Can Padres make leap in 60-game sprint?

July 23rd, 2020

SAN DIEGO -- In February, Padres executives stood under the pavilion at the Peoria Sports Complex, touting a major turnaround for the trajectory of their franchise.

"This is our decade," general partner Peter Seidler said, citing the culmination of the work done by general manager A.J. Preller in overhauling the team's farm system and signing a handful of key free agents.

The Padres couldn’t have envisioned “their decade” starting quite this way -- with a 60-game season played amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they're determined to make the most of things, nonetheless.

For the first time in Preller's tenure, the Padres will open a season with serious playoff aspirations. That's partly due to the shortened schedule.

"Everybody's going to go into it feeling like they have a chance in a 60-game season," Preller said.

But it's also the result of the best Padres roster, on paper, in at least a decade. They have two superstars on the left side of their infield in Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. They have a bullpen that might qualify as the best in the National League. They have front-end rotation arms like Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet and elite pitching prospects like MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño lying in wait.

It's not a perfect roster. But it's hard to downplay the optimism oozing out of Padres camp, especially considering they find themselves in a position they haven't been since 2010 -- in a playoff hunt in July.

"Everybody's tied with 60 to go," said manager Jayce Tingler. "That's the mentality."

What needs to go right?: A healthy thriving infield

Tatis has the makings of a generational star. As a 20-year-old last season, he dazzled with his five tools and threw himself in the mix to become the youngest batting champ in big league history. He's also missed significant time in the past 24 months with three different injuries. It's no coincidence that the Padres floundered late last season when Tatis was shut down due to a lower-back ailment. The Padres need their spark-plug healthy in 2020.

They could also use bounceback campaigns from Machado and Eric Hosmer. Machado was solid in 2020, but not up to his usual elite standards. Hosmer, meanwhile, struggled both offensively and defensively and has yet to resemble the player he was in Kansas City.

Said one team official: "We can win if those three are clicking."

Big question: Do Tommy Pham, Trent Grisham and a healthy Tatis change the dynamic?

The Padres' big question? Same as it ever was: Can they get on base? The Friars have more or less struggled to reach base since they moved to Petco Park in 2004. They spent five consecutive seasons ranked 30th in the league in OBP before finishing 25th last year.

It's no coincidence that Tingler has often run his workouts wearing a ".388 club" T-shirt, the career on-base percentage of Padres icon Tony Gwynn. Those shirts were distributed to Minor Leaguers who hit that mark over a calendar month, further evidence of the organization's commitment to reaching base at a higher clip.

The biggest evidence of that commitment is the presence of Pham and Grisham. Pham's career .373 mark is higher than any Padre has posted in a full season since Chase Headley in 2012. Grisham, meanwhile, is a 23-year-old outfielder, whose plate discipline from the left side has always been his calling card.

Key stretch on the schedule: Aug. 3-16

The Padres should have a decent idea of where they stand by mid-August. In a two-week span, they play seven games against the seven-time defending division champion Dodgers and six games against the D-backs, who are expected to serve as one of the Padres' primary rivals for an NL Wild Card spot.

"You always want to be good in division," Tingler said. "This year in particular, if you don't play well in your division, you're eliminated. ... We're going to have to play very, very well facing the NL West."

If the Padres can make it through that stretch unscathed, they have reasons to be optimistic about the stretch run, with several late off-days and 15 of their final 18 games coming against teams that finished last year below .500.

Team MVP will be: Tatis

Despite Tatis' injuries, the Padres have been adamant that they don't want to change the all-out playing style of their 21-year-old shortstop. In fact, the constraints of a 60-game season might fit Tatis’ approach perfectly.

"Whether it's 162 or it's 60, anybody that plays with that passion and energy and athletic ability and all the things that he brings to the table is great," Tingler said. "Naturally, he just has that 'it' factor."

Team Cy Young will be: Kirby Yates

It's certainly possible that Paddack and Lamet establish themselves as front-of-the rotation weapons this season. But if the Padres are going to make a playoff push, they're going to rely heavily on their excellent bullpen. The most important piece in that bullpen is Yates.

In a franchise with a long history of elite closers, Yates has lived up to the billing. He posted a 1.19 ERA last season while leading the Majors with 41 saves en route to first-team All-MLB honors. Yates, who will be a free agent after the season, enters play this weekend as a serious candidate for best closer in baseball.

Bold prediction: A September playoff race

Even in a short season, it's hard to envision the Padres closing the gap on the Dodgers, perennial World Series favorites. But the two Wild Card spots in the National League will almost certainly be up for grabs in September.

The Padres have built a roster that might be capable of snatching one of them. But if they find themselves in a playoff race down the stretch, it'll be the first time youngsters like Paddack and Tatis are playing meaningful baseball in September -- and the first time the Padres have done so since 2010.

Given their seemingly bright future, a September playoff push that culminates with a Wild Card berth (and their first postseason appearance since 2006) would be a satisfactory way to open what the Padres hope is "their decade."

“That’s the goal for us, going into the year,” Preller said. “We feel like we’re an improved team, like we’re a much more competitive club. There’s a belief right now that we’re going into this thing with a team that can play into October.”