Playing Pepper 2023: San Diego Padres

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

San Diego Padres
89-73, second in the NL West, lost in the NLCS
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Yu Darvish (4.2)
Top hitter by fWAR: Manny Machado (7.4)

2021 was a bit of a false start but the engine kicked into gear in 2022.  Even without Fernando Tatis Jr. for a myriad of reasons, the Padres put together a playoff-worth season and got within three games of the World Series.  Now they are expected to be the team to upend the Dodgers and their NL West run.  Will it happen?  Let’s see what the Friar faithful have to say!

Contributor Site Twitter
Richard Dorsha East Village Times dorshaSD
Ben Fadden Gaslamp Ball talkingfriars
Scott Dunsmore The Kept Faith (Mastodon)

C70: Another quite active winter for the Padres. What did you think about their moves and how do you think the team stands overall going into the season?

Richard: I didn’t love the Xander Bogaerts contract. Sure, it’s exciting to add that bat to the lineup but he’s already 30 and we will be paying him until he is almost 42. I don’t think this is a Miguel Cabrera level of bad, but Xander won’t be a SS in 3 years and he’ll be relegated to corner outfield and DH in 6-7. So, yeah a rush of adrenaline now but the future does exist and it will arrive, eventually.

Having said that, I liked most of the other moves: Matt Carpenter and Nelson Cruz as platooning DHs sounds good to me. Michael Wacha was a shocking pick-up considering I thought we were done. We kept all the bullpen guys we wanted, extended Manny Machado (we absolutely had to) and we’re going to get Tatis back.

Where does the team stand? The Padres have a top-5, maybe top-3 roster in all of baseball. In 40 years as a fan I have never been able to utter that sentence. It’s pretty special.

Ben: I think the Padres offseason was a success. It could have been better if they added more impact starting pitching but they brought back Robert Suarez and Nick Martinez, who were huge for them down the stretch. Seth Lugo will provide a positive impact regardless of if he’s in the rotation or in the bullpen and Xander Bogaerts is an upgrade at shortstop compared to what they had last year. Getting Fernando Tatis Jr. back is going to be huge for the lineup because right out of the gate opposing pitchers are going to have to get through one of the best hitters in baseball. Oh, and then Juan Soto and Manny Machado are up after that. Good luck. The Padres are one of the favorites to win the World Series and this city cannot wait for things to get started.

Scott: Signing Xander Bogaerts didn’t make much sense to me at the time, especially for 11 years. Now, as Fernando Tatis Jr. has moved to the outfield, Jake Cronenworth to first base, and Ha-Seong Kim back to second base, the picture has become clearer. The Padres’ infield is going to be manned with essentially four shortstops, with another one in right field. I’m not a gamer, but that’s some sort of cheat code on MLB The Show, I’m sure of it.

Matt Carpenter & Nelson Cruz are expected to split the majority of DH duties, with Carpenter as the backup first baseman & spending occasional time in the outfield. That’s a pretty good combo, if I do say so myself.

Seth Lugo wants to be a starter and the Padres were looking for starters. ‘Nuff sed. Nick Martinez is becoming a full-time starter after taking a sort of hybrid role last year. Ryan Weathers will be racking up the frequent flyer miles on Southwest from El Paso to San Diego. There’s always one.

Yu Darvish & Manny Machado signed what will likely turn out to be the last contracts of their playing careers. In Darvish’s case, it’s unlikely he actually pitches through all six years of his extension. The rumor around here is it’s likely going to be two, at most maybe three years, before he retires.

The Padres’ owner, Peter Seidler, has put his money where his mouth is. Which is really weird for a fan like me who clearly remembers what it was like during the Tom Werner era of the early ‘90s. Not that I’m complaining. Let’s extend Juan Soto and trade for & sign Shohei Ohtani while the iron is hot!

C70: Fernando Tatis Jr. obviously had a season to forget last year. Where does he stand with the fan base and what do you expect to get out of him in 2023?

Richard: The fans love him. Motorcycle accidents, hiding broken bones and PED suspensions be damned. I was at Spring Training and I can tell you: Tatis is still the most popular player on the team. Kids, especially, adore him.

On the flip side of that, I have absolutely no idea what we are getting out of him. I don’t care how much talent he has, no human can miss 18 months of baseball and come back without any ill effects. I am one of the few who is actually concerned about what version of Tatis we’re getting. I would not bet on him returning to MVP-candidate form. In fact, I think the most likely scenario is that he struggles upon his return on April 20th and gets knocked down the line-up to the 6-7 hole until he gets his groove back. This could, potentially, cause some rumblings with fans.

Then again, this is Fernando Tatis we’re talking about here. So, there’s a world where he comes back and hits 40 home runs. Plus, he’s playing a new position: right field. That’s another variable in all this. I have no idea how all this shakes out.

Ben: The fan base absolutely loves Fernando. There are some who aren’t going to be the biggest fan of his at the start of the season but that will go away when he starts hitting homers. I’m still disappointed in the decision he made last season but I know he’s going to be a big part in San Diego’s success in 2023. Expect a 25-40 HR season from him.

Scott: Padres fans appear to have forgiven him. For the most part.

The lockout turned breaking his wrist into a weirder situation then it would likely have been. I looked at that situation as a kid doing something stupid (falling off a motorcycle). Because he wasn’t technically allowed to talk to the Padres he kind of got extra screwed. It sucked, and I didn’t like it, but I understood it.

The banned substance suspension is harder to get over. Once again I understand why he did it, but that doesn’t make it alright. He apologized to his teammates and the organization, which seemed to be accepted. And he apologized to the fans. Was it sincere? I thought it was, and based on the response at FanFest & Spring Training from Padres fans, the majority of fans appear to think it was as well.

I’m big on giving people second chances. It’s what they do with those second chances that tells the story. So I guess we’ll have to see when it comes to Tatis.

C70: Josh Hader didn’t make the best first impression with San Diego, though he seemed to settle in as things went forward. How much confidence do you have in him for this season?

Richard: I have complete confidence in Josh Hader. That little blip in the middle of the season (end of his time in Milwaukee and beginning of his time in SD) happens to everyone. I mean, everyone. There was a time people thought Roger Clemens was nearing the end of the line when he was still in Boston. He won 4 Cy Youngs after that.

With Hader, you look at his stuff and it’s practically unhittable. High-90’s gas with an absolutely disgusting slider? Good luck. Oh, he has a change-up as well. He will be elite in 2023 and he’ll push Emmanuel Clase for the title of ‘best closer’. In fact, he’s so effective, the front office wants to extend him with this ownership group’s seemingly endless supply of money.

Ben: I have a ton of confidence in Hader. As you mentioned, his start in San Diego wasn’t great but he finished the season as one of the best relievers in baseball. He struck out the last eight batters he faced in the postseason and who knows if the Padres would’ve won Game 5 if he was facing Bryce Harper in the 8th inning. It’s mind boggling MLB Network doesn’t view him as a Top 100 player in the game. 

Scott: I think he’ll be fine. If there’s one thing the Padres are known for, it’s getting the best seasons out of closers. Soto also didn’t really impress the second half of last year, but it’s Juan Frickin’ Soto. He’ll be okay. Like Soto, Hader will have had a full Spring Training with his teammates and the organization, so maybe that will provide some stability and comfort.

C70: With such a veteran-heavy roster, is there a rookie or someone with little MLB experience that can make an impact this year?

Richard: Everyone wants Luis Campusano to take the everyday catcher role away from Austin Nola. Campusano has a higher ceiling in almost every way except pitch framing. The problem is he still hasn’t been able to hit major league pitching. If the hit tool comes around he is a far better option than Nola. This is a make or break year for him, I believe. If he hits, he’s a .400+ SLG catcher with improving defensive skills. Still needs to get better at working with the pitching staff, but the bat will play if he can figure it out. I hope he does.

Ben: There aren’t many young players on the roster. Adrian Morejon is still only 23 but he hasn’t been able to prove he can log consistent innings yet. MacKenzie Gore and CJ Abrams were dealt before the trade deadline in the Juan Soto deal so they would’ve been the answer here. Jay Groome could be a fifth starter at some point if Seth Lugo doesn’t work in the rotation but he isn’t expected to provide a lot of innings. Luis Campusano could provide the biggest impact among young players but we don’t know how much playing time he’s going to get behind the plate as the backup catcher to Austin Nola. 

Scott: 16-year old Ethan Salas. No. Really. Ethan Salas. Look him up.

Okay, maybe not Salas. But, keeping it to the same position, Luis Campusano. Pretty much as I started to write that last sentence, starting catcher Aaron Nola was hit by a Michael Fulmer fastball directly in the face. Now, it’s looking like Nola will not miss much time, if any, which is really good given how it looked at the time. However, Campusano needs to step up and show he’s ready.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Richard: The only acceptable outcome is San Diego’s first World Series championship. Ownership has committed the money, the fans are showing up in droves and it’s time to put up or shut up. The best case would be to win the division and earn a bye through the Wild Card Round and save your best arms. Try to get through the NLDS in 4 games or fewer and reset your rotation for the NLCS and so on.

Worst case? Missing the playoffs. Simply can’t happen. Top-5 payroll & top-5 in attendance means missing the postseason is unacceptable and heads would need to roll. Honestly, I can’t see a scenario where that happens. This is me knocking on wood.

Looking into my crystal ball: the Padres battle the Dodgers in the NL west all the way down to the wire. Both teams win 100+ games with the Padres barely edging out LA for the division. In the playoffs anything can happen. However, I will add that this team is hungry after missing out on the World Series last year and this roster is built for October. I am trying very hard to hold down my enthusiasm but I really feel like this year it is finally going to happen and I can finally die in peace.

Ben: Best case is winning the World Series. They have the offense. They have the bullpen. And they have the top of the rotation but the four and five spots are going to dictate a lot of things this season. Worst case is missing the postseason but I just don’t see that as a realistic scenario so the better answer is losing in the Wild Card series like the Mets did in 2022. All it takes is a couple off nights at the plate.

Scott: Best: Win the World Series. Is there anything that could be better?

Worst: Don’t make the postseason. There’s a chance. There’s always a chance. I don’t want to even manifest the reasons by putting them in writing. The only thing that could possibly be worse is that AND finishing behind the Diamondbacks and/or Rockies. Which, quite frankly, is pretty much impossible.

Most likely: Win NL West. Postseason results are a crapshoot, as the Padres proved last season, beating the 101-win Mets and the 111-win Dodgers to advance to the NL Championship Series. Don’t misunderstand, the division title is not enough for this team. Or the fans. We want a World Series win, and this team is built to get as close to that as I’ve seen in 40+ years of following this team.

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