The San Diego Padres have been one of the biggest disappointments of the 2023 MLB season. Expected to cruise to a playoff spot, and potentially unseat the Los Angeles Dodgers atop the NL West, the Friars have instead underperformed during an uneven first half of the season. There have been signs of a breakout recently and they won five of six before the All-Star break. They're currently 43-47 and the next two weeks of play will be crucial, not just for this season but for the franchise's future.
Coming out of the break the Padres will face a 10-game road trip. They'll have to run through the Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers before coming home. They'll finish that slate on July 23, nine days before the trade deadline.
The team's deadline plans will likely hinge on how they come out of that trip. The Padres are currently six games behind the San Francisco Giants for the final wild card spot. If they can close that gap, there's an argument to buy at the deadline and go on a run over the final two months of the season. If they can't close that gap and are under .500, they may have no choice but to sell off some key pieces to add depth to the organization.
The Padres currently have a number of nice, high-end pieces in their farm system. Catcher Ethan Salas is a phenom, shortstop Jackson Merrill is a top-10 prospect in the game, 2022 first-round pick Dylan Lesko is back on the mound following Tommy John surgery and looks really good. And fellow 2022 draftee Robby Snelling is leaping up prospect lists thanks to a dominant first pro season (MLB.com has him at No. 84). The problem is, all of those prospects populate the lower levels of the system -- Merrill was just promoted to Double-A. There are few, if any high-ceiling guys above High-A ball. If they're out of the playoff picture, selling would be the smart thing to do.
For the season, the Padres have the NL's third-best run differential at +39. That doesn't fit with a record under .500. But it seems they're either blowing teams out or losing close games. They've had serious issues hitting with runners in scoring position and injuries to Xander Bogaerts and Manny Machado have created problems with the offense's efficiency. Meanwhile, the pitching staff has been excellent all season as they're sixth in team ERA (3.78), sixth in WHIP (1.24), fifth in batting average against (.237) and the starters have combined for 42 quality starts, which ranks fifth.
There is reason to believe the offense will wake up in the second half. Machado and Bogaerts should be better, catching prospect Luis Campusano is set to return and guys like Jake Cronenworth (.679 OPS) and Trent Grisham (.695) can't get much worse. The team is built to dominate if the offense can wake up.
If things don't turn around quickly, San Diego certainly has pieces to trade. If the Padres went into selling mode, Blake Snell would instantly become the most attractive starting pitcher on the market and Josh Hader would undoubtedly be the top reliever available. Both are impending free agents and if the Padres hung onto them and gave them qualifying offers they would only receive draft picks after the fourth round due to their luxury tax status. While both are candidates for contract extensions -- and would probably love to stay in San Diego -- the Padres probably wouldn't be able to pass up the potential returns for both.
Snell was the NL pitcher of the month in June and entered the break at 6-7 with a 2.85 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and 132 strikeouts in 98 innings. He looks like he's regained the form he showed in 2018 when he won the American League Cy Young Award.
Hader has been his usual, dominant, self. He's 0-1 with a 1.08 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and 50 strikeouts against 19 walks in 33.1 innings. He's converted 21 saves in 24 opportunities. He has regained the form he lost midway through the 2022 season and will probably be looking for a contract rivaling what the Mets gave Edwin Diaz last offseason (five years, $102 million).
Some other, smaller pieces could be on the move as well. Seth Lugo is 3-4 with a 3.39 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 12 starts and has outplayed the two-year, $15 million contract he signed in the offseason. He can opt out of the second year of the deal and it would be a shock if he didn't. That makes him a trade candidate. Relievers like Tim Hill and Luis Garcia might be made available as well, while I'm sure the Padres would get calls on second baseman (and the most underrated player in baseball) Ha-Seong Kim.
Before you even think about it, there is almost zero chance the Padres would trade superstar Juan Soto, as they still envision inking him to a long-term extension. If Soto were to be moved (and that's a big "if") it would most likely come in the offseason. And the return would have to be massive.
Now for the optimistic side of things... If the Padres go on a run over the next two weeks, they will almost certainly look to add to the roster. Don't expect any huge swings, though. They need to add depth to their lineup, so a low-ceiling, consistent hitter for the bottom half would be welcome. Another bullpen arm would likely be a priority, as would potentially adding another starter to eat innings down the stretch.
From talking to people within the organization, A.J. Preller currently doesn't seem to have the appetite to move any of his top prospects. Salas is basically untouchable, Merrill is beloved by the front office, and Lesko and Snelling represent long-term, cheap rotation pieces that could help balance the big salaries already on the books. Given those factors, I wouldn't expect a typical Preller deadline where he swings for the fences, long-term consequences be damned. With all that said, you never know what Preller has up his sleeve. The man almost can't help but make a splash this time of year.
The Padres are as good as any organization at restocking their farm system. They hollowed it out last summer to acquire Soto, surrendering a wealth of talent. Yet here we are a year later and they have four top-100 prospects again. But at some point, San Diego actually has to develop and use homegrown talent or its balance sheet will become unsustainable.
No one knows what the Padres will do, and things could go either way at this point. The next two weeks will determine what path the franchise takes.