As I wrote in the Mourning After, it seems strange that any MLB team would view this season with anything other than suspicion or derision. It’s hard to have any feel for what your team is after just 30 games, if your team has even gotten to 30 games. The expanded playoffs mean that just about anyone could eat it in two playoff games, or anyone could find themselves in the divisional round facing a team that just had to burn out their two best pitchers just trying to win a Game 3 in the previous round. And while MLB will press through to the playoffs through pretty much anything, no matter how dangerous, there’s still not a 100 percent guarantee we get there or through the playoffs successfully.
Add to that everyone’s prospects will go basically a year-and-half without playing a meaningful game, and it’s hard to take the plunge of taking on someone else’s idle youth for your established ones.
Or you could be Padres GM A.J. Preller, who has looked at all the unknowns and longshot promises and figured, “Well, it’s not the usual party, but the booze is still free so we might as well get loaded and see what happens.”
The Padres were just about everyone’s team to watch before the season, along with the White Sox, and they haven’t disappointed so far this season, with the NL’s second-best record.
Preller could have taken the safe road, relegated this World Series to merely a nice accomplishment instead of the ultimate goal due to the circumstances of this 2020 hellmouth, comfortable in the knowledge that this was something of a free roll and the Padres would be even better next year when things were at least adjacent to normal.
Preller has obviously taken the belief that there’s only one thing to win this year, however discolored or devalued it might be. And if you’re the Padres, playing in a city that hasn’t ever won anything, you might just think this is good enough.
So the Padres are going for it, whatever you define “it” as this term. In the past 48 hours, they’ve added a new DH, two new catchers, bullpen pieces, and at worst a new number two starter. And they’ve somehow done all that without losing any of their top five prospects.
It started on Saturday when San Diego relieved Trevor Rosenthal of the burden of being a Royal in Kansas City. Rosenthal is nothing more than a roll of the dice, as he was historically awful last year and illegal viewing for anyone under 17, and has only thrown 13 innings this year while still walking over 12 percent of the hitters he sees. But it’s one month, and any jamoke can fire 98 MPH fastballs for a month or two without seeing any of his walks come home to roost simply due to dumb-idiot luck. All that cost them was Edward Olivares, who had seen his bat turn into a pool noodle in brief appearances this year, and had been OK but not great in the hitter-friendly Texas League last year. He’s already 24 as well.
The Padres picked up steam on Sunday, first by rescuing Mitch Moreland from the burning ship that is the Red Sox to be their new DH. All that cost them was two prospects who haven’t been above Double-A yet and haven’t starred above High-A. Moreland was needed in the DH role because later on Sunday they would send Ty France to Seattle as part of the Austin Nola trade. France has been more than acceptable as a DH, but was also riding an unsustainable .395 BABIP to his current numbers, which screams bubble burst.
The biggest upgrade for the Padres in the midst of all of this mad scientist shifting of the lab was at catcher, first with that aforementioned trade for Austin Nola. Nola can shift into the infield when needed, provides plus-defense anywhere, and actually hit the ball which has seemed beyond former incumbent Austin Hedges for a while now. It was a 50-50 proposition whether Hedges would make it through any AB without passing out, in fact.
The Padres gave up France and once highly-regarded prospect Taylor Trammell, but once again that comes with some “buts…” Trammell will move to his third organization, hasn’t really done much above High-A (though his already established plate-discipline very well could see him rocket through the Mariners system), and like everyone else will not have played a game between September 2019 and April 2021. He could be anything.
The Padres also got Jason Castro to back up Nola, a solid, glove-only catcher but could allow Nola to bounce around a bit.
The “I’m On A Boat” capstone came this morning when the Padres acquired perhaps the most hotly pursued starter available on the trade market, Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger. You might remember him from such episodes as lying to his teammates about breaking protocol in Chicago with fellow wonder-bro Zach Plesac and being banished from the team even after he was finished with his isolation. It was very questionable whether Clevinger would be welcomed back by his Cleveland teammates, combined with ownership’s aversion to paying anyone more than pocket lint (Clevinger has two years of control left) and suddenly a starter capable of being dominant was available for way less than he might normally be. And is there a better place for an empty-headed party doofus than San Diego?
Not that the Padres gave up merely magic beans and a three-legged donkey for him. Josh Naylor had carved out a role in the outfield this year, and murdered Triple-A pitching last year, though in just 54 games. Cal Quantrill flashed being an effective starter last year, but turned into a pyre in August and couldn’t crack the rotation this year. He’d been an effective bullpen piece this year, and given Cleveland’s habit of conjuring plus-starters from the wind, he’ll probably do well there. Minor league shortstop Gabriel Arias could be a tasty find, but he’s only 19 and only been in High-A, and shortstop for the Padres is most likely occupied for the next decade. Joey Cantillo, another minor league pitcher going to Cleveland in the deal, struck out 127 and walked only 27 in 98 Single-A innings last year, but is a good three years from the majors. Owen Miller is a 23-year-old infielder who didn’t really hit in Double-A last year.
The coup of this is that Preller gained all these pieces while still holding onto MacKenzie Gore, C.J. Abrams, Luis Patiño, and Luis Campusano. Gore likely would have joined the rotation for Opening Day 2021, if not this season, had he been pitching anywhere. He still might. Patino might be right there with him, and Campusano looks like he’ll take over behind the plate for Nola next year or soon after.
It’s full circle for Preller, who when he got the job back in 2015, went utterly loopy and traded for Derek Norris, Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel, and Justin Upton, and signed James Shields in what became an utter disaster of a season. But Preller was given time to pivot, create this expectant monster, and come back to the amped-up, day-trader method of GMing that he seems to prefer.
Is it enough? Sure, why not. The only team to fear in the NL is the Dodgers, and the Padres very well may catch them in a best of five series where they just need Clevinger and Danielson Lamet to have a really good day and suddenly they’re a game away. There are hundreds of goofy and inexplicable ways to win one baseball game. Fuck, you could say that about winning three games. Beyond that it’s a sea of mediocrity and questions.
Nothing that happened today will prevent the Padres from being an absolute beast in 2021 or 2022 or 2023, and they just might be one now. Yeah, it’s not a real season. No, a championship in it isn’t quite the same. But the fun the Padres could be for their fans is very much real now.