2024 Season Preview: San Diego Padres

Ahead of the Dodgers and the Padres facing each other in Seoul, South Korea to officially start the 2024 regular season on Wednesday (20 March), Bat Flips and Nerds will be previewing MLB teams each day until Opening Day next Thursday (28 March).

Today, freelance journalist Alex Hoad starts our Season Preview series off with the San Diego Padres;

What happened in 2023?

82-80 record (Third in the NL West)

After slaying ‘The Dragon up the Freeway’, as chairman Peter Seidler called the 111-win Dodgers, in the 2022 NLDS, Padres fans were dreaming.

Like in all good fairytales, the chapter after the evil enemy is conquered must be the happy ending, right? Right?

No. 2023 was San Diego’s annus horribilis. A year which began with high hopes and the needlessly splashy $280m capture of Xander Bogaerts to join Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis et al on the third-biggest payroll in MLB, ended with a third-placed finish and barely scraping .500.

Indeed, they won 15 of their final 18 games to finish with an 82-80 record, though it wasn’t enough to steal a wildcard spot or keep coach Bob Melvin around – his deteriorating relationship with GM AJ Preller meant he was allowed to join divisional rivals San Francisco in October. (That’s going to mean 19 even more awkward games this season!)

And in November, just 45 days after the final out of the Padres season, the chairman and owner Peter Seidler passed away. The broad, moustachioed smile which helped facilitate so many memorable moments over the past few seasons and brought hope back to the fanbase, had gone. A light has gone out in San Diego. The patch the players will wear in his memory this year cannot scratch the surface of what the man meant to the club, the community and the city of San Diego.

It is heartbreakingly cruel that in the final season he was able to watch his beloved Friars, they fell so far short of expectations. Perhaps even crueller is that nobody can quite put their finger on what went so wrong.

Notable comings and goings

Ins: Dylan Cease, Michael King, Wandy Peralta, Yuki Matsui, Go-Woo Suk, Jurickson Profar

Outs: Juan Soto, Blake Snell, Josh Hader, Michael Wacha, Seth Lugo, Trent Grisham, Gary Sanchez

Areas of weakness requiring attention

Baseball is a wonderful, quirky game full of mind-bending numbers. The 2023 Padres managed to bend more numbers than most, just almost entirely in the wrong direction.

It’s very hard to put a finger on exactly what went wrong. Most of their big names produced on offence, the pitchers had the joint best ERA in MLB with 3.73, they even had a Cy Young winner in Blake Snell and an All Star closer in Josh Hader with 32 saves.

They were seventh in all of baseball in fWAR for position players, seventh too for pitching and had the eighth-best run differential in MLB – which they somehow underplayed by 10 games. Hard to do, that.

If you pushed me, the main issues were mentality. They just did not come through in the clutch when it mattered. The Padres began the season by losing their first 12 extra-innings games, an historically-bad run, eventually breaking their duck only in late September. In games decided by one run, they were 9-23 across the season.

Fine margins when you hit under .250 with RISP across the year.

If they had won just three of those games they would have burgled the Diamondbacks’ wildcard place and then, who knows…?

By the law of averages it would be hard to replicate the abject misery of 2023 again. If there is an area on which to focus, it would be getting over the line in close games.

One to watch

The prospect of a full-season of Fernando Tatis is something for the Friar Faithful to look forward to, but the main talking point this spring has been top prospect Jackson Merrill, who has made the Opening Day roster and a little piece of history.

Jackson Merrill (Image credit: K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On Wednesday in Seoul, the converted infielder with a knack for hitting will become just the third 20-year-old to start an MLB season in centre field in the last 50 years when he lines up in the season opener against the Dodgers – Ken Griffey and Andruw Jones is not a bad club to join.

For a spot of perspective the leftie, with plate discipline way beyond his years, has not even played in Triple-A and has never started a game in centre field, not even in Little League.

2024 prediction

On paper, the Padres should still be good. But that was the case last year too and it all went incredibly wrong. Many believed that Bob Melvin struggled to lead a squad of superstars with superegos, and so, it will be interesting to see whether some good first impressions from Mike Shildt carry over into regular season ball.

If is the biggest word in all of sport, but if the Padres can keep their rotation fit, and ideally locked-in, then there shouldn’t be many better in the game. If Fernando Tatis can produce another MVP-worthy (don’t fret, he won’t be allowed to win it) season, if Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts stay healthy and produce offensively, if Ha Seong Kim continues to grow into one of the game’s brightest stars in a contract year and up-and-comers like Jackson Merrill and Luis Campanuso find their feet, if Jake Cronenworth can revert to even his career averages, then there is no good reason why the Padres pattern of fun-year, bad-year, shouldn’t repeat with a run at the play-offs.

But the biggest if of all? If the players buy-in and are able to unite on a quest to honour the man who brought nearly all of them to San Diego, then it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this team goes all the way.

It would certainly be a fitting epilogue to the story of Peter Seidler – the fan who allowed the Friar Faithful the world over to dream big again. It’s just so cruel that he wouldn’t be there to see it.

Alex Hoad is a Padres fan and freelance journalist for the BBC. He can be found on Twitter @AlexHoadSport.

Featured image – K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune

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