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Should we still believe in the San Diego Padres?

Are the preseason darlings cooked for the season or is there still hope in 2021?

MLB: San Diego Padres at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a reason they don’t hand out the World Series trophy over the course of the winter.

A season after the Cincinnati Reds were dubbed a title contender with acquisitions such as Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos, the San Diego Padres were the flavor of the 2020-2021 offseason.

Not that feeling in such a way would be an invalid stance. The Padres supplemented a core of Fernando Tatis, Jr., Manny Machado, Trent Grisham, etc. with the acquisitions of Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and some others before eventually adding Adam Frazier at the trade deadline. Many (me) drank the Kool-Aid and declared them to be the team that could best the division rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

Of course, once you fast forward a few months, you’re reminded as to why trophies aren’t handed out until the fall.

The strength of the surprising San Francisco Giants has refused to subside, while the Dodgers are up to their typical brand of tricks as well. That means a lot of things had to go right in order for the Padres to realize what was very genuine upside. That has...not unfolded quite in the way that many (me) might have thought prior to the season getting underway.

As of this writing, the Padres sit a full 14 games games back in the National League West.

The Giants’ early run and sustained success over the course of 2021 put the division hopes out of reach fairly early after a slow start, with the Dodgers making a run of their own in recent months. And the latter is only getting healthier. Those two are near-locks for the postseason.

For a while, it looked as though the Padres would grab the second wild card spot and make it a trio of NL West clubs representing in the playoffs. But the Pads are currently grappling with the Cincinnati Reds, who have the grip on that second spot. For now (it’s worth noting that both the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies are still very much alive, at 2.5 games away from the second spot).

I say for now, because a 0.5 game lead is...nothing. The Reds, though, have a considerably easier road given their remaining schedule. They’ll play the Dodgers for a series in mid-September and the Chicago White Sox at the end of the month. In between, it’s a smattering of Detroit, the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis, Washington, and three separate series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. While they’re not without their own flaws, that lines up extremely favorably for Cincinnati.

The Padres, on the other hand, stare down a much tougher test. The heavy division slate for the month doesn’t help, but they’ll play Houston this weekend, the Dodgers six more times, the Giants 10 more times, and host Atlanta. There’s a pretty stark contrast there. With that in mind, as well as some of the second half woes of this club, should we (me) still maintain hope in the winter sensations? Well.

That’s the real question here. Mathematically, of course the Padres are still extremely in this race. However, the way the second half of the year has unfolded for them certainly begs the question as to what exactly those postseason prospects actually look like.

From a general statistical standpoint, the second half has not been terribly kind to San Diego. Collectively, their offense has been below average, ranking 20th in wrC+ (96), 22nd in ISO (.160), and 16th in runs scored (193). It’s a frustrating outcome, given that they are striking out at a fairly low rate (21.3 percent ranks seventh), walking plenty (9.5 percent ranks fourth), and are making contact at the second-highest rate among the 30 clubs (78.9 percent). Over the last month, though, they’re hitting only .220 with runners on and the same when they’re in scoring position. Getting runners on base hasn’t been the issue. It’s getting them moving once they are there.

Wil Myers (.308) and Trent Grisham (.275) are the only ones who have succeeded in those types of situation over that span of time. From there, it’s largely a list of guys hitting .240 or below. Adam Frazier is at .238 with runners on, Fernando Tatis, Jr. is at .230, Manny Machado is at .223, and, perhaps surprisingly, Jake Cronenworth is at .215. The more frustrating thing is, that shouldn’t really be the case with any of them. Tatis’ wRC+ in the second half is 151, Machado’s is 117, and Cronenworth is at 116. There’s production there.

For his part, Tatis has continued doing his thing. Despite the fact that his season could have ended any number of times at this point, he’s ISO’ing .314 and reaching base at a .364 clip even while he strikes out almost 29 percent of the time. Machado’s hitting .287, but walking less than six percent of the time, so he’s only reaching base at a .322 average. Cronenworth isn’t striking out, but isn’t contributing much otherwise. In general, there are a lot of good things happening on this offense, but none of it is in sync, and none of it manifests when the Padres need it to.

Their vaunted trade deadline acquisition hasn’t contributed much either. Adam Frazier, lauded for his contact and on-base skills prior to leaving Pittsburgh, as he’s at -0.3 fWAR in the second half of the year. His on-base is a paltry .277, while his wRC+ sits at 49. His biggest issue? He’s hitting the ball on the ground literally half the time. It was at about 36 percent in the first half of the year.

So you’ve got a non-functioning functioning offense and a major deadline prize that hasn’t paid off in any meaningful way. What about the pitching?

From a full season standpoint, the Padres have managed to produce on the bump, despite a staff largely held together by duct tape, paper clips, and the occasional Double Bubble. They’re top 10 in ERA (3.79), FIP (3.96), strikeouts (9.69/9), and 11th in walks (3.17/9). Those numbers haven’t exactly plunged in the second half. Sure, they’re 21st in ERA (4.65), but 14th in FIP (4.17), fifth in strikeouts (9.60/9), and 13th in walks (3.16/9). Not as great as the whole season picture might look, but also not terrible.

On the rotation front, there is good news. Joe Musgrove has been incredible. Blake Snell has looked very good of late. Chris Paddack is back from injury. There’s hope Yu Darvish can stave off his recent wave of nagging injuries (back, hip) and return to his early season form. If they can get decent innings out of their starting pitching, which has been a challenge given some health-related issues and high pitch counts, then the outlook improves for them down the stretch. If you have to continue to rely on the 2021 iteration of Jake Arrieta for meaningful innings, then the postseason journey is over before it starts.

The question then becomes whether or not their bullpen can hold. Nobody has thrown more innings than the San Diego relief corps (566.2) and that includes the Tampa Bay Rays and their own special brand of doing things. While Mark Melancon has been very good and Dinelson Lamet’s return could be a boon in that department, Daniel Hudson has been very bad (7.04 ERA in the second half), as have Tim Hill (6.75 ERA) and Austin Adams (7.07 ERA). For what it’s worth, the latter there (Adams) leads all pitchers with 20 HBP this year. He leads second-place Musgrove (who has thrown over 100 more innings) by five. So while Melancon, Lamet, Pierce Johnson, and Craig Stammen have been of a higher quality, can you get by with such a small supply of reliable arms, especially when it’s an overworked group to begin with?

There are just so many questions for the Padres right now. The offense and its level of “sync,” whether their rotation can supply enough innings to, ironically, provide some relief for an overworked bullpen, and whether that overworked bullpen can pick itself up for another month or two. Those are not easy questions to answer, but they’re also questions that a postseason team needs to be able to answer. The good news is that they’re still very much embedded in this race and there’s a lot of time to sort it. The bad news is that Cincinnati isn’t going anywhere, it’s Devil Magic Season in St. Louis, and the Phillies. They’re all very present here.

Maybe the good news outweighs the bad, but it’s tough to find a genuine path for the Padres this year. Perhaps a healthier 2022 will be the year we thought this would be.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.