Only in the feverish cogitations of San Diego Padres General Manager AJ Preller could a plan to transform his nondescript baseball team into a legitimate threat to win a championship in 2021 be imagined. To contemplate the plan is but the first step in the process. Preller has actually brought his vision to life, and the fans in San Diego have every reason to believe that a championship can be a reality as soon as this year.
San Diego seeks to slay the Goliath that is the Los Angeles Dodgers, and have loaded their slings with a dizzying array of powerful stones aimed squarely at the figurative forehead of their rivals just two hours up the 405. Over the past four seasons, Preller has embarked upon an epic rebuilding process that has culminated in a 2021 team the franchise will debut next month, which is arguably the best collection of talent in the history of the club.
Their foes are formidable.
The Dodgers are the defending World Series Champions, having won the title over a very game Tampa Bay squad in the 2020 Fall Classic. They’ve won the National League West title for eight consecutive years, and have made the playoffs 21 times since 1969, earning eight NL pennants while winning three World Series titles. The franchise began in Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers have won a total of seven championships, and have sent 15 players to the Hall of Fame wearing Dodgers caps.
The list of Dodger players inducted into the Hall of Fame includes Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and will almost certainly include current Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw one day.
The history of the franchise includes some of the most iconic figures in the sport, including General Manager Branch Rickey, whose vision and willingness to buck conventional thinking led him to sign Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in 1947, the first African American player ever to play in the Major Leagues.
The Dodgers are littered with young superstar talent, from World Series MVP Corey Seager and 2019 AL and NL MVP’s Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger to Gavin Lux, and Walker Buehler, each of who is 27 or younger. They also augmented their title winning team by re-signing franchise cornerstone Justin Turner. And while their roster lost Kike Hernandez and Joc Pedersen to free agency, they added Trevor Bauer to their formidable rotation, signing the defending NL Cy Young Award winner to a contract that features the largest yearly salary ever for a major league player. The deal will pay Bauer $40 million in 2021, and $45 million in 2022.
The Dodgers are considered by many in the industry as the current model franchise, combining large market financial resources with elite level scouting and development programs to compliment their analytically minded front office visions, led by GM Andrew Friedman and manager Dave Roberts. They are the unquestioned titans of Major League Baseball.
The Dodgers are currently the odds on favorites to win the 2021 World Series.
The Padres joined the National League as an expansion team in 1969, and have been a model of nondescript mediocrity-at best during their 52 seasons in the Senior Circuit. They’ve made the playoffs just six times in those 52 seasons, making but two World Series appearances. They went 1-8 in those Series, losing in 1984 to the Detroit Tigers in five games before being ignominiously swept by the juggernaut New York Yankees in 1998.
The Pads feature but three Hall of Fame players, late franchise icon Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield and Trevor Hoffman. Gwynn and Hoffman both have statues outside of Petco Park to commemorate their careers with the team. There have been precious few players who would qualify as superstars who’ve toiled in a Padre uniform during their careers.
San Diego has seen a dearth of top ten Wins Above Replacement seasons from their players, and have employed very few true superstar talents. In their entire 52-year history, just five players have cracked that list.
That fact is very likely to change, perhaps as soon as this year. Fernando Tatis Jr., who is the engine at the heart of the stunning roster transformation the team has undergone in the past three seasons, is capable of being the elite level performer the franchise has lacked. The 22 year-old shortstop has hit .301/.374/.582 over his first 143 games in the majors, and his offensive productivity ranks sixth all-time among players through their age 21 seasons.
To insure that Tatis Jr. would stay in San Diego, Preller signed him to the longest deal in MLB history, a 14-year, $340 million pact that will keep him in Padre brown through 2034. It is not hyperbole to project that their young shortstop may eventually become one of the top five players in franchise history, with a realistic chance to someday be identified as the best Padre ever.
In the press conference to announce his record breaking deal, Tatis himself referred to his agreement as a “statue contract”, insinuating that he hopes to have the chance to be immortalized with such a tribute, following in the hallowed footsteps of Gwynn and Hoffman. That kind of talk is not nearly as far-fetched or overly optimistic as it might sound, as this evaluation by Fangraphs writer Jay Jaffe suggests.
San Diego’s farm system has been at or near the top of the annual rankings by industry sources since 2017. Having a great minor league system is an enormous area of focus and investment for every franchise, but clubs use their prospects in different ways to improve the major league product.
Preller decided that he intended to leverage his deep and talented cadre of prospects to make trades for young, controllable, but established major league talent. While 2/3 of the league was looking to save money in light of pandemic related situations, he was willing to add payroll to put a winner on the field for the fans in championship starved San Diego.
With the value of prospects and pre-arbitration players at its zenith, Preller converted those coveted assets into players that would immediately improve the on-field performance in San Diego and prove far less risky in terms of their expected contributions at the major league level.
Since November 2019, Preller has traded 42 players from his system, many of who ranked within the top 10 in the Padres group of minor league talent, and/or in the top 100 of all prospects in the Majors. In return, he’s been able to assemble a core of talent that includes Trent Grisham, Tommy Pham and Wil Myers, each of whom was acquired in trade. He’s added Aaron Nola, Jake Cronenworth (who finished 2nd in 2020 NL Rookie of the Year voting) and utility man Jurickson Profar in separate transactions, forming the core of a lineup that was build around free agent signees Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado. Add in wunderkind Tatis Jr, who himself was acquired from the White Sox before ever playing a major league game, and the Padres have a position player group who grew up in other systems.
Their rotation is also littered with players imported from other organizations, including Mike Clevinger (who will miss 2021 following Tommy John surgery this offseason), Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove, all of whom were secured by trading away valuable pieces from the Padres deep list of prospects. Homegrown holdovers Dinelson Lamet and Chris Paddack should round out the rotation, which is projected to be the most valuable rotation in the major leagues-aside from the Dodgers starting five.
Starting with the 2010 season through the end of the 2020 campaign, the Dodgers lead all of baseball with 962 wins. Over the same period, the Padres rank 29th with just 776 wins.
The Dodgers are projected to win 98 games, the most in baseball, while the Padres are projected to win 95 games, the second best total in the majors.
Los Angeles’ current payroll for 2021 is nearly $240 million, the only club currently north of the $200 million level. They’ve carried the highest payroll in baseball in five of the past nine seasons, and have been in the top four payrolls in the sport in each of those nine seasons.
The Padres will feature a 2021 payroll in the $161 million range, a record high for the franchise. 2020 was the first year in the past 10 that the Padres payroll was not in MLB’s bottom ten, ranking 10th overall.
Recent history of the two clubs suggests that there is no real rivalry. Head-to-head, all time, the Dodgers hold a 486-403 edge over the Padres. Beginning with the 2010 season through last year, the LA has destroyed the Pads, 129-71.
The only postseason matchup between the clubs came in 2020, when the Dodgers swept the Padres out of the playoffs in the NLDS on a neutral field in Arlington.
The Padres, led by Preller and new franchise icon Fernando Tatis Jr., have indicated their intentions to unseat the reigning champs, and a whirlwind offseason of roster upgrades may represent the final stages of a succession plan for NL West supremacy that has been carefully crafted over the past 36 months.
Padres fans were already buzzing from Preller’s blockbuster trades this winter, and now they can rejoice knowing that they’ll have Tatis Jr. in the middle of the lineup for the next 14 years. This season, there will be a clash of California titans that will play out in the NL West, and only at the conclusion of the World Series will there be a final accounting of the balance of power in baseball.
Can the traditionally vanilla and forgettable Padres franchise rise up to overtake one of the most iconic franchises in all of sports, who also happen to be the game’s defending champions ?
The answer to that question will be forged over the course of 19 head-to-head matchups this season, and may well culminate in another postseason matchup between the two clubs. Baseball fans should be thrilled if that does indeed come to pass.