Padres just might be baseball's best team

December 29th, 2020

Once upon a time, Padres general manager A.J. Preller -- in an aggressive bid to unseat the reigning NL West champion Dodgers -- made a series of big moves to go all-in, including acquiring a starter who had been once been one of Tampa Bay's postseason pitching heroes. Does that sound familiar?

That's what happened in the winter of 2014-15, when the Padres made an ill-advised push to win right away, coming away with big names (Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, and James Shields among them) at a very high cost (including Trea Turner, Max Fried, Yasmani Grandal, Zach Eflin, and the No. 13 pick in 2015 Draft). It was loud and impressive and risky, but it resulted in an ill-fitting roster that wasn't likely to win, and it didn't. They fired their manager in June and finished in fourth place. The franchise was sent into a hole it only just recently was able to dig out of.

This time, Preller's done it again, reportedly trading for Blake Snell from the Rays and Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini from the Cubs as well as reportedly signing well-regarded Korean infielder Ha-Seong Kim. It's got a lot of echoes of 2015, because it's still Preller, it's still loud and impressive and risky, and all these years later, the Dodgers are still atop the division.

But this time, it's different. This time, the Padres are ready to make this push, Dodgers or not. This time, the Padres have a legitimate claim toward being the best team in baseball headed into 2021 -- and they're almost certainly not done.

Actually, the Padres already did have that kind of case, to be one of the very few World Series contenders, even before this week. But we'll get to that.

Now, that's all big praise for a team that hasn't had a winning record in a full 162-game season since back in 2010. Between 2011-19, only one team lost more games. It's been a long time in the wilderness, where for years, the most interesting thing about the Padres was if and when they'd bring back the brown uniforms. (They did, for 2020.)

It's an especially large claim considering that their division just so happens to include the Dodgers, who have won the last eight NL West titles -- and the World Series, a mere two months ago. It's not like Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Clayton Kershaw, and Walker Buehler are going anywhere. They're not.

And yet: The Padres were, by almost any measure, the second- or third-best team of the shortened 2020 season. They had the third most wins, behind only the two pennant winners; they were essentially tied with the Dodgers for fifth in pitching WAR; they were second only to the White Sox in position player WAR. They had the third-best slugging percentage, scored the third-most runs, and stole the most bases. Only one team -- the Dodgers -- converted more swings into hard-hit balls, and no team cut its chase rate by as much from 2019.

Now, look ahead to 2021, and let's use the FanGraphs projected WAR leaderboards to do so. At the moment we're looking at this, late on Monday evening in the East, FanGraphs has included Snell in the Padres rotation, but has not yet added Darvish, so let's do it for them. We'll take out the 1.2 WAR projected for Zach Davies, who is off to Chicago as part of the Cubs' return, and we'll replace it with the 4.2 projected for Darvish, in roughly similar innings. Take that +3.0 WAR upgrade -- we won't do the same for Caratini, since backup catchers don't move the needle much and he's not projected that differently from San Diego's incumbents -- and you get ... this.

It's more or less a dead heat. It's a rounding error. It's a tie.

It's not a dead-on accurate prediction, and it doesn't account for the fact that neither team is done shopping. The Dodgers haven't even really started, notably with third baseman Justin Turner still a free agent, and they might just turn around and sign Liam Hendriks or trade for Francisco Lindor tomorrow. What it does is show you how close they are.

It also shows you how far the Padres have come. Six weeks ago, just after free agency began, we used this same method to rank all 30 teams. The Dodgers, unsurprisingly, were No. 1. But even then, the Padres were No. 2 -- as we said then, "2020's biggest breakout team will head into 2021 well-positioned to aim for a World Series ring" -- but San Diego was nearly five wins behind. Snell and Darvish (while subtracting Davies) catches them right on up.

But it's important, too, to realize how they got to this point. In one sense, it's not the trades themselves that's the most interesting part of this story, but how San Diego put itself in position to once again even consider such things.

This all began back in 2016, after the go-for-it 2015 Padres cratered and collapsed; as's A.J. Cassavell wrote at the time, they "rebuilt their farm in nine months," trading for and drafting prospects like Adrian Morejon, Eric Lauer, Josh Naylor, Manuel Margot, and Chris Paddack, who have themselves either become part of the core or turned into trades for Mike Clevinger, Emilio Pagan, and Trent Grisham. Cassavell didn't even mention that Fernando Tatis Jr. came back in the all-time heist for Shields that summer, because even the most optimistic Padres fan couldn't have seen that stardom explosion happening, and sometimes you need to be lucky as well as good.

It continued with the big money signings of Eric Hosmer (2018), Manny Machado (2019), and to a somewhat-lesser but still important extent, Drew Pomeranz (2020). It came from the Draft, with No. 1 picks spent on MacKenzie Gore (2017) and Xavier Edwards (2018), who was packaged in the deal for Tommy Pham and Jake Cronenworth. It continued with trades for Austin Nola, Grisham, Clevinger, and nearly all of the bullpen; it really went into hyperdrive at the 2020 Trade Deadline, when Preller acquired eight Major Leaguers, the most any team had picked up in the month leading up to the Deadline since it moved to July 31 in 1986. (That becomes nine when injured pitcher Austin Adams later made his debut.)

That's how they got here, to the point where trading away high-level talent -- and make no mistake, they have unloaded considerable talent out of their system for Snell and Darvish, led by 21-year-old Luis Patiño, who might alone make them regret the Snell trade someday -- makes so much sense. This isn't the ill-fated 2014-15 push, which wasn't ever going to work, because that group hadn't built the foundation. This group has.

Now, with Snell and Darvish each collecting Cy Young votes in recent seasons, they're again doing something no one has ever done:

As one Padres podcaster tweeted, "It's like 2015, but without the existential dread."

WAR projections don't win rings. The Padres have a lot more to prove than the Dodgers do. But Los Angeles is universally considered the best team in baseball -- for obviously good reasons -- and the Padres can now say, for the first time in perhaps the history of their franchise, that they belong to be in the same conversation. It's a culmination of years of work, and a pivot after the last time they tried this flopped so loudly. We're betting this time is going to go a little better.