One of the unifying themes that ties fans from nearly every baseball franchise together is hope in March. Major League Baseball’s parity means that all but the truly abysmal teams have at least some chance of success, and this — combined with some level of irrational optimism — allows for a serious amount of hope to rise before opening day. A grueling 162-game schedule will do much to dash these hopes once the season begins, making the last few weeks of March perhaps the high point for baseball optimism.
It may seem odd to say that a 68-win team from 2016 — especially one that shares a division with the Giants and Dodgers — has room for hope, but the San Diego Padres have a bright future. This isn’t hope for 2017, since the lack of major-league talent and the plethora of contenders in the division rules out short-term success. The Padres have been building, though, and they’re on track to be competitive within a few years. For all the noise that teams like the Braves and Phillies have commanded during their recent rebuilds, San Diego is on its own path to future contention.
There are several angles to consider with the Padres organization, but everything starts with current General Manager A.J. Preller. A quick google search for Preller reveals numerous articles about his failure to disclose medical records in a trade involving Drew Pomeranz and the Boston Red Sox, and it’s safe to say that this is his most well-known accomplishment so far. The ethics of this particular dilemma aside, though, Preller has been quietly — and mostly effectively — building one of baseball’s best farm systems.
From a broad perspective, San Diego’s future talent is immediately impressive. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked it third in baseball, while Baseball America listed five Padres prospects in its annual top-100 list. Farm systems are notoriously difficult to measure, and often the rankings that emerge (especially during this time of year) are inherently subjective. As an overall measurement though, there’s plenty of talent in the Padres’ pipeline.
There’s also a great deal of upside with some of San Diego’s specific prospects. Kyle Glaser of Baseball America forecasted a bright future for pitcher Anderson Espinoza, noting that his impressive physical skills give him the potential to lead a rotation in the future. Even at his young age (19), Espinoza has a potentially incredible future and considerable value. Center Fielder Manuel Margot boasts impressive talent as well, and could even begin the season on the major-league roster.
In one of the more fascinating thought experiments I’ve seen recently, BtBS’s Joe Clarkin looked at the absolute ceiling for the Padres’ young players. It’s a fun piece, but it also says a lot about the potential for this team. While surely not all the prospects in the system will pan out, even just a few hitting their upper-tier projections would be impressive. Even though a winning season is nearly impossible in 2017, there’s a plan for the future, and it’s progressing according to schedule.
Having a clear-cut, reasonable plan for future success is a marked change from San Diego’s recent past. Last season was the first time since 2010 that the team finished with a win total not in the 70s, and hitting 68 wins is hardly the direction teams usually want to move in. The Padres’ 90 wins in 2010 were something of an aberration as well, since 2009 (75 wins) and 2008 (63 wins) also brought disappointing records. Preller’s rebuilding efforts over the last two years may not bring the immediate success that fans want, but having a reasonable path to future success is far favorable than sitting in the mid-70s for year after year.
In nearly any professional sport, sitting in the middle of the league can be an extremely difficult cycle to break out of. Being mediocre means no real chance at contention and draft picks that aren’t (usually) good enough to break out, and smaller-market teams like the Padres can struggle even more than other franchises. While Preller doesn’t yet deserve credit for fully breaking the cycle, there are credible reasons for optimism right now in San Diego.
Given Los Angeles and San Francisco’s talent levels right now, Preller may have picked the perfect time for the Padres to rebuild. Winning the division now was always nearly impossible, and choosing to stockpile assets for the future, when the Giants and Dodgers may be aging out of contention, looks like the best move on paper. The risks of prospect development always apply to situations like these, and it would be foolish to assume that San Diego will be the prohibitive division favorite in five years. But there’s a real chance that the streak of less than 80-win seasons will end soon, and the rebuild is going perfectly according to schedule.