Let's rip the band-aid right off: the Padres aren't projected to be good, under any definition of the word. FanGraphs has projected 28.5 fWAR and 74 wins, both fifth-lowest in the majors. Baseball Prospectus is even more bearish on the bWAR front, projecting them for only 23.6, though it forecasts the Friars making it all they way to 77 wins. The small differences don't hide the fact, however, that it's not looking sunny in San Diego, especially not with the Diamondbacks, Giants, and Dodgers making a Divisional title seem remote and two of the Cubs, Pirates, and Cardinals doing their best to cut off their path to a Wild Card.
Having said that, the same basic story could have been told at the opening of last season about the Kansas City Royals. Here at Beyond the Box Score, zero of fourteen writers thought they would win their division, and put them above only the Twins in predicted finish; at FanGraphs, it was zero of thirty-eight; at Baseball Prospectus, zero of fourty-five. All those predictions were backed up by basically any projection system you might like, but as you may recall, the Royals actually went on to win the World Series! Unless you think they truly have some ability not picked up by the projections (which is plausible, if not a hypothesis I subscribe to), the implication is that teams that project to do poorly still have the ability to surprise everyone and do well.
This concept is central to what I see as the biggest shift in sabermetric thinking over the last five years, driven in part by changing perceptions and in part by changes to baseball itself. It is increasingly accepted that a team with a remote-but-nonzero chance at making the playoffs should give it their best shot, within reason, and not immediately sell all assets and begin planning for the future (like the Phillies and Brewers, that have both thrown in the towel on 2016).
Part of this is because baseball doesn't have strong incentives to tank like other major professional sports league, but that's not the topic of this article. The part that is relevant to this article is a renewed appreciation for the ability of mediocre or even bad teams to get lucky and sneak into the playoffs. Baseball's current incentive structure is top-heavy, and that's before considering how even a pretty bad team can win several best-of-five or -seven series in a row and put together a miracle run.
The key for a team in such a situation is knowing when a small chance becomes a nonexistent chance, and being willing to cut their losses, sell whatever isn't nailed down, and start trading for 20-year-old lottery tickets. The Padres were soundly criticized for some of their trades before the 2015 season, but entering the season, their chance of making the postseason was something between 20 percent and 40 percent. It was when they sailed through the trade deadline without making any moves that the probability fell to below 5 percent.
So that's how the Padres got where they are: in a tough division with a mediocre (at best) roster but an apparent commitment to going all-in for 2016. How can they surprise everyone? How can the Padres plausibly make the playoffs?
Step 1: Resurgent Veterans
This one is easy enough to imagine, if not likely (a running theme in this article). Matt Kemp, the Padres big acquisition of the 2015 offseason, was an MVP-caliber player as "recently" as 2011, though since then he has a total of 4.5 fWAR in four seasons and is projected for a whopping 0.1 fWAR. If Kemp had a resurgent year, and hit for something like a 150 wRC+ (compared to a career average of 125, Steamer projection of 116), it would be a start, but much of Kemp's lack of value is his horrendous fielding ----- the result of his ailing knees, which apparently resemble most closely something like cottage cheese. Last year, he graded out at a -24.1 DEF FanGraph's fielding metric in right field which was worse than Hanley Ramirez (granted Kemp played in twice as many games, but it's still not a positive thing). Even with a crazy offensive season from Kemp, he's probably not cracking 3 Wins while playing the outfield.
So it's a good thing the Padres have other old, broken players who might have one more great season left. Melvin Upton, née B.J., is another player who was quite good four to six years ago, and has been quite bad in the last two years. That said, he showed substantial improvement in the second half of last year (122 wRC+, versus 81 in the first half), and Ryan Romano found some signs of life in his profile. Steamer also projects him for 0.1 fWAR; he, unlike Kemp, still provides something in the way of defensive value, so the ceiling for Upton's dream scenario is much higher. For this exercise, let's pencil him in for 4.0 fWAR, on the back of a classic, late-2000s Upton line.
Finally, there's the astronaut lion himself, Big Game James Shields. After nearly a decade of incredible consistency, 2015 was Shields' first season below two fWAR since his debut in 2006. The root cause was a bizarrely high home run rate, especially given his move to the spacious confines of Petco Park. Steamer sees no reason for it to continue into 2016, and projects Shields for a rebound to the tune of 3.0 fWAR. This is the easiest and most likely veteran contribution, but we aren't constraining ourselves to reality, so let's push him up to 4.0 fWAR too. That brings these three players to a total of about 11 fWAR in this scenario, up from a projected total of 3.2 fWAR. That alone would be enough to catapult the Padres past the Diamondbacks, though they'd still be short of the Giants and far behind the Dodgers, so we move on.
Step 2: Breakout Youth
Thanks to the generosity of Dave Dombrowski, the Padres have a farm system not totally devoid of impact talent. If not for Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra, received from Boston in the Craig Kimbrel trade, San Diego would have only a single player in Baseball Prospectus's Top 101 Prospects, Hunter Renfroe (ranked at #90). Guerra (#53) hasn't played a game above Single-A, but Margot (#14) is 21 years old and finished 2015 in double-A. Although it's unlikely, it's plausible he follows a Schwarber-like trajectory, and spends only a partial season at triple-A before making an impact in the majors.
In this scenario, center field and left field are already occupied by invigorated versions of Upton and Kemp, so Margot will bump Jon Jay from left field. Renfroe is probably much more likely to see playing time in 2016, so one way or another, we'll plan for Jon Jay's projected mediocre defense and below-league average offense to be upgraded.
The Padres also have a pair of former top prospects on their roster, in Wil Myers and Austin Hedges, though the two players are in vastly different situations. Myers has lost much of his sheen after three seasons plagued by injuries, though he has the potential to be an all-star if he can stay healthy and live up to former expectations. Hedges, on the other hand, was hustled up to the majors last year to back up Derek Norris, and while he does come from solid graded prospect stock, his 26 wRC+ was a clear indicator he wasn't quite ready to face major league pitchers. Unlike Myers, Hedges can reasonably be expected to improve as he catches up with last year's aggressive promotion, but in this optimistic scenario, they both must take big leaps.
With that group of prospects and youngsters providing real value, in addition to the contributions of the above veterans, the Padres suddenly look like a real contender, likely even with the Giants and within striking range of the Dodgers. They'd still need some breaks, however, which brings us to step three.
Step 3: Division Rival Disasters
Take everything in the proceeding two sections, negate them, and apply them to the Dodgers and Giants so everything goes wrong! The seven-plus glass arms the Dodgers have surrounded Clayton Kershaw with all shatter, and they're forced to give 200 innings to emergency-signing Justin Masterson. Time suddenly catches up with Adrian Gonzalez, and now he's the player battling injuries and hemorrhaging value in the twilight of his career. Joc Pederson continues on his trajectory from the second half of 2015, and doesn't hit a lick.
For the Giants, their surprising infield, with an average age of 27 and little prospect pedigree, turns back into a pumpkin and leaves them an aging Hunter Pence and Buster Posey as their only standout position players. That is, before Pence somehow gets his foot caught in his helmet and misses even more time with oblique injuries. Newly signed pitchers and reclamation projects Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto turn out not to be reclaimable at all, leaving the Giants rotation in tatters.
Is all this likely? No, not at all, but neither was Boston turning into a garbage fire en route to a 78-win season, or the Nationals, the team with the consensus easiest path to the postseason at the beginning of 2015, not playing meaningful games for the last two weeks of the season. It's baseball, this stuff happens!
I'm not trying to make an argument for what the Padres should or shouldn't do. They still have contracts on their books that are valuable in the short term and less so in the long term, and it's very reasonable to think they should've tried to get young players in return for those contracts. That doesn't mean there's no way for the decisions they made this offseason to look very smart in October. Not every mediocre or mildly bad team should try to be the 2014-15 Royals – that certainly won't turn out well – but it's important to recognize that as a possible outcome considering the current playoff structure.
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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.