Tuesday September 22nd, 2015

While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series. Next up: the San Diego Padres.

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Current Record: 70–80 (.467, fourth in the NL West)

Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 18

​What went right in 2015: The Padres were the talk of baseball coming into the year thanks to general manager A.J. Preller's audacious sequence of trades during the off-season. If nothing else, the whirlwind of activity did drum up interest in a team that could claim just one season above .500 over the previous seven. With nine home dates remaining, the team's total attendance (2.2 million) is already its highest since 2008, with the 30,664 average as the highest since '07.

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Some of Preller's trades have even worked out, at least in the short term. Justin Upton has hit .259/.342/.468 for a 126 OPS+, in line with his offensive production of recent years, and thanks to his work in the field, his 4.7 WAR is his best mark since 2011. Brother Melvin Upton Jr., acquired via trade on April 5 but sidelined for the first two months of the season due to inflammation in his left foot, has posted his first useful season since 2012, hitting .250/.315/.422 in 198 plate appearances and compiling 1.4 WAR. Wil Myers rebounded from a terrible sophomore season at the plate to hit .272/.344/.465 for a 126 OPS+, albeit in just 50 games due to injuries.

Meanwhile, rookie Cory Spangenberg has hit .264/.320/.385 (98 OPS+) in 97 games en route to 1.8 WAR, and holdover Yangervis Solarte has asserted himself as an everyday player, batting .271/.323/.429 for a 110 OPS+ and 2.6 WAR. All of the aforementioned have helped the team increase its scoring rate from a dead-last 3.30 runs per game in 2014 to 4.12 per game, ninth in the league and the team's highest rate since '07.

Among the pitchers, Tyson Ross followed up his 2014 breakout with another strong season, tossing 184 innings thus far with a 3.18 ERA (116 ERA+) and 3.02 FIP. Craig Kimbrel is 37-for-40 in the saves department with 13.0 strikeouts per nine. Joaquin Benoit has been healthy and effective in a setup role, and December acquisition Shawn Kelley was good in lower-leverage duty until a forearm strain sidelined him earlier this month.

What went wrong in 2015: Despite the off-season overhaul and the franchise-record payroll of $108.4 million, the Padres didn't spend much time in contention for a postseason spot. They last tasted first place in the division on April 23 and haven't been above .500 since June 8, when they were 30–29, though they drew as close as 61–62 on Aug. 22. The under-performance led Preller to fire well-respected manager Bud Black on June 14, when the team was 32–33, but San Diego has been even worse under interim manager Pat Murphy (38–46).

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One of the major flaws in Preller's plan was that even after the April 5 trade with the Braves (Melvin Upton and Kimbrel for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin and prospects Matt Wisler and Jordan Paroubeck), the roster was more a collection of parts than a cohesive whole. The team lacked a real shortstop, and it has shown. Alexi Amarista, Clint Barmes and Jedd Gyorko—the last of whom has made 22 starts there—have combined for all of 0.5 WAR, including their time at other positions. The team lacked a true centerfielder as well; even with Melvin Upton making the most of his time there, Myers and the since-traded Will Venable combined for -11 Defensive Runs Saved.

Other newcomers didn't help much either. Will Middlebrooks continued his slide from his 2012 rookie season into total irrelevance, turning in a 67 OPS+ over 270 plate appearances. Matt Kemp has been healthy enough to play in 147 games and hit 23 homers with 98 RBIs, but his 112 OPS+ is 14 points below his career mark, and even in rightfield, he's neutralized his declining performance with the bat, with -14 DRS and just 0.8 WAR. The catching tandem of Derek Norris and rookie Austin Hedges has been subpar at the plate, a significant downgrade from the Rene Rivera/Yasmani Grandal tandem of 2014.

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And that's just the lineup. On the other side of the ball, the Padres' 4.57 runs per game allowed is their highest since 2009, and even further off the league's pace, 0.34 runs below average compared to 0.26 then. Ross has been the only starter with an ERA+ above 100 or a home-run rate below 1.0 per nine. Marquee free agent James Shields has suffered from a plague of gopher balls (1.4 per nine) en route to a 3.86 ERA (96 ERA+) and 4.33 FIP. Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy have turned in ERAs of 4.25 and 4.29 (87 and 86 ERA+, respectively), and fifth starter Odrisamer Despaigne is at 5.85. Brandon Morrow was limited to five starts due to shoulder inflammation and impingement, ultimately undergoing surgery in August. Speaking of surgeries, Josh Johnson underwent a Tommy John procedure for the second year in a row and third time overall; he hasn't thrown a competitive inning for the Padres since being signed in November 2013.

In all, while the rotation's 8.4 strikeouts per nine ranks third in the league, its 4.08 ERA is eighth, its 4.00 FIP is seventh and its 1.1 HR/9 is ninth. Meanwhile, the bullpen's 4.23 ERA and 1.1 HR/9 are both 13th and their 3.91 FIP is 11th. Some of those shortcomings are on the defense, which is 12th in the league in DRS (-17) and ninth in defensive efficiency (.684).

Beyond all those shortcomings is the fact that Preller stood pat at the July 31 trade deadline despite the team's sub-.500 record (49–53) and a farm system that was hit hard by the winter whirlwind, ranking 24th according to Baseball America even before Wisler was traded in April and Trea Turner (officially) in June. The Padres could have gotten a significant haul for pending free agent Justin Upton and at least a warm body or two for Benoit and Kennedy, either there or before the Aug. 31 deadline, all of which would have helped restock the system.

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In his only non-waiver deal, Preller traded outfielder journeyman Abraham Almonte (who's hit .270/.315/.474 with above-average defense in centerfield) to the Indians for lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who's been rocked for an 8.53 ERA in 23 appearances totaling 12 2/3 innings. During the waiver period, San Diego traded Venable to the Rangers for a pair of prospects, but both Kennedy and Benoit were pulled back from waivers after being claimed. To be fair, Kennedy may have pitched his way back to consideration for a qualifying offer by posting a 2.63 ERA over a 17-start run from June 2 to Sept. 2, but he hasn't turned in a season with an ERA+ above 100 since 2012, when it was 101, and he's been worth a combined -0.5 WAR since then. All of that is to say that the risk of him returning on a one-year, $16-plus million deal instead of taking a de-valued, multi-year contract elsewhere is very real.

Overall Outlook: The good news is that the Padres have a lucrative and relatively new television deal that should help them continue to support higher payrolls. The bad news is that it could take Preller more than a year to undo the damage he's done to the farm system, which didn't place a single player in the Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus or ESPN midseason top 50 prospects lists. Likewise, he’s got his work cut out to remake the roster, and some expensive and underwhelming assets on hand.

The Dodgers' $18 million subsidy of Kemp's contract was applicable only to 2015, and so San Diego now owes $86 million over the next four years to a 30-year-old outfielder with arthritis in both hips, one who has produced all of 2.2 WAR over the past three seasons. Shields came cheap this year ($10 million) but is heading into his age-34 season owed $65 million over the next three years, assuming he doesn't opt out after next year. The team isn't likely to get its money's worth on the $32 million owed to the senior Upton over the next two, nor are they the leading contenders to retain his little brother. In a division where the Dodgers are printing money faster than they can spend it while producing elite prospects such as Corey Seager and where the Giants are heading into another even-numbered year, the Padres don't seem any closer to contention than they were before Preller took over.

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