The 2023 San Diego Padres hit a new low this weekend as they were swept by the Milwaukee Brewers while offering little resistance to their NL Central-leading foes. Sunday's 10-6 loss dropped the Padres nine games below .500 and miles from the playoff chase. A season that began with loads of promise and even more hype has hit rock bottom, then plowed right on past it about a dozen times. The current campaign is all but over, and if the franchise wants to avoid a repeat in 2024, things must change.
The Padres entered this year with one of the most fearsome foursomes in MLB history populating the top of their lineup. All-Stars Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts and Fernando Tatis Jr. have all been MVP contenders during their careers. All four are perceived to still be in their primes and should have led a ferocious San Diego offense. Instead, those stars, along most of the roster around them, have underachieved. As a team, the Padres rank 17th in OPS (.732) and slugging (.408), are 29th in batting average with runners in scoring position (.230) and are 14th in on-base percentage (.324) despite leading all of baseball in walks (529). Additionally, the team's offense has a tendency to disappear for long stretches of games, and has only produced 21 comeback wins this season, third-worst in the majors. The Padres' poor performance has shocked the baseball world. Maybe it shouldn't have.
In talking to people with knowledge of inner workings of the franchise over the past few weeks, an unflattering picture of the Padres emerged. Some of it involved the players the team had bet its future on, but most of the discussion centered on the team's front office.
The first narrative relayed was that fitting a group of stars with big personalities together takes time. Machado has been a mainstay, but Tatis missed an entire season away from the clubhouse and had to earn respect back following a suspension for PED use, Soto arrived last August with much fanfare but never really settled in, and Bogaerts was acquired with a massive new contract this offseason. That group was slammed together for their first full season in 2023. Despite the fact that they all share mutual respect and seem to like each other, chemistry doesn't just happen. It takes time. Throw in Bogaerts and Machado suffering injuries at key points of the season and you get a disaster. Most sources expect the group to be better in 2024, but that might not be enough to turn things around.
While that was certainly a big part of the perceived problem with the Padres, much of the focus was centered on the team's management. President of baseball operations and general manager A.J. Preller has built his team through trades and long-term contracts. He's had some real successes but also a number of high-profile failures. But no one I talked to was particularly concerned with how he had acquired the players, the money he's spent, or the deals he's missed on. Every general manager has misses. They get forgotten when you win, and can get you fired when you don't.
Several were quick to praise Preller's ability to scout and identify top talent and his knack for landing the players he wants. A year after the Padres emptied the top of their farm system to acquire Soto, they boast five top-100 prospects, including two top-10 players in catching phenom Ethan Salas and shortstop Jackson Merrill. The franchise's 2022 and 2023 draft classes already look excellent and, if that wasn't enough, the top international prospect in the 2024 class -- shortstop Leodails De Vries -- is expected to sign with the team. Turning all that talent into big-league success has been an issue for Preller & Co., and that leads into the heart of the problem.
When it comes to investing in players, few teams have been as aggressive as the Padres. But the picture that emerged from multiple conversations is that the franchise fails to give those players the tools they need to succeed once they're on the roster. As one source put it, "With how much they're spending on the field, it's incredible how cheap they are behind the scenes. I don't get how they don't see it."
Over and over, voices lamented the Padres not investing enough into helping the major league roster succeed. The term "archaic" was thrown around when it comes to how San Diego is preparing players on a day-in, day-out basis. Analytics, advanced scouting and player development were mentioned as areas the Padres aren't placing enough resources. Though one source was quick to point out the franchise has improved on the pitching development side over the past few years due to some smart hires.
The franchise's advanced scouting and analytics issues may have become more glaring in 2023 due to the changes MLB made to its schedule. Teams went from playing 76 games against divisional opponents to 52, and also matched up against all 29 other teams. That meant reduced familiarity with opposing players, with fewer chances to face them multiple times and learn their tendencies. In that situation, the team's infrastructure has to prepare the players since they have less on-field experience to rely on. Results suggest the Padres failed to do so.
A former Padres employee claimed one major issue is the franchise forces the people it does have to wear too many hats, leading to reduced performance. He claimed that also led to communication issues which tended to hamper continuity.
Those outside the organization seemed to feel Preller and the front office figured if they put enough good players together on the field, it would lead to wins. But that doesn't work if those players were far better prepared during the seasons that earned them their reputations. One former scout said, "If you don't give Juan Soto the tools he needs to be Juan Soto, you're getting a different player."
No one in baseball works harder than Preller, but that might also be part of the problem. His long-established reputation as a micromanager has a lot to do with the franchise's systemic issues. He has his hands in everything, rather than hiring people he can trust to handle smaller-picture tasks. He also has a pattern of shifting away from anyone who opposes his decisions and tends to plow forward based on instinct. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn't. He has long leaned on hiring people he has previous relationships with and the franchise under his direction also tends to promote from within. New voices from the outside with fresh perspectives are rarely welcomed.
Preller has been in charge of the Padres since August of 2014. In nine seasons he has produced one full season with a winning record. No one I've spoken to inside the organization believes owner Peter Seidler will replace Preller this offseason. After all, the 46-year-old GM has created buzz and excitement around the Padres that hasn't existed at any point in the franchise's history. San Diego is averaging 40,429 fans per home game, which ranks fourth in MLB, and the team is constant topic of conversation in MLB media. Barring a massive change, Seidler is going to give Preller the chance to turn things around in 2024.
In talking to people inside the Padres organization, it's clear everyone knows things can't continue this way. I was repeatedly assured changes are coming, but will they be as dramatic as needed? For that to happen, the franchise would need to invest internally the way it has on the field, and Preller would have to make himself uncomfortable by opening up his front office to dissenting voices. Without those moves, it will be nearly impossible to create a championship culture.
The Padres wasted a huge opportunity to make a run at history in 2023. If they want to avoid the same fate in 2024, an internal reckoning is needed. And major changes must follow.