UTK Special: The Padres Should Be In The Playoffs

An Elimination UTK Special

The San Diego Padres have been eliminated, falling behind as their injury days stack up. What began with so much promise in 2021 - Fernando Tatis Jr’s emergence as a superstar, Joe Musgrove’s hometown no hitter, an exciting team challenging the defending champs just up the state - fell apart under the weight of injuries and infighting.

According to the wizards at Man Games Lost, the Padres lost 2,188 games to the IL as of September 22. With a week left to go, the team had lost more than a ton of games and these weren’t cheap losses either. This was a loss of 25 WAR and it doesn’t take Stephen Hawking level math to figure out what just cutting those injuries in half would have done to the standings.

Now, the caveat is that a WAR loss isn’t a win lost per se. It’s a measure and one that we can consistently use across teams to measure the loss. Yes, a team can lose a player, even a good player and have an adequate replacement, or even have someone go with a Juan Pierre week, but at this stratospheric level of injury, no one has that many good replacements. They were basically grabbing starters off the street over the last month, dumpster diving for everyone short of Ryan Dempster and I’m pretty sure AJ Preller checked on him.

No matter how you look at the injury data on the Padres, it’s clear that this team was talented enough to make the playoffs and that it was the injuries, more than any of the other factors that held them back. It was easy to look at the start of the season and say “the Padres, on talent, seem to be equivalent to the Dodgers.” That statement is true. Here we are with a week left in the season and the Padres eliminated from the playoffs, 21 games behind the Dodgers with 25 lost WAR. Now, the Dodgers have had their own injury issues, as has every team, but it’s reasonable to say that better injury management would have put this Padres team into the playoffs with room to spare.

It’s more clear when you look into ManGamesLost’s more advanced measures. Their injury impact has the Padres ‘leading’ the league by a fair margin. If you want to do a direct comparison between the Padres and Dodgers here, the injury impact as measured is a difference of 300, or about seven times as much!

The question I had is whether this was a system-wide problem or whether this was only a problem at the upper levels. (It’s difficult to separate Triple-A and MLB due to the interrelation and easy, planned swaps between the rosters.) I asked David Jay, the editor at MadFriars, who follows the Padres minors like no one else, and the answer seems to be no.

Most of the upper tier prospects for the Padres are at lower levels and weren’t really affected. The team did see a reasonable number of injuries, but it doesn’t seem out of whack with most teams or with expectations. A pitcher like Mackenzie Gore, expected to push for a roster spot soon, bounced around to four teams and pitched very limited innings in 2021. Another key prospect, Reggie Lawson, is having a slow recovery from Tommy John, but that’s been a pattern in 2021, even though Lawson had his back in ‘19.

Jay did have an interesting observation about the system, but it happened in 2017, rather than 2021. “The organization has been very aggressive, even rushed people in the past,” he told me. Pitchers like Adrian Morejon, Michel Baez, and Chris Paddack were part of that and the consequences may be starting to show up a few years down the road. Morejon was started and stopped several times, as was Dinelson Lamet, and that inconsistent and seemingly undisciplined usage led to problems.

Down the system, there wasn’t a huge disruption and if what the team does in 2021 shows up a few years down the line, not making those same aggressive promotions or allowing the issues at the top to change how they developed players. In fact, Ryley Westman was shifted to farm director from player development, an indication that they think development was not part of the issue and perhaps a future solution.

The most obvious issue was the starting pitchers. From the very start of the season, the Padres were down a couple men, but having lost Mike Clevinger and having questions about Dinelson Lamet heading into the season, there should have been enough depth to deal with a normal number of injuries. That’s not what they had. Lamet, Morejon, and Paddack all spent at least thirty days on the 10-day IL, while the 60-day collected more and more. By the end of the season, with Blake Snell and Paddack on the shelf, the depth was tested, then exposed.

The injuries to the pitching as well as an inability for several of their starters to go deep came together in the pen. It was overworked, had a number of pitchers that were forced to either jump up to start or jump down because they couldn’t (Ryan Weathers, Dinelson Lamet) and still had to be managed. This is where one team source said that Rothschild’s biggest failing happened. “We knew Snell and Paddack came in wanting to go deeper,” he told me, “but the build didn’t happen and immediately, the pen started gassing. He never figured out how to use Lamet, so he was unavailable half the time he was actually healthy. It was only the older guys like Mark Melancon and even Daniel Hudson who basically managed themselves that made it through.”

The good has to be credited and while Fernando Tatis Jr’s season was defined by his shoulder injury, the team managed it well. Tatis was not just functional, but star level, retaining his power and speed, losing just 28 days to a recurrent shoulder subluxation. While surgery remains a possibility, albeit one resisted strongly by Tatis, there’s no doubt that the Padres and Tatis deserve credit for getting him through the season with an injury that very easily could have ended his season early, leaving the Padres in a much different position. Of course, with or without surgery, Tatis’ shoulder is going to be a big factor in the team’s 2022 … and 2032, given his contract.

There’s no question that the Padres understand this is an issue. They’ve already begun a re-shuffle, starting with pitching coach Larry Rothschild and building from there. Up and down the organization, there are smart, qualified, and hard working people, but results have to matter and looking at the Padres across the last five years shows that this is not bad luck, but a systemic breakdown. The next five years could be different if they put the right people and process in place. We’ll have to see how that goes as we get into the offseason. How everyone from ownership on down to AJ Preller and Jayce Tingler are seen will become a bit more clear soon.

It’s hard to see where this gets better in the short term, absent major changes. Even with those, most don’t happen in year one, leaving the Padres in the same place. There’s pitching depth, but it’s been cratered by injury loss and at some point, that has a talent cost. There’s not enough bubbling up to make over the team or even largely fill in on a better basis. This team has to get healthier and in more than just a “we’re a bit luckier” way.

One factor for 2022 is going to be the expected return of starters. Jay of MadFriars pointed out that there’s no such thing as too much pitching. The expected return of Clevinger and Lamet should give the Padres more depth, but this team is not suddenly hurt and about to get suddenly healthy. They’ve basically traded IL spots, going from Tommy John to Tommy John, and absent wholesale changes that may not get immediate results, that’s not likely to change. Having one or two extra pitchers is only good if another two don’t go on the IL themselves.

The Padres could have done all this a few years back. This isn’t luck and this isn’t a one year pattern. Making the changes now won’t help them make the playoffs in 2021, or maybe even 2022, but there’s talent locked up and depth enough to think this team could be a perennial contender for the next few seasons. The lack of support, of a progressive system, and of real results has come home to roost and we’ll see if leadership knows how to fix them, or if they’ll just be willing to put Tatis and Manny Machado on billboards, selling more tickets for a third place team.

Injuries matter. Process has results. At the end of the season, both of those have to be factored in to plan not just for next season, but beyond. The Seidlers and AJ Preller will have to look at the organization and fill in the gaps, but as of yet, I don’t see any indication that the team has a plan for fixing this. We’ll see who they hire to handle pitchers, but a deep housecleaning is in order across the organization if they want to get better.

Full credit for much of the injury data here to Man Games Lost, who put in an incredible amount of work putting together their updates across sports. As someone who used to do this for MLB, it’s an insane amount of work to collect data that no one else has. You’d think the leagues would do this, especially in an age where gambling is legal. Also, credit to Rotowire for their work across sports and for help with this story, and thanks to David Jay and MadFriars for the assistance. Special shout to Craig Elsten as well.