Financially leaner Padres hope to get meaner on the field in 2024

Last season, the San Diego Padres had nearly the best team money could buy, with baseball’s third highest payroll at $253 million. Only the two New York teams, the Mets and Yankees, spent more and neither of those three clubs qualified for the post season.

The fact that San Diego, a growing but relatively small market franchise, could generate New York-type television revenue was wishful thinking. But when Bally Sports went belly up last season, the Padres were one of the teams left holding the bag, and received only partial compensation from Major League Baseball. The punch in the gut occurred however, with the untimely death of the Friars owner Peter Seidler back in November.

Only 64, Seidler was a relative of the famed Los Angeles Dodger O’Malley family of the past, and obsessed with building a championship team in San Diego. He basically gave Padres General Manager AJ Preller an open checkbook to build the best team possible within reason. Unfortunately, the results weren’t very encouraging in 2023, with the Padres rallying in the final days to finish only two games above .500 in regulation play.

Seidler’s passing put the Padres in limbo. A business partner, Eric Kutsenda, was approved by MLB as the acting CEO, although Seidler’s family remains in charge. As a result, Padres management has targeted a payroll reduction at about $200 million. That meant that the team’s numerous free agents, like 2023 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell will be moving on, as well as closer Josh Hader. Super star Juan Soto and veteran Trent Grisham were sent to the Yankees in exchange for a group of minor league prospects, mostly pitchers, to help redevelop the farm That’s because the team also lost free agent hurlers Michael Wacha, Seth Lugo and Nick Martinez who inked new contracts elsewhere.

San Diego’s lineup last season, at least on paper, seemed scary good. What team could match an attack that included Manny Machado, Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. Xander Bogaerts, Ha-Seong Kim and Gary Sanchez, who was in the midst of a very good season until suffering a fractured hand on September 6th? In addition, Tatis Jr and Kim won Rawlings Gold Gloves for outstanding defensive play. That said, the club drastically underachieved, at times seemingly complacent. Manager Bob Melvin, who led the Padres to an appearance in the NLCS in 2022, seemed overwhelmed with the Padres talented roster last season, and couldn’t pinpoint his club’s mediocre performance.

“If I had any answers, I’d let you know,” the mild mannered skipper frequently shrugged before the media.

Melvin’s honestly eventually led to his dismissal, and was later hired as the new dugout boss for the San Francisco Giants after Gabe Kapler was shown the door. Interestingly, Kapler was named Manager of the Year with the Giants in 2021, but running a team these days often entails more than baseball knowledge. You have to be a psychologist and adapt to the musical chairs and personalities that pertain to the high turnover in MLB rosters.

Meanwhile, the Padres have signed Mike Shildt, who once successfully managed the St. Louis Cardinals, to steer the Padres ship in 2024. I think it’s a good choice, especially since this isn’t Shildt’s first rodeo and as an executive with the team, had looked over Melvin’s shoulder and won’t make the same mistakes. Then again, he didn’t inherit the same club that was so highly touted only a few months ago. The Padres infield is still one of the best in the business, with Machado, Bogaerts, Kim and Jake Cronenworth around the horn. But Jake was horrible at the plate last year, and much better production needs to happen at first base. The highly athletic Tatis Jr. will likely move to center field this year, and won’t disappoint. But the corner positions are wide open with nobody to fill them as yet except for the speedy Jose Azocar, a possible candidate for left field.

The catching department is in reasonably good shape because Luis Campusano performed well after the Sanchez injury, especially defensively, and his bat has never been an issue. What’s more, veteran Kyle Higashioka, acquired in the Yankees trade for Soto, is an excellent asset who will be valuable down the road. And as a backup, Brett Sullivan deserves a lot of respect, and that makes me wonder if he could be trade bait as a future trade swap.

The bottom line for the Padres in 2024 will be pitching, especially in the starting rotation. With the exit of Snell, Wacha, Lugo and Martinez, only Yu Darvish and hometown hero Joe Musgrove remain in the fold, and the latter will be on an injury rebound. That means that Michael King, plus Drew Thorpe and a couple of Latino prospects received from the Yankees will try to pick up the slack. I don’t expect anyone, except King, will be ready to fill that void. But Preller did manage to sign Japanese reliever Yuki Matsui, one of Japan’s top closers who was void of any posting fees. Another bullpen addition, Woo-Suk Go, has been an established ace for several years in Korea. Along with the slick fielding Kim, the hard throwing Go should be fan favorites when the Padres face the Dodgers in Seoul to kick off the 2024 campaign.

Regardless of the current circumstances, the Padres are expected to be a force in the NL West, one of baseball’s most competitive divisions. But as a team they can no longer hang around and wait for something to happen. They have to be mean and more aggressive. Machado, as the club’s unofficial captain, must embrace that role with an assist from Bogaerts, who is a veteran player himself. Maybe last year’s failures will be a wake up call, and Shildt will be expected to assume a stronger leadership role. Hell, the entire organization needs to do a better job in the memory of Peter Seidler, who always tried his best to deliver without enjoying the desired results.

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