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How Will Padres Move Past 2021’s Second-Half Collapse?

The Padres went from a veritable playoff lock to a sub-.500 record on the heels of a catastrophic second-half collapse. President of baseball operations A.J. Preller will go back to the drawing board amid greater expectations and even more pressure.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Fernando Tatis Jr., SS: $329MM through 2034
  • Manny Machado, 3B: $210MM through 2028 (Machado can opt out of contract after 2023 season)
  • Eric Hosmer, 1B: $59MM through 2025
  • Yu Darvish, RHP: $37MM through 2023
  • Blake Snell, LHP: $28.5MM through 2023
  • Ha-Seong Kim, INF: $23MM through 2024 (includes $2MM buyout of $8MM mutual option for 2025)
  • Wil Myers, OF: $21MM through 2022 (includes $1MM buyout of $20MM club option for 2023)
  • Drew Pomeranz, LHP: $16MM through 2023
  • Jurickson Profar, INF/OF: $15MM through 2023 (includes $1MM buyout of $10MM mutual option for 2024; Profar can opt out of contract after 2022 season)
  • Mike Clevinger, RHP: $6.5MM through 2022
  • Craig Stammen, RHP: $4MM through 2022
  • Pierce Johnson, RHP: $3MM through 2022
  • 2022 commitments: $140.5MM
  • Total long-term commitments: $752MM

Projected Salaries for Arbitration-Eligible Players (via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Non-tender candidates: Strahm, Castillo, Wingenter

Option Decisions

  • Exercised $4MM club option on RHP Craig Stammen
  • Exercised $3MM club option on RHP Pierce Johnson
  • Declined $4MM club option on OF Jake Marisnick
  • Declined $800K club option on RHP Keone Kela (Kela had Tommy John surgery in late May)
  • RHP Mark Melancon declined $5MM mutual option (received $1MM buyout)

Free Agents

On the day of the 2021 trade deadline, the Padres were 61-45 — still third place in a dominant NL West division but only five games out of first and also holding a commanding five-and-a-half-game lead on the NL’s second Wild Card spot. A postseason berth seemed overwhelmingly likely. The Friars appeared poised for another aggressive deadline, reportedly making a push to acquire Max Scherzer from the Nationals while also exploring trades to shed Eric Hosmer’s contract and improve an inconsistent offense.

Instead, the division-rival Dodgers won the Scherzer bidding, and no deals involving Hosmer materialized. The Padres acquired second baseman/outfielder Adam Frazier despite having various options at both positions, and their other big deadline takeaway was reliever Daniel Hudson. That was hardly a pair of inconsequential acquisitions at the time, but Monday morning quarterbacking was in full effect as the Padres almost immediately performed a swan dive in the Wild Card standings. San Diego astonishingly went 18-38 to close out the season — not only losing a playoff spot but falling below .500 on the year.

Amid that catastrophic fall from grace were reports of tensions in the clubhouse. Second-year manager Jayce Tingler reportedly lost the locker room late in the year, and public-facing spats involving star players like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado only fanned the flames on that narrative.

It came as little surprise, then, to see the offseason begin with Tingler’s ousting. (He’s since joined the Twins as their new bench coach.) What was a surprise — to put things mildly — was the sudden hiring of longtime Athletics manager Bob Melvin, who agreed to a three-year deal to take the reins in San Diego. Melvin was under contract with the A’s through the 2022 season, but a cost-cutting A’s club let him interview and sign with the Padres on a reported three-year, $12MM contract — asking for no compensation in return.

It was a legitimate shocker and widely viewed as something of a coup for the Friars. While their 2021 season ended in disaster, the 2021-22 offseason kicked off on an immensely positive note. Those good feelings will only extend so long, however, and Preller & Co. must now look for ways to improve a roster that faceplanted in the season’s second half.

The first question, quite likely, is simply one of where to begin. The Padres have a remarkable 23 players either on guaranteed contracts or eligible for arbitration, presenting them with a nearly full active roster before even making a move. They’ll surely make some subtractions via non-tender and trade in the coming days, and it stands to reason that the team will again revisit some of those deadline-season trade endeavors.

The reported effort to move Hosmer, for instance, was surely fueled by a desire to improve upon his pedestrian offensive performance but was also borne out of a desire to curb a payroll that has increasingly soared to previously unseen levels in San Diego.  Both Hosmer and Wil Myers are slightly above-average hitters with salaries north of $20MM on the books in 2022. The urgency to move Hosmer’s deal is only heightened by the fact that he’d gain 10-and-5 rights (10 years of MLB service, past five with the same team) at the end of the 2022 season — which would give him full veto power over any trade.

The Padres’ 2022 payroll is already projected by Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez at a staggering $192MM — with nearly $209MM of luxury-tax considerations. That $192MM mark is already nearly $20MM higher than the prior franchise-record. While ownership may be comfortable taking the overall budget to new heights — it’s doubtful they’d have signed Tatis and Machado to those mega-deals were that not the case — the budget surely isn’t limitless. And considering the fact that this Padres club ranked 14th in each of total runs scored, combined wRC+, ERA and FIP, it’s obvious that improvements are needed on both ends of the roster.

Looking for creative ways to shed the contracts of Hosmer or Myers figure to again be revisited this winter, and the Padres have no shortage of square pegs currently being asked to fill round holes. Acquiring Adam Frazier was something of a curious fit in the first place, given the presence of Machado, Tatis and All-Star second baseman Jake Cronenworth, but Frazier’s projected $7.2MM salary now looks even more questionable on the Padres’ roster. He’s obviously a fine player based on his track record in Pittsburgh, but perhaps the lack of a defined role in San Diego didn’t agree with him.

That same logic, to some extent, applies to infielder Ha-Seong Kim. The Padres signed the former KBO superstar to a four-year deal despite lacking obvious infield playing time for him, and Kim struggled to find his footing as he adjusted to big league pitching with inconsistent playing time across multiple positions. Kim was viewed as the equivalent of an MLB-ready, top 100 prospect at the time of his signing but hit just .202/.270/.352 while averaging fewer than three plate appearances over his 117 games.

Between Kim, Frazier and Jurickson Profar, whose questionable three-year deal only looks even more dubious now, the Padres are set to pay upwards of $20MM to a trio of players who don’t even have a defined spot in the everyday lineup. Trading any of the three should be firmly on the table, as should the easier-said-than-done possibility of finally finding a partner in a Hosmer or Myers trade. From a purely speculative standpoint, the money remaining on the Hosmer and Aaron Hicks contracts are quite similar, and Hosmer’s contact-oriented lefty bat could be of some appeal to the Yankees if they don’t re-sign Anthony Rizzo.

If the Padres ultimately are able to shed some of the currently questionable fits for their lineup, they’ll look for ways to quickly reallocate any dollars saved and lineup spots that were vacated. With Tommy Pham reaching free agency and Myers standing as a viable trade candidate, a corner outfielder could be a sensible upgrade. The aforementioned Frazier can certainly handle left field, but alternatives on the market include the likes of Nick Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber, Michael Conforto, Starling Marte, Avisail Garcia and NPB superstar Seiya Suzuki. At first base, the open market has Rizzo, while the trade market will include Matt Olson, Luke Voit and others.

If the designated hitter is indeed added to the National League, as is widely expected, it’s likely Preller will look to old friend Nelson Cruz. Preller has shown a clear affinity for former Rangers players in past iterations of the Padres’ roster, and he even explored the possibility of acquiring Cruz at the trade deadline and playing him at first base. The addition of a DH would also make it easier for San Diego (or any other NL club) to put forth a long-term offer for either of Castellanos or Schwarber, who boast imposing bats but come with sub-par defensive grades.

On the pitching side of things, the Padres have a pretty strong group on paper. The combination of Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, Mike Clevinger, Dinelson Lamet and Chris Paddack looks sound. The trio of MacKenzie Gore, Adrian Morejon (who had Tommy John surgery in May) and Ryan Weathers makes for an enticing and upside-laden series of depth options.

That said, the starting rotation was expected to be a strength in 2021 but turned into a glaring liability. Darvish melted down the stretch after a strong first several months, while the opposite was true of Snell. Lamet’s ongoing injury woes limited his innings and placed a large slate of red flags on him for the 2022 season. Clevinger, like Morejon, is coming back from Tommy John surgery and as we know, that’s hardly a lock. (Just look at Noah Syndergaard’s 2021 season.) Paddack, meanwhile, struggled throughout the season and has yet to recapture his brilliant rookie form. Weathers was hit hard after a promising start, and most confounding of all, Gore barely pitched in the minors — instead spending much of the season working through mechanical issues at the Padres’ Arizona facility.

By late in the season, the Padres were giving starts to reclamation projects like Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez as they clung to faint postseason hopes. The end result was a rotation that finished 29th in the Majors in innings pitched (741 1/3) and 18th in ERA (4.54).

Further compounding matters for the Friars is that the rotation is a rather expensive group. Darvish, Snell, Musgrove, Clevinger, Paddack and Lamet will earn somewhere in the vicinity of $55MM combined, but only Musgrove showed any real consistency in 2021. San Diego will hope that swapping out former pitching coach Larry Rothschild — who was fired in August — for Ruben Niebla will help to improve the results. That said, if the Padres are again looking for ways to shake up the roster, it’s at least feasible that one of Darvish or Snell could be moved as a means of freeing up payroll and opening a spot for a different acquisition.

The uncertainty surrounding several promising young arms — Weathers, Gore, Morejon, and Lamet — also raises the possibility of moving anyone from that group in a trade of note. Preller is routinely involved in all of the big names on the market, and it’s easy to imagine Oakland’s Olson and perhaps one of their available starters piquing the Padres’ interest. A shot at a high-ceiling wild card like Minnesota’s Byron Buxton, or perhaps an aggressive pursuit of a Cincinnati starter like Sonny Gray or Luis Castillo could seemingly be in the cards, too. It’s easy to write off the Padres as a team that doesn’t definitively “need” another starter, but Preller showed last year in acquiring Darvish, Snell and Musgrove that he’s unafraid to stockpile pieces in areas where the big league roster does not have a dire need. (See also: the signing of Kim and acquisition of Frazier.)

As far as relief pitching is concerned, the Padres generally appear to have a strong group, but that shouldn’t squarely rule them out from making some notable additions. Mark Melancon led baseball in saves this past season and is now a free agent. He came to the Padres on a bargain deal after his market failed to materialize last winter, so it’s unlikely he’d be re-signed at a premium rate. Waiting out the market and pouncing on a veteran arm again this offseason makes sense, though, particularly with standout southpaw Drew Pomeranz on the mend from a torn flexor tendon.

As is the case in the rotation and the lineup, however, the Padres can’t be ruled out if a big-name reliever becomes available via trade. Don’t be surprised to see them linked to Josh Hader or Craig Kimbrel in the weeks and months to come.

More than any team in Major League Baseball, the Padres have proven themselves difficult to predict. Preller’s “Rock Star GM” moniker, given to him by Matt Kemp after a dizzying flurry of transactions in his first offseason on the job, is often used in humorous fashion — but it’s also rooted in some truth. Preller has shown a repeated affinity to grab headlines with fearless trades, free-agent signings and extensions alike, often moving players who seemed unattainable or acquiring players despite a lack of obvious need. He is quite arguably the sport’s most aggressive baseball operations leader, and given the mounting expectations in San Diego and a shocking freefall from 2021 playoff contention, there’s more pressure than ever to find the right pieces.

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