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San Diego Padres 2023 Season Preview

The NL West arms race has gotten really interesting since last August, as the San Diego Padres have picked up a new cache of weapons. Josh Bell and Brandon Drury may not have panned out as hoped, but Juan Soto added an imposing figure to a lineup that had been largely pedestrian throughout most of the season. Even though the Padres couldn’t follow up their NLDS win over the Dodgers, the gauntlet had officially been laid down.

 

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Not only is Soto back this season, Xander Bogaerts and Nelson Cruz have joined the party on free agent deals. The Padres also brought in Matt Carpenter, Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo, among others. For the first time since 2018, the Dodgers don’t have the biggest payroll in the NL West and for just the second time since 2012 (both times were the Giants). 

After losing the division by 22 games, the Padres won when it mattered most and now both teams have similar projections for the 2023 season. A willingness to spend and some really good player development wins have San Diego closer than ever to the first World Series win in franchise history.

Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.

2023 San Diego Padres Odds

(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 20, click for updates)

World Series: +950
NL Pennant: +475
NL West: +120
Win Total: 93.5 (-105/-115)
Make Playoffs: Yes -400 / No +330

San Diego Padres Offense

This really was a mediocre group last season. The Padres finished 13th with a 102 wRC+. They struggled to hit home runs (21st), added minimal value on the bases with just 49 steals and failed to take advantage of one of the league’s highest BB%. The Padres walked a lot and didn’t strike out a whole lot, yet finished 13th in runs scored.

From August 1 through the end of the regular season, the Padres were better. They had a 106 wRC+ and were 15th in homers. We saw some signs of life and now we should see even more with the additions this offseason and a full season of Soto. Soto posted a 130 wRC+ after the trade in 228 plate appearances, which ranked second on the team for the year among guys with at least that many PA. Manny Machado had a huge season with 7.4 fWAR and a 152 wRC+, which was handsomely rewarded with an 11-year, $350 million deal.

Machado is an excellent hitter and a great defender. That was a career year for him and I do worry about his ability to replicate such a spectacular season, but his supporting cast is obviously stronger and Soto is a guy who had a 163 wRC+ in 2021 and a 145 wRC+ in 2022, so he’s a true elite bat in the lineup and an NL MVP candidate.

Outside of Machado, the Padres had some above-average hitters, but nobody really stood out in a huge way. Jurickson Profar and Luke Voit both had 110 wRC+ marks, but they’re on different teams this season. Jake Cronenworth returns after posting a 109 wRC+, which represented a downgrade from his 116 mark in 2021. He should bounce back a bit after a spike in K% and a decrease in BABIP.

The others to post a wRC+ over 100 were Eric Hosmer at 108 (Padres are paying for him to play for the Red Sox), Brandon Drury at 105 (now an Angel), Ha-Seong Kim at 105 and Wil Myers at 104 (now a Red). Kim looks to be the starting second baseman for this season, while the others are gone. The Padres will hope for better numbers from Trent Grisham, whose defense was valuable enough to nearly match his fWAR total from 2021, but his bat was about 20% worse.

Fortunately, the additions could all be impact bats. Bogaerts has the best chance, as he owns a career 118 wRC+, but each of his last five seasons has been well above that number. His last four full seasons have ranged from 130 to 141. He does leave a hitter-friendly Fenway Park but joins a better overall lineup. The projection systems are in the 120s, but I’d expect another 130 or better for him.

It was a long year for Cruz with the lowly Nationals last season. Now he’s back with a contender in hopes of getting a boost in the twilight of his career. The 42-year-old had an 85 wRC+ last season, which represented a 38% decrease from 2021. It was the first time since 2007 that he was a below-average hitter and his lowest Hard Hit% in the Statcast era, but 45.7% is still really good. His Barrel% was below 13% for the first time at 9.3%. I’m not sure if it was age or something else, but this year will let us know.

We’ll also see if Matt Carpenter’s remarkable Yankees stint has any carryover to this season. In 154 plate appearances, he slashed an absurd .305/.412/.727 with a 217 wRC+. He won’t do that for a full season and hasn’t been a good hitter since 2018. I’m not expecting much, but he’s a potentially useful depth piece. The Padres can use those because their bench is really suspect otherwise.

Oh, yeah, and Fernando Tatis Jr. will be back on April 20 after serving an 80-game suspension for PEDs. Tatis, who is only 24, is taking some outfield reps and his bat would be a welcomed addition to the lineup. In 1,175 plate appearances, he owns a .292/.369/.596 slash with a .399 wOBA and a 153 wRC+. The Padres are adding an elite hitter to the batting order when he returns after missing all of 2022. We’ll see if there is any carryover from the lost season due to injury, but he’s in the prime of his career with enormous upside.

San Diego Padres Pitching

Speaking of guys who will return in April, Joe Musgrove will be back from his fractured toe in the first month of the season. Musgrove had a 2.93 ERA with a 3.59 FIP last season over 181 innings and pitched the Padres past the Mets in the Wild Card Round. His K% gains from 2021 didn’t hang on, but everything else was great and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more strikeouts this season.

Musgrove is part of the Big Three with Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. Darvish pitched for Japan in the World Baseball Classic and didn’t really get to go through the normal preparations for the MLB season, so a slow start wouldn’t be a surprise. However, he’s coming off an excellent year with a 3.10 ERA and a 3.31 FIP in 194.2 innings of work. He saw a big reduction in homers allowed and had his best HR/FB% in a full season since 2014 with the Rangers. I’m not sure he fully repeats last season, but I do think he’ll have another fine year.

Snell has only pitched 128 innings each of the last two seasons, so you almost have to think about either a six-man rotation or your depth, but he’s coming off of his best season since winning the Cy Young Award in 2018 as a member of the Rays. Snell had a 3.38 ERA with a 2.80 FIP over his 24 starts. He still can’t improve upon his third time through the order splits, though. He allowed a .348 wOBA and a 6.86 ERA in 104 plate appearances when turning the lineup over a third time. It remains an ongoing issue, but the Padres have an exceptional bullpen in support.

The Padres are basically trying to get a number of 125-inning guys to fill out the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. Michael Wacha threw 127.1 innings for the Red Sox on the heels of 124.2 innings for the Rays the year prior. His numbers were much better last season with a 3.32 ERA and a 4.14 FIP. The metrics do suggest some regression and that is very much possible with Wacha. This is a stock I don’t really want to buy.

I’m also skeptical of Nick Martinez. In 52.1 innings as a starter, Martinez allowed a .269/.357/.468 slash and a .359 wOBA. In 54 innings as a reliever, he allowed a .209/.271/.328 slash and a .268 wOBA. It’s entirely possible that Musgrove’s return will push him to the bullpen, but the Padres may want the starter insurance. That seems like the plan with Lugo as well, who started seven games for the Mets in 2020, but he hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2017. He’s been a great reliever in that span but hasn’t pitched over 80 innings since 2018.

Musgrove and Darvish are solid bets, but Snell and the others are a little bit more difficult to try and figure out. It feels like the Padres are going to be touch-and-go in the rotation for this season with the collection of arms that they are thinking about putting out there. That’s why they signed Cole Hamels, Brent Honeywell Jr. and Julio Teheran to minor-league deals to look for a bit of insurance.

One of the downsides of acquiring a lot of Major League talent via trade is that you have to give up a lot of prospects in order to do it. The Padres have certainly given up their fair share of guys, with pitchers like MacKenzie Gore, Robert Gasser and Dinelson Lamet. I’m sure that they’ll figure it out, but this rotation doesn’t really have that high of a ceiling and any sort of Darvish or Musgrove injury could prove costly.

At least the bullpen is still really good. The addition of Josh Hader at last year’s Trade Deadline was a good pickup, especially because he pitched really well in the playoffs. He had 10 strikeouts in 5.1 innings and didn’t allow a run in five appearances. That was on top of 10.1 innings in September with just one earned run allowed on four hits with a 13/2 K/BB ratio. His wife also had a tumultuous pregnancy prior to giving birth in June and he was traded from the organization that drafted him. I think he might return to being truly elite.

He has plenty of help in this pen. Luis Garcia, Nabil Crismatt, and Robert Suarez all took turns being unhittable. Drew Pomeranz is also said to be healthy. I would anticipate this is one of baseball’s top bullpens.

Miscellaneous Notes

The Padres were 30-17 in one-run games, so a metric like Pythagorean Win-Loss will suggest some regression, but this is just an elite pen and, frankly, a team that underachieved relative to its talent level. Also, the Padres were 84-59 against everybody other than the Dodgers. They were 5-14 against LA during the regular season but slayed the dragon in the postseason.

Even after all the additions, the Padres were just 32-27 from August through the end of the regular season. I would anticipate everybody settling in better now.

Player to Watch

SP Blake Snell: Snell is such a hard guy to try and pin down because he has elite swing-and-miss stuff, but there are other areas of concern. Since joining the Padres, Snell has had his two worst seasons by Hard Hit% and 2021 was his worst season by Barrel%. He had his worst season by average exit velocity last season. However, he continues to get results. He does struggle as he turns lineups over and that has always been his thing as mentioned above. But, he only had 104 plate appearances the third time through compared to 215 the second time through. Managers are well aware of how to manage him.

He had a 92nd percentile K%, a 91st percentile fastball spin rate and a 90th percentile Whiff%. He was also 12th percentile in exit velocity and 32nd in Hard Hit%. He also had the highest fly ball rate of his career. In the second half, he had 105 strikeouts in just 78 innings and started working deeper into games after having 31 walks in 50 innings in the first half. All 11 homers he allowed were solo shots, so that helped. I do think there’s a scenario in which he’s either hurt or the walks and the splits catch up with him. We haven’t seen it yet, but I’m not a huge fan.

San Diego Padres Season Win Total Pick

Depth is an issue for the Padres. The starting lineup is good and the top three starters are solid and pretty reliable, but the bench and the rotation depth are a little suspect. San Diego’s top prospects are all in A-ball, so they won’t be around to help. I think this is a team with a high ceiling, but I also feel like the floor may be a little bit lower than people realize. All five projected starters are over 30. Cruz and Carpenter are on the wrong side of the aging curve. There are some position players coming off of down years.

However, the star power on this team is hard to ignore and the bullpen is exceptional. In the grand scheme of things, the Padres are likely to fall somewhere around their expectations, which would mean making the playoffs and contending for the NL West crown. I don’t have a bet on them and also won’t invest any futures in them before the season starts. I could envision myself grabbing an in-season NL West price or something. This is a good team with the potential to be great, but also the potential to disappoint.

Lean: Over 93.5