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San Diego Padres’ depth & versatility keying strong start

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Despite losing more games to “injury” than any other team in Major League Baseball, San Diego continues to thrive thanks to their plug-and-play tendencies.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

When the San Diego Padres won the all-important Off-Season Championship thanks to a slew of extremely notable moves, they did so in hopes that they could unseat the Actual Champion Los Angeles Dodgers atop the National League West. But while accumulating pitching and supplementing their roster with on-field talent, they also managed to assemble perhaps as strong of depth as any other team in Major League Baseball.

And they’ve needed every bit of it.

As of this writing, the Padres have placed 23 players on the Injured List through May, second only to the Toronto Blue Jays (24). In terms of games missed, however, San Diego easily paces the league with their 831 days lost to the IL. The Tampa Bay Rays, notorious for their plug-and-play operation, are in second in that respect, at 669 days lost.

The difference there is in that notoriousness. The Rays can overhaul their roster from year-to-year and continue to jam themselves into contention, however ignoble their actual purposes for doing so may actually be. The Padres don’t necessarily have the track record to fall back on, but the accumulated depth on the bump and in the field has helped catapult them to the battle they always hoped to be a part of at the top of the NL West, while maintaining the National League’s best run differential (+81). Supplementing that depth, though, is the fact that they’ve been able to squeeze games out of their lineup from all over the field.

The following is a sampling of days missed by Padres position players to this point in the year:

  • Austin Nola: 37 days*
  • Fernando Tatís, Jr.: 20 days
  • Trent Grisham: 18 days*
  • Wil Myers: 12 days
  • Eric Hosmer: 8 days
  • Jurickson Profar: 7 days
  • Jorge Mateo: 7 days

*Players currently on IL

Of course, it’s important to note that many of the games missed here are for Covid-19 reasons. As such, the goal here isn’t to laud a team for “overcoming” an outbreak in the way that many did with the Miami Marlins or St. Louis Cardinals last year, but rather examine the difficult roster situation wrought by their outbreak in mid-May and how it forced the Padres into the versatility that has allowed them rise to the top of the National League in that time. And while many of the games here are reflective of those Covid issues, Nola (an especially frustrating absence given his own versatility and approach at the plate), Grisham, and Tatís have all missed time with physical ailments over the course of the year.

Which brings us to the focal point of this writing: the versatility. Obviously the Friars have a few players locked into their respective positions, healthy or not. Manny Machado has only played third base. Tatís has only appeared at short. Wil Myers has only appeared in right field. Trent Grisham is entrenched into center when he’s healthy. And while there’s something to be said about moving around the outfield, which Tommy Pham has done with 33 games in left and nine in center, this is about the real movers that have served as the catalyst for San Diego in the midst of their games-missed-woes.

And here are said movers:

Padres Games Played by Position
Original Table via Baseball-Reference

Cronenworth is the true saving grace of all of this. The guy just hits. With one of the league’s best contact rates (88.9 percent) and the steadiest defense of anyone on the roster, he’s been a source of stability for a roster that has had anything but. Even beyond him, though, it’s a group that presents a lot of intrigue on its own, but especially in the way that it’s been deployed. When the Padres signed Kim during the offseason, the assumption was largely that Cronenworth would serve as the superutility guy on the infield and perhaps the outfield corner. But because of his defensive chops, it’s been Kim bouncing around the infield more than anyone, with Profar serving as the sort of liaison between the dirt and the grass.

Consider the players that have been lost for various stretches this year: Tatís, Grisham, Myers, and Hosmer. Machado more recently. Those are upper tier performers, at worst. Elite, at best. And you’ve got a group that has rather seamlessly stepped in even if they’re unable to completely replicate the performance. At the very least, they’ve done so without missing too much of a step defensively.

Collectively, the Padres lead the league with 34 Defensive Runs Saved. The players listed above have posted fairly strong Outs Above Average figures. Cronenworth’s OAA leads the team at four, Mateo’s three ranks second, and Marcano is fourth with two. Kim falls just barely on the below average side, at -1. There’s a lot to be said for a group that’s filling in for defensive wizards like Machado, Hosmer, and Grisham without experiencing a significant falloff on that side of the ball.

Even better is the fact that plugging these guys into the lineup has allowed San Diego to continue incorporating the speed game that they’ve been strong in in the last few years. The team’s 59 swipes leads everyone else in the league by 20, while FanGraphs’ baserunning metric, BsR, ranks second in the league (5.6). Profar has nine steals, Kim has four, Cronenworth has three, and Mateo has added a pair. So even in losing guys like Tatís—whose dozen steals lead the team—and Grisham, incorporating that depth has allowed them to function as threats on the basepaths in a similar fashion.

And while you can’t have everything—because the offense hasn’t really come for anyone outside of Cronenworth—absences from the lineup haven’t prevented the Padres from doing what they’re trying to do, really on any side of the ball. The depth and versatility angle isn’t necessarily unique to the lineup, either. On the mound, the Padres have deployed eight different starters, three of which have also appeared out of the bullpen. With a handful of arms already out, some of them for the long-term due to Tommy John, the fact that kind of a looming question for the Padres—in the depth of their pitching—has been largely answered due to the same type of thing is absolutely wild.

That’s the mark of a great team. Teams hoping to contend for a title are able to take absences from their lineup or from their rotation in stride, with only a marginal step back, if any. There’s no way to replicate the presence of guys like Tatís or Machado or Grisham entirely. But the way the Padres have managed to do it has been extremely effective. They’re moving guys all over while still maintaining a largely successful defensive layout and managing to be menacing on the basepaths. The fact that they were able to start their tear in the midst of so many players absent from their lineup really speaks to this, but also leaves the door open for unimaginable heights as their group continues to get healthier as the season wears on.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.