First, a disclaimer: I do not have a bad thing to say about the San Diego Padres. In a league where spending is far from the norm and a commitment to winning is falling right alongside it, the Padres have cultivated a fervor amongst the fanbase and prepare to field a really impressive product in 2023. They’re aggressive. They’re exciting. They play in — objectively — one of the best cities in the country. Lack of a title (so far, at least) notwithstanding, you want your team to be like the San Diego Padres.
Their lineup stands to be one of the more exciting groups in baseball. Last year’s trade deadline acquisition of Juan Soto will combine with new addition Xander Bogaerts to form a potent-as-heck middle-of-the-order next to Manny Machado. They boast some strong supplementary bats in Jake Cronenworth, Ha-Seong Kim, and (fingers crossed) Trent Grisham. And that’s to say nothing of the imminent return of Fernando Tatis Jr. in late April.
While their pitching isn’t as deep as it was last year, you could do worse than a rotation that features Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish, and Blake Snell. They added some arms to compensate for some departures and still sport Robert Suarez and Josh Hader at the back end of the bullpen. The National League is top-heavy. The Padres aren’t a “favorite.” But they’ve set themselves up to have as good a shot as any at a legitimate run in ’23.
Which does make the case of identifying sleepers and busts a touch more difficult. This seems to be the case with contenders. You know who the stars are. The Padres have no shortage of them in their lineup. There is a certain level of murkiness, though, that does lend itself to plenty from both sides of the spectrum on the bump.
Speaking of murky, a word about Blake Snell and the tightrope. The 2022 campaign was a tale of two seasons for southpaw Blake Snell. He made his first start of the year on May 18th. He didn’t record his first win — nor did the Padres at large in a Snell start — until July 8th. His ERA and BB/9 were each heavily over five in the first half of the year. He turned it on in the second half, pitching to a 2.19 ERA and a K-BB% that trumped that of the first half (27.3% in the second half vs. 15.6% in the first).
The issue with Snell is that even when he’s on, there’s traffic. That 2.31 BB/9 in the second half is well below his career average, even during his dominant years in Tampa Bay. It lends itself to not only bad outings, but short ones. Snell might have a run-free start, but it often comes at the expense of his pitch count. Then, of course, he can rattle off a seven-inning, 13-strikeout start as he did in September of last year against St. Louis. It’s infuriating and makes projecting him almost impossible. So until we know what we’re getting out of 2023 Blake Snell, he’s both a sleeper and a bust. Schrödinger’s Snell.
On to the actual names.
Key Concept: Too Much Patience
After that second disclaimer, let’s start with a hitter. It’s 2023. We’re past the “patience is a virtue” adage. And as our society continually loses its patience, Trent Grisham only enhances his. When I wrote about Grisham at the end of the 2022 season, I theorized that he could benefit from a more aggressive approach. And, in general, it’s hard to argue when you look at some of the trends over his four-year career:
It’s a simple chart, but there’s a lot happening there. Grisham doesn’t swing the bat. A 39.2% swing rate is nothing. More specifically, his was 38.7% in 2022. Only a handful of players swung the bat less. Logic would seem to indicate that if you’re seeing a lot of pitches, that would likely bode well for you in matters of A) Finding good pitches to hit and B) Reaching base. Grisham didn’t do either of those things in 2022.
By Early BIP% (balls in play on 0-0, 1-0, 0-1, and 1-1), Grisham’s 11% fell well below the league average (14.8%). Grisham does his best work across fastballs. Pitchers are more likely to throw fastballs early in the count. We know there’s some power there. More on-base could enhance Grisham’s base-stealing ability and make him into a modest dual threat. If he can even bump up the willingness to swing early a touch, there’s an upside there that could be unlocked.
Key Concept: Next Man Up
As a non-closer reliever, it’s hard to make sweeping declarations either way about Suarez. His story is fascinating and his first full MLB campaign in 2022 was a marvel. He pitched to a 2.27 ERA and struck out over 11.5 hitters per nine. He’s got a lightning fastball and a changeup/sinker combination that each plays well off of it. There isn’t a ton of data to suggest a big fluctuation in performance either way. But his position in the San Diego bullpen and his 2022 each indicate that he’s a man worth monitoring in 2023.
It’s always worth it to keep an eye on a setup man. Whether it’s injury or pitching ahead of someone prone to self-destruction, those guys can be worth a stash in the event that things turn sour for the closer. Suarez happens to be pitching in front of Josh Hader. While Hader did appear to regain his form towards the end of last year, his bad stretches and the overall volatility of relievers certainly make Suarez one of the more intriguing non-closer options.
He maintains a high strikeout rate, thanks largely due to a mix of pitches that includes at least the three previously mentioned. He’ll also toss a cutter or a curve, occasionally. He gives up very little quality contact. His 18.8 percent HC% was well below the 24.6 league average. His skill set and trends each lend themselves to someone who could very much handle a ninth-inning role. While you’d like his walks to come down a touch, the repertoire, soft contact, and, subsequently, ability to strand runners combine to make him worth a roster spot, with sky-rocketing potential if the worst happens for Hader again.
Key Concept: A Contact Hitter with Declining Contact
We’re ending with one that hurts my heart a bit. Cronenworth has been one of my favorite players in recent years, due to his high contact tendencies and aesthetically pleasing swing. But I certainly have my questions heading into 2023. More specifically, how will his offensive profile translate to a new position? Conclusion: Probably not well!
There are certainly some reasons to be concerned about Cronenworth after 2022 saw him take a step back in a few regards. He did see more pitches and walk a touch more last year (10.2%). He also made less contact, featured less power, and ultimately turned in his worst offensive season of the last three years. The trends above certainly speak to that. He swung at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone but made far less contact in doing so. His contact inside of the zone fell along with it. And it’s not as if this was a situation where he was selling out for power after a 21-homer campaign in 2021. His ISO fell by over 40 points, down to .152.
So he’s a contact hitter who struggled to make contact, playing a position rich in power while having…not a lot of power. If there’s a renewed approach that re-enhances the contact, then there is certainly value in what Cronenworth can provide offensively. Even if he doesn’t have the power that might’ve flashed his first two years, his run totals and RBIs wrought by hitting in a potent lineup could make him worth a roster spot. But with the trends sitting the way that they are, it’s just too hard to invest in him, especially at first base.
Key Concept: Overvaluing the Defined Role
Hader’s overall output from 2022 doesn’t look good. A 5.22 ERA and 1.28 WHIP were easily the worst of his career. His 33.2 CSW% was the lowest he’s posted. He stranded only 66.9% of runners and served up hard contact at an 18.7% clip. He stunk out loud. There was a stretch in July where Hader surrendered runs in six of eight outings, including a six-run appearance on July 15th. A similar stretch followed once he actually arrived in San Diego, where every other appearance featured runs again, including an additional six-run go against Kansas City on August 28th.
But things apparently clicked on September 5th. From that point on, Hader didn’t allow a run across 10 appearances and only surrendered a singular walk. Whiff and CSW% each shot back up. Hader’s repertoire never went anywhere; his command did. Should we trust Hader less because of a couple of bad stretches in an otherwise great career as a ninth-inning guy? Probably.
There are going to be those who are still extremely invested in Hader as a closing option. Which makes sense. Other than those 2022 blips, he’s been as steady a presence at the back end of the bullpen as any in baseball. But there’s an apprehension there now due to three things:
- The fact that we saw it occur on two separate stretched-out occasions last year.
- Relievers are famously volatile. Once they go bad, can they ever truly get it back?
- Hader’s defined role as closer puts him in a position to be drafted far higher than he should be, given the above concerns.
It’s that last idea that’s most interesting to me. There are a number of situations around the league where there’s a committee situation, even amongst contending squads. That puts far more stock in someone like Hader, who is guaranteed a look at saves. The arsenal is obviously still there, but if those command issues arrive again, the Padres already signed his eventual ninth-inning replacement to a five-year pact. I don’t know how long the leash is going to be.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)