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The Padres will have to win the offseason again

Injuries sank the Padres, but this season revealed how top-heavy this roster is.

MLB: SEP 29 Padres at Dodgers Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In five months, the Padres went from the toast of the baseball to the lower dregs. No team’s trajectory has quite matched up to Tim Robinson’s Sammy Paradise sketch quite so masterfully. The Dads spent most of April and May receiving adulation and World Series predictions from the baseball world, but things took a rapid turn when they failed to acquire Max Scherzer (or any starting pitching at all!) at the trade deadline. Since then, AJ Preller has confidently gone to the waiver wire exclaiming, “Put it all on Jake Arrieta!” Jayce Tingler can say that he hasn’t lost the clubhouse, but inside he’s screaming, “I’m a dead man!” The Padres’ toupee has been ripped off and sold for Vince Velasquez, but still, they point to Fernando Tatis’s MVP chances saying, “It’s au naturale, baby!”

From August 11 to September 29, San Diego went 11-31, the worst record in the majors over that stretch. With three games left to play, they’ll need to sweep the Giants just to finish at .500, and no team has swept the Giants in a three-game series since the Dodgers did it on May 23.

The Padres, of course, haven’t been at full strength. The starting rotation was supposed to be a major strength with the acquisitions of Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish, and Blake Snell in addition to incumbent options Chris Paddack and Adrian Morejon, but injuries decimated the starting rotation. Mike Clevinger missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John. Adrian Morejon needed the same procedure. Blake Snell and Chris Paddack had disappointing seasons before they were shut down by lesser injuries. Dinelson Lamet has been kept out of the rotation after two separate IL stints. That leaves Musgrove and Darvish as the only pitchers to make it through unscathed, and though Musgrove has been excellent, Darvish has fallen flat in the second half.

San Diego’s rotation was supposed to be one of the best in baseball if not, the best. In reality, the squad ranks 18th in ERA, 14th in FIP, and 17th in fWAR. That’s not elite. That’s a bit below average.

Looking ahead, the Padres can feel pretty confident that all of the above won’t happen again. Generally, if you have six above-average options (seven with Clevinger) in your rotation, you’re going to be fine. It’s extremely unlucky that only one of them was healthy and good. Not to mention all the injuries suffered in the bullpen. But as Branch Rickey said, “Luck is the residue of design,” so it would be foolish of the Padres not to do anything about it. That almost everyone will get hurt or underperform is just as unlikely as no one getting hurt or disappointing.

What this season revealed is that the Padres lack contingency plans. Apparently, there were no better options than starting Jake Arrieta four times or Vince Velasquez three times, which is just baffling because surely, the Padres had someone starting games for their Triple-A affiliate. Arrieta began his Padre career with a 6.88 ERA, and 12 13 innings later, his ERA went up. Velasquez started with a 5.95 ERA and managed to raise it, too.

San Diego’s top pitching prospect, MacKenzie Gore, saw his star fall. Gore has struggled with command at all levels in 2021. In 34 innings, he’s walked 24 batters. Gore even spent part of the year in Arizona Complex League pitching against recent draftees trying to get right.

With Gore’s future a little less certain and Luis Patiño contributing for the Rays, the Padres need to be thinking about who else they have in the minors. Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs only grades four other starters in the Padres system with a 40 Future Value grade or better, and three of them are at High-A or lower. 20-year-old Justin Lange perhaps has the brightest future of any of them, but he only owns a 40+ FV mark.

Addressing upper minors pitching depth is tricky without signing or trading for more frontline starters and just pushing Morejon and Paddack further down the depth chart. The Padres can’t realistically go after Tyler Anderson or another low-cost major league starter in the offseason with the pitch of “Be a swingman for us in case Lamet/Paddack has another setback,” when another team is going to give him a starting job. The options are to trade for depth or signing minor league deals. Trading for it would likely require dealing from the major league roster, and maybe that’s not worth adding some insurance. Minor league deals can occasionally strike gold, but there’s a reason players are available on minor league deals. (It’s because they’re not very good.)

Not having a seventh or eighth starter isn’t as big a problem as the top-heavy offense. With Tommy Pham entering free agency at season’s end, the Padres have three players they can count on to be above-average starters: Fernando Tatis, Manny Machado, Jake Cronenworth. They have two that will be at least average in Adam Frazier, and Trent Grisham. That’s a great start! And if it were as simple as finding three other players to fill out the starting nine, the Padres would have a simple path forward. But the Padres have a lot of replacement-level weight taking up roster spots.

Jurickson Profar is coming off his worst season as a big leaguer, and he’s only surpassed 2.0 fWAR once in eight seasons. In four seasons with the Padres, Eric Hosmer has combined for 0.7 fWAR. Wil Myers doesn’t hit enough to justify his atrocious defense, and he hasn’t been a two-win player since 2016. Conversely, Ha-Seong Kim is an excellent defender, but he’s sporting a not-nice 69 wRC+.

Tatis and Cronenworth both spent time on the IL, but that’s not the reason Padres hitters ranked 14th in wRC+ at 98. The Padres have a lot of work to do to fill out their offense. Re-signing Pham would be a good start. Finding someone to take Eric Hosmer off their hands would allow Cronenworth to move to first while Frazier takes second, but that would require eating a hefty chunk of his salary and parting with prospects. The same could be said of Wil Myers. Maybe the universal designated hitter would help Myers’ value, but even then, the Padres could hope for better than a 110 wRC+ from their DH.

The Padres aren’t in a bad spot heading into 2022, but thinking that it was all dumb luck that spelled their demise is ignoring some real problems with this roster. Per Baseball Prospectus’s Injured List Ledger, the Dodgers had more projected WARP missed, and they’re still going to wind up with around 105 wins. San Diego will compete in 2022 if only because most of the National League is quite bad, but if they want to dethrone the Dodgers Giants, they’ll have to win the offseason again.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.