San Diego Padres 2024 Season Preview

2023 was a cavalcade of every Padres fan’s nightmares boiled down into one succinct package of torture, but redemption could be on the way

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 18: Dylan Cease #84 of the San Diego Padres pitches in the top of the first inning during the exhibition game between San Diego Padres and LG Twins at Gocheok Sky Dome on March 18, 2024 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images)

And just like that, we’re back at it. We’re back to talking about everyone’s favorite headline-generating, star-studded, suddenly-big-budget, little-brother-that-could group of baseball players: the San Diego Padres. 

But the Padres and their usual coterie of stars they’ve put forth over these last few (tumultuous? disappointing? entertaining? who’s to say?) years has a slightly different aura this go-around.

Not just in terms of expectations, but also personnel — one with which is relying on not just new faces, but new unproven, younger options. So while last season was a cavalcade of every Padres fan’s nightmares boiled down into one succinct package of torture — and, believe me, that’s putting it lightly — there’s still reason to believe they’ve got what it takes to make a good run. 

Perhaps it’s the disappointment of last season still lingering. Maybe it’s the (understandable) allure of mocking teams like the Padres (and Mets!) that talk a big game and flop harder than Madame Web. Either way, the San Diego Padres head into 2024 with the classification of being a relative sleeper — a view that has, over the last few seasons, meant a good thing. 

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How Was the Team’s Offseason?

Admittedly, though, any cynicism towards this San Diego Padres season is a bit understandable given their offseason that saw them lose, arguably, their three best overall players: Juan Soto, Josh Hader, and Blake Snell. 

The team also lost more pitching — one of the few things that went right in 2023 — in the form of Michael Wacha, Seth Lugo, and Nick Martinez. Not necessarily irreplaceable players, but important contributors. Not to mention, they even lost their three-time manager of the year, Bob Melvin, to the rival San Francisco Giants following a reportedly acrimonious relationship with general manager AJ Preller. Not great. 

To make up for the losses, the San Diego Padres had themselves an uncharacteristically quiet offseason:

  • Received pitchers Micheal King, Jhony Brito, Randy Vasquez, and Drew Thorpe (No. 78 on Just Baseball’s top-100 list) as well as catcher Kyle Higashioka in exchange for the aforementioned Soto and Trent Grisham
  • Traded prospects Thorpe, Jairo Iriarte, Samuel Zavala, and reliever Steven Wilson for starting pitcher and former Cy Young candidate, Dylan Cease
  • Traded reliever Scott Barlow for reliever Enyel De Los Santos
  • Traded third base/designated hitter Matt Carpenter and pitcher Ray Kerr for outfielder Drew Campbell
  • Hired Mike Shildt to be their new manager
  • Signed relief pitcher Yuki Matsui to a 5-year, $28 million dollar deal
  • Signed relief pitcher Woo Suk Go to a 2-year, $4.5 million dollar deal
  • Signed relief pitcher Wandy Peralta to a 4-year, $16.5 million dollar deal
  • Signed outfielder Jurickson Profar to a 1-year, $1 million dollar deal

Even with my biased “former Cy Young candidate” sprinkling over the Cease trade, this was still a fairly mundane offseason for the Padres. But is it possible that a more under-the-radar, moves-along-the-edges kind of offseason benefit a team that’s been hellbent on blockbuster deals for so long? Combine that with the desire to reset their CBT threshold and it being a relatively weak free agent class, and the logic makes more sense.

Could we be looking at history taking place? Could this relatively quaint offseason signal that a spiritual sequel to Moneyball is about to unfold? Heck, is this team a potential Ewing Theory candidate? Maybe…but first, lineups:

Projected Lineup

Ideal Lineup of GreatnessDepth Options
1. Fernando Tatis Jr. – RFEguy Rosario (3B)
2. Xander Bogaerts – 2BJose Azocar (CF)
3. Jake Cronenworth – 1BMatthew Batten (3B/DH)
4. Manny Machado – DHJakob Marsee (OF)
5. Ha-Seong Kim – SSKyle Higashioka (C)
6. Luis Campusano – C
7. Graham Pauley – 3B
8. Jurickson Profar – LF
9. Jackson Merrill – CF

Despite the loss of Soto, this San Diego Padres lineup has the chance to be more productive than last season. I know, I know! But let me make the case. 

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For one thing, superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. is now a certified platinum glove winner, and managed to belt 25 home runs and swipe 29 bags in his return to the team. But even still, Tatis’ bat was disappointing by his lofty standards. He posted “just” a 113 wRC+ in 141 games, whereas he’d never had a mark below 150 in any season of his career prior.

Part of this could’ve been some bad luck — which something like the difference between his wOBA (.332) and xWOBA (.364) might attest to — or even the simple fact of him having come back from a shoulder injury and suspension. You’re looking at a player, thanks to his defensive excellence, that may have the highest WAR potential of anyone in the entire sport. 

And speaking of injuries, co-superstar Manny Machado dealt with his own elbow injury, which is why he’ll be starting the season at DH. Machado still managed to whack 30 homers, so perhaps the down year can simply be attributed to being an off year hampered by injury.

Plus, like the rest of the Padres, his performance in the clutch (58 wRC+) was incredibly poor, but things like that tend to not remain stagnant from year-to-year, especially for a player of Machado’s caliber. 

But if there’s one player that truly serves as the microcosm for the San Diego Padres struggles in the clutch, it’s Xander Boagerts. On the surface, his season was quite solid, slashing .285/.350/.440 with a 120 wRC+ and 19 homers. But his piss-poor performance with runners in scoring position — which, again, isn’t something that tends to carry over year-to-year — made his season feel like a massive disappointment.

And that’s not even mentioning his long-standing wrist issue, which was exacerbated after getting blasted by a Spencer Strider fastball. 

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Bogaerts’ change to second base might be a fantastic decision. The move could keep him healthier in the long term and he isn’t known for having O’Neil Cruz type of arm strength, so second might be more conducive to success. 

Then there’s Jake Cronenworth, a player that, frankly, is impossibly hard to measure. Can he return to his 4-win-player days? Possibly, but that was when he played second base — a position that allowed him to produce even when his bat was cold thanks to some excellent defense.

Cronenworth doesn’t have tremendous power upside, but if he can become a little similar to a guy like Ty France, it’s possible the Padres can salvage him. 

Ha-Seong Kim, the people’s champion, improved greatly in 2023, delivering gold-glove defense, tapping a bit more into some power, and a spike in his on-base skills. The lattermost aspect might suggest, by conventional wisdom, that he’s more suited to being the team’s leadoff hitter — which very well may happen at times.

In fact, the Padres lineup may see quite a few different looks throughout the season, as manager Mike Shildt’s decision to move Bogaerts might point to. 

This Padres team, unlike last season, has some upside with their depth. Instead of trouting out Austin Nola (38 wRC+ and -1 fWAR in 52 games) like they were for a long stretch, catcher Luis Campusano (134 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR in 49 games) is finally locked in for the starting job.

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His defense needs work, and some projections seem to hate him for some reason (worse than Max Stassi? Really, FanGraphs? Really?), but simply being better than the nothing the team got from Austin Nola could be a huge difference-maker. 

Jurickson Profar is mostly a depth piece, although he tends to play inexplicably better with the Padres, specifically. And the potential young guns of Jackson Merrill (Just Baseball’s No. 11 ranked prospect) and Graham Pauley could be major contributors. They’ll be important, as the Padres have been seeking depth for years, and they’ll help diversify their righty-heavy lineup. 

Couple all of that with the rumors of a potential Tommy Pham signing, and this could be the best depth this core of Padres teams has had in a while.

Perhaps Kim can move to third on some days, resulting in Bogaerts shifting to shortstop, Cronenworth to second base where he’s succeeded most, and Pauley to first base. You might even see some production from players like Jose Azocar (CF), Eguy Rosario (3B), and Jakob Marsee (OF), all of whom, at the very minimum, have flashed some promising defensive potential. 

With more depth, and a regression to the mean when it comes to driving in runs, there’s an outside chance you get inundated with “Soto? Never heard of him” jokes from Padres believers throughout the season.

Projected Rotation

Horsemen of the ApocalypsePotential Depth Options
1. Yu Darvish (RHP)Jhony Brito (RHP)
2. Joe Musgrove (RHP)Randy Vasquez (RHP)
3. Dylan Cease (RHP)Robby Snelling (LHP)
4. Michael King (RHP)
5. Matt Waldron (RHP)

The fun thing about baseball is that anything can change over any given time. In this case, the change was major and the given time was within the last week. 

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After trading for Dylan Cease, the Padres rotation goes from being steady to being a potential upper-tier one. Cease may not have the ideal ERA and has his fair share of control issues, but he makes up for it with elite swing-and-miss stuff that mostly stayed the same in 2023 with the underlying data.

And the ERA could be a bit bloated thanks to the White Sox porous defense, which will be exchanged for the more pitcher-friendly domain of Petco Park and a stellar Padres defense (tied for 5th in OAA, 5th in DRS in 2023). Plus, pitching coach Ruben Niebla has a stellar record including recently with Blake Snell — a similar pitcher when it comes to the strikeouts and walks. 

Then there’s Yu Darvish, a pitcher whose projections seem entirely predicated on his ability to stay healthy. Over his Padres tenure, Darvish has been sporadic in his production. The first half of 2021, he was an all-star, but saw his ERA skyrocket in the second half (3.09 to 6.16) after some back issues propped up.

In 2022 he was fully healthy, with a career low walk rate (4.8%) and his best overall season by fWAR (if you’re into that) since 2013. And in 2023, injuries came immediately, delaying his start to the season and eventually being shut down early by the team with his 4.56 ERA being his worst mark since 2018.

On the other hand, there’s Joe Musgrove, the San Diego native with as diverse a repertoire you’ll find among starters in the National League. He struggled a tad in the early goings last year thanks to a freak weight room incident that landed him on the IL with a toe injury, but before long he started to regain his form before also being shut down.

In general, though, he’s a pitcher that doesn’t rely on velocity but movement — something that hasn’t shown any signs of faltering, making him as steady a starter you can find with occasional glimpses of ace-caliber stuff (see first half of 2022, playoffs against Mets, or the no-hitter)

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Then there’s Michael King, the centerpiece of the blockbuster Juan Soto trade.

While dealing a generational player is never a good thing, the pitching depth the Padres got in return is nothing to scoff at (not to mention, Thorpe was eventually used in the Cease trade, so not too shabby AJ Preller!).

Aside from his fortuitous last name, he’s rocked a 2.60 ERA since 2022 with a 30.6% strikeout rate. Obviously, those numbers will likely regress a bit, but leaving the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium for Petco Park may offset the regression a bit, too. King as a No. 3 in your rotation is pretty good, but as a No. 4 option? That’s what makes you a contender. 

The final spot in the rotation is a bit more up in the air. Matt Waldron did a decent job for the team down the rough stretches of 2023 and has reportedly impressed the team with his spring training output so far. There’s also the Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez, both of whom are young guys with enough upside for the role of being back-end starters or, at the very least, fill some innings.

The Padres have had to rely on some washed up older folks before (e.g. Vince Velasquez, Jake Arrieta, Rich Hill) to give them innings, so the youth is a welcome sight. 

0And speaking of young guys, don’t sleep on top pitching prospect Robby Snelling, who absolutely wrecked in Low-A, High-A, and Double-A action last season and is Just Baseball’s No. 32 prospect. It’s likely, given the moves the team has made, that Snelling will have plenty more time to refine himself in the minors before debuting with the team.

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That’s a phenomenal development, to be sure, and makes Snelling more of a secret weapon rather than one that’s paramount to the team’s success. 

He could make an appearance in the second half or in case of an injury, in which case there’s lots of upside that would add some lefty appeal to a righty-heavy Padres rotation.

Projected Bullpen

Blooming BattalionPotential Depth Options
Robert Suarez (RHP)Jeremiah Estrada (RHP)
Yuki Matsui (LHP)Ryan Bergert (RHP)
Wandy Peralta (LHP)Stephen Kolek (RHP)
Woo Suk Go (RHP)Adrian Morejon (LHP)
Tom Cosgrove (LHP)
Enyel De Los Santos (RHP)
Pedro Avila (RHP)
Jhony Brito (RHP)

You might be surprised by how different the Padres bullpen is compared to last season. The team’s pen finished with a combined 3.80 ERA, which was the 10th best in the majors. But much of that was Josh Hader — arguably the single-best reliever in baseball — having another excellent season, and he’s gone now. When you take a look at many of the team’s other relievers, they tended to struggle in higher-leverage situations and regressed from previous years (e.g. Tim Hill, Luis Garcia). 

All of that might be why the team invested so much in relievers this offseason. The leading man for closing duties, Robert Suarez, was excellent in 2022 — earning him a chunky five-year, $46 million dollar deal — but injuries torpedoed much of his 2023 campaign.

His 4.23 ERA is one thing, but it’s the decline in his excellent strikeout rate (down 31.9% to 22.2%) that elicits the most concerns. But still, he’s been dominant before and it’s fair to attribute, given how much his numbers see-sawed, much of it to injury. It’ll almost surely be a downgrade from Hader, but don’t sleep on a bounce back. 

Another potential candidate for the closing role, Yuki Matsui, who was a star in Japan and has dazzled in the early goings. He’s the antithesis to a guy like Suarez, relying less on velocity and more off-speed magic with a splitter being his calling card. His track record has been about as consistent as they come, and his worst season came when he was just 18 years old. He’ll likely have moments where he needs to adjust, but the experience suggest he’ll be a major key to the Padres success.

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Another addition, Woo Suk Go, has been a bit of a different story. Out of the KBO, Go was once a highly-regarded prospect for the MLB level until control issues started to submerge those prospects. But if he’s able to reacquire his earlier magic with a few tweaks and guidance from Niebla, he could be a solid, low-risk addition. While Tom Cosgrove, on the other hand, was all the rage in 2023 with a 1.75 ERA, although his 4.91 xFIP suggests he might be more

There’s some other guys that aren’t a total guarantee to make the team, but they’re intriguing options.

Enyel De Los Santos might look like an addition purely for cost-saving reasons, but the difference between him and Barlow aren’t enormous.

Over the last two seasons, Santos has a 3.18 FIP compared to Barlow’s 3.52, as well as the same strikeout to walk ratio (17%). Barlow is likely the better pitcher with higher upside, don’t get me wrong, but Santos might be a sneaky addition compared to some of last year’s relievers. 

Pedro Avila may not have succeeded as a starter when called upon (4.91 ERA), but he found some success as a reliever (1.91 ERA) with near-equal innings pitched. And then players like Vasquez, Ryan Bergert (who, like Matsui, has turned some heads in the spring), and Adrian Morejon may be called upon at different points.

It’s a bullpen without the same star power as before, but the near-complete retooling of it makes for not just excitement, but the potential to be less top-heavy than year’s before. 

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The San Diego Padres are a constant conundrum. They make the biggest moves, yet haven’t won more than 89 games throughout the entirety of the AJ Preller era. But then again…just look at those dang stars! It’s hard not to be tempted by their upside, but their organizational troubles and inconsistency have often made them more flash than substance. 

So, instead, look at this way: the Padres struggled in the clutch (e.g. 9-23 in one-run games, 2-12 in extra innings) more than nearly any other team this century, and that type of performance tends to not replicate itself in back-to-back years.

This isn’t the NBA with James Harden or the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys; some positive regression should not just be hoped for, but expected, especially with the star power still present. 

Since the signing of Manny Machado, the team has tended to flourish when they prioritized smaller-scale moves rather than big-time acquisitions (ignore the Cease trade for a second, doesn’t fit the narrative). They’re the type of team everyone enjoys ridiculing, but come playoff time, they’ll quietly be relieved if they don’t have to face them. 

Bogaerts in his second year, a healthier Tatis and Machado, a rotation with depth and a potential stud prospect waiting in the wings, and a reworked bullpen make the Padres a fascinating gambit. 

It’s not just just baseball that’s back; the San Diego Padres have, arguably, never been more back.

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