whether it be the Twins and the Braves, that have gone from worst to first. For us, it’s more a situation of evaluating the talent we have on the field -- whether guys are performing, who’s making steps. We’ve seen some good things this year. The way we’ve finished will leave a bitter taste.”
And a mountain to climb in the National League West.
Of course, the Padres brought Machado on board last winter to help scale that mountain, and he’s made it clear he’s dead set on doing so.
“You can't take away from what they've done this year,” Machado said about the Dodgers. “They're winning ballgames, and they've got a good team. To close the gap, we've got to win more games than they do. Next year, that's what we've got to come out and do.”
It won’t be easy. The Dodgers are seven-time defending champs in the West, and they’ll be heavy favorites to win an eighth. The Padres, meanwhile, haven’t finished above .500 in nine years, and they haven’t reached the postseason in 13.
Preller and company feel as though both those goals are within reach in 2020 -- even if it takes an offseason roster shakeup.
For now, the Padres take some solace in the way they’ve played the Dodgers this season. The games between the two sides have been far more competitive. Interim manager Rod Barajas says that’s more indicative of the Padres’ progress than the current gulf in the standings.
“For me, the gap's been closing for sure,” Barajas said. “Not fast enough.”