There isn’t much about 2020 that means what it would mean any other year. Where birthday’s normally might be when you have a large BBQ in the backyard, now you drive to a handful of different friends houses and hang out in the driveway. Graduation ceremony? Out. Big wedding with dancing and a large cake? Nope. We did eventually get a baseball season, albeit just 60 games or 37% of a normal season – more (if you’re Starling Marte) or less (if you’re the Cardinals). With the playoffs expanded, no fans in the stands, we will likely ponder the meaning of the 2020 baseball season for years to come. Unless you are one team: the San Diego Padres.
When AJ Preller took over as General Manager in the Fall of 2014, he went on a tear immediately hoping to be the man who would win this franchise a World Series. A heavy dose of Matt Kemp, mixed with Derek Norris, James Shields, Will Middlebrooks, Wil Myers, Craig Kimbrel and Justin Upton has to translate into a winning team, right? Perhaps that dusting of Melvin Upton and Fernando Rodney on top will do it?
Predictably – it did not, and all of those players except for Wil Myers are gone. The fingerprints of that itchy trade trigger-finger week remain though. When frustration hit the roof in 2016 and James Shields was jettisoned, it was thought the key piece was Erik Johnson who pitched to an ERA over 9 in 4 starts that season. The other player was Fernando Tatis Jr.
In 2016, Fernando Rodney made the All Star for the Padres as a closer who hadn’t blown a save and then was traded to the Marlins for a young pitcher named Chris Paddack. Still, the Padres were just collecting pieces of the puzzle. Then, after another poor season in 2017, something happened before 2018.
The Padres signed Eric Hosmer in their Jayson Werth Moment (I will push this theory forever) – after it was clear that Wil Myers was not the team leader. The vaunted Hunter Renfroe was in the Major Leagues and the team might be ready to compete. Manny Margot – acquired from the Red Sox for Craig Kimbrel – was ready to patrol CF after a great performance at the 2016 All Star Game in San Diego.
Except nothing really happened for the team except more losing. Still no winning season since 2010 when they lost out on the playoffs the final weekend. No playoff games at Petco Park since a NLDS beatdown by the Cardinals in 2006 and memories of the loss to the Rockies in Game 163 in 2007. What were the Padres to do.
They shocked baseball when they – the Padres – ponied up $300M over 10 years for Manny Machado heading in to 2019. The Padres don’t do this, that’s money the Team up the 5 spends.
Manny didn’t have a great 2019, but remember that rookie shortstop acquired for “Big Game” James Shields back in 2016? The one whose dad once hit two grand slams in one game? Fernando Tatis Jr was here – and he dazzled. In the field, on the base paths, in the dugout, and at the plate. He made the Padres realize they should expect greatness. They shed a plethora of BIG MAN / NO BALANCE outfielders of Frenchy Cordero, Hunter Renfroe, Franmil Reyes in trades for exciting youngster Trent Grisham and Tommy Pham. Tatis Jr. ended the season on the IL, but the stage was set and the fans were abuzz with what he would do next.
The 2020 MLB season finally began in late July. The Padres started out okay, though 2019 rookie breakout pitcher Chris Paddack struggled some and Joey Lucchessi was demoted out of the rotation as well. Then Fernando Tatis Jr kept getting better and one day was leading the league in home runs and RBI. They played the Dodgers and ended up with a series split after Manny Machado hit a grand slam in one game which was his biggest moment as a Padre – to date.
As the calendar rolled into late August, these Padres were hitting full stride, even setting a Major League record with grand slams in 4 straight games including a Manny Walk-Off Slam and then 5 of 6 games. They became the Padres of Slam Diego. More than classy, they were staying REALLY GOOD.
Dinelson Lamet took no-hitters into the 6th inning in back to back to starts, Paddack found his groove, and even Kyle Davies and Garrett Richards looked like bargains that were working. But compete with the Dodgers? With a catcher hitting under .200? Then the closer goes on the IL for the season? How can the Padres recover with Jurickson Profar being the best DH option when not needed in LF? Don’t they need another ace? A closer? A DH? A catcher? The team needed more.
I imagine Padres General Manager AJ Preller walking down a hallway in the Padres executive suites last week, masked up but no one doubting the confident smile underneath. He walks past clipped out articles decrying the Padres injuries, or inability to make a splash in the conscience of Major League Baseball since that Fall of 2014 except for the time they allowed Bartolo Colon’s first and only home run. Then he gets to his desk and cranks up the opening song from the 2017 Taylor Swift album Reputation, which he’s been playing on repeat after some damage to his own, stares out his office window and belts out “Are you ready for it?”
In the span of days, he acquired a closer in Trevor Rosenthal, two catchers including one who can hit in Austin Nola and a real DH in Mitch Moreland. Yet against many reports saying the contrary, today it was announced the Padres had outdone themselves and traded for Mike Clevinger from the Indians. They added another reliever at the buzzer for good measure.
Clevinger is under team control through 2022 – not coincidentally also when the contracts of Myers and Hosmer run out not counting option years. He was the biggest starting pitcher on the deadline, especially after he caused some internal team drama for going out in times of COVID, then not telling his teammates about it and causing him to get banished to the practice squad temporarily. The Padres did give up 4 prospects in their Top 25 including #4 Taylor Trammell, but not the Next Big Thing McKenzie Gore.
When AJ Preller came to town in 2014, he tried to build a winning team essentially from spare parts. In 2020 he has a winning team built from development and trades, two superstars in Fernando Tatis Jr and Manny Machado, and he isn’t taking chances. The Padres of 2020 are making a flurry of moves now, but it is movement that has been building for several years now.
For all that 2020 is not, we know one title that it is: the year the Padres emerged from the depths of the National League, with new old Brown and Gold uniforms and a shortstop who might go down as one of the best all time.
The National League West, and all of baseball, better get ready for it.