The Padres finished 71-91 last season, fourth in the N.L. West, seven games better than the lowly Giants.
Despite finishing better than the hated black and orange team by the Bay, the gap between the Padres and the top tier of the N.L. West is dismally wide.
Before the Padres can take down the big dogs on top, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have won five straight N.L. West crowns, they need to pick a smaller, lower fruit in the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies finished third in the division at 87-75 and earned a Wild Card berth against division foe Arizona. The Padres finished 16 games worse than the next closest team to them in the standings in Colorado. Head-to-head, the Padres went 7-12 against the Rockies.
How can the Padres close this gap, or at least shrink it, in 2018?
The Rockies return the top eight players as far as WAR goes from their successful 2017 season, which doesn’t bode well for the Friars’ hopes of catching them. Asking the Padres to catch the top three teams in this division might be a stretch this season, but they should strive to at least close the gap. Let’s look at how the Padres match up and how they might improve on their 7-12 record against the ballclub from Denver.
Here is where the gap may be the widest. The Padres have likely the weakest starting rotation in the division, maybe in all the National League. The Rockies return a majority of their starting rotation that was 16th in the big leagues with a 4.59 ERA, which is quite an accomplishment coming from Coors Field. This is much thanks to their top young arms Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, and German Marquez.
Gray led the bunch with a 3.67 ERA and 136 ERA+ in 2017. He also dominated the Padres in three starts last season, striking out 22 in 17 innings. The Padres should start by making it harder on Gray. Wil Myers is 7-21 (.333) with a home run against Gray and Freddy Galvis is hitting .429 against him in eight plate appearances.
Marquez finished fifth in National League Rookie of the Year voting, just ahead of Padres centerfielder Manny Margot. Those three young starters all had an ERA+ of at least 114. The Padres’ best statistical starter all year was Jhoulys Chacin, with a 106 ERA+, and he is off to Milwaukee. Dinelson Lamet posted a 91. Needless to say, the Padres have some work to do to match the starting pitching of Colorado. This year, the Friars will need to close the gap in other ways, like mashing on these young starters.
This actually might be one of the better matchups in the division. The Rockies signed two proven relievers this season out of free agency in Bryan Shaw (3.52 ERA, 130 ERA+ in 79 games for Cleveland last year) and Wade Davis (2.30 ERA, 32 saves for the Cubs, three straight All-Star bids). Eric Hosmer was a teammate of Davis’ for four seasons in Kansas City. That might prove useful in solving the tough closer. Veteran lefty Chris Rusin had an unbelievable year last season (2.65 ERA, 189 ERA+) that will likely be hard to repeat.
The Rockies were 20th in 2017 in bullpen ERA while the Padres were only nine-hundredths of a run worse at 24th.
The Padres, of course, have an All-Star closer themselves in Brad Hand, who statistically was just as good, if not better than Davis last year. With the return of Kirby Yates, Craig Stammen, and Phil Maton and the hopeful emergence of Japanese submariner Kazuhisa Makita, the Padres may already have the edge in the bullpen.
The starting rotation, and the meat of the Rockies lineup last season, doomed the Padres. At the epicenter of all that damage is Nolan Arenado, one of the best overall players in all of baseball. It’s a crime that he has yet to even finish in the top three in NL MVP voting. Last season, he hit 37 home runs (his lowest total since 2014) and batted .309, while also winning a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at the third base spot. Last season against the Padres, he was out of control, batting .385 with seven home runs and a 1.215 OPS in 18 games. The Padres should start by pitching carefully to him. He has actually struggled against Kirby Yates (1-7, with a strikeout). Perhaps the Padres should consider bringing in Yates if Arenado is up in a high-leverage situation.
However, that is easier said than done because Arenado has protection in the lineup with the duo of Trevor Story and DJ LeMahieu. Story has 30-homer power and LeMahieu is always in contention for the Tony Gwynn National League Batting Champion award. Charlie Blackmon might be the best hitter in the lineup not named Arenado, and he will bat leadoff. One could even argue Blackmon deserved the MVP more than Arenado, they finished 4-5 in the MVP voting after Blackmon’s video-game season of 37 home runs, 213 hits, 137 runs scores, 14 triples and .331 average.
Needless to say, navigating through the Rockies lineup will be tough. They also brought back Carlos Gonzalez, who can still pack a punch, and don’t forget about Ian Desmond, who is motivated for a bounce-back year.
Someone the Padres could count on is Tyson Ross, who has made a strong push for the rotation. In his career, he is a respectable 3.72 ERA in seven games at Coors Field. Arenado also struggles against Ross, hitting just .227 with four strikeouts in 23 plate appearances.
The Padres will have more firepower this year with Eric Hosmer, Freddy Galvis, and Chase Headley added to the lineup. Scoff if you want at Headley, but he has a career 1.191 OPS at Coors Field. That lineup may not compete with the Rockies on paper just yet. However, if Myers and Austin Hedges can maintain their power numbers and improve their peripherals, and if Jose Pirela continues to be reliable, they may not be as far off as some think.
The Padres were 4-6 against the Rockies at home and 3-6 at Coors Field. I believe almost any team can at least hover around .500 at their home ballpark. If the Padres can get another win or two against the Rockies at home and see what happens at Coors with a stronger lineup, the gap should be smaller.
It may not be realistic to expect the Padres to leapfrog the Rockies this season, but if they have their sights set on making a strong push in 2019, it starts with some measured progress this season. The time to lose is over and the time to teach these young players the importance of winning division games has begun.