With the San Diego Padres mercifully nearing the end of their season, it has officially become time to unpack what went wrong for one of baseball's most-hyped teams.
Simply put, the Padres should not be 74-78. They went 89-73 last year and reached the NLCS, beating two 100-win teams, including their Los Angeles Dodgers archnemesis, along the way. They lost basically zero players of real importance while adding All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts in free agency and getting Fernando Tatis Jr. back from suspension. They are a star-heavy team on which the stars, for the most part, have performed like stars.
So why did the Padres lose so much, particularly in one-run games (an MLB-worst 6-22) and extra-inning games (an MLB-worst 0-11)? Why are they closer in the standings to the last-place Colorado Rockies than to the Dodgers?
Some have tried to look for reasons beyond the easy answers of weak depth and lack of clutch performers.
The San Diego Union-Tribune's Kevin Acee took the first crack last week, taking a close look at the Padres' clubhouse culture and the leadership of their longest-tenured player, Manny Machado. He didn't find many people blaming Machado for a less-than-engaged clubhouse, but he found some disconnects in what some expect from the $350 million man and what he expects from himself.
The more concerning story arrived Tuesday, via The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal and Dennis Lin. Machado's leadership is briefly touched upon, but the bigger issue presented is the approach of general manager A.J. Preller, particularly when it comes to his relationship with manager Bob Melvin.
The Athletic reports that there is a rift between the two leaders, and it's "the worst-kept secret in baseball."
A player made an interesting comparison for the dynamic, per The Athletic:
Several Padres people interviewed for this story described circumstances in which Preller told players one thing and Melvin told them another. One player, while careful not to absolve himself and his teammates of blame, likened the situation to a toxic relationship between parents in which the kids suffer.
“If nobody’s on the same page and you’re getting two stories from two different people, there is not trust there,” the player said. “The players are going to feel like, well, who can I confide in? Who can I talk to?”
The Padres hired Melvin in the 2021-22 offseason and enjoyed success in his first year, the team's first campaign above .500 in a full season under Preller. This year has obviously changed the tone quite a bit.
A big point of contention is apparently the debate over how much pregame work the Padres should be doing. Preller is reportedly of the mind that players should be emphasizing pregame work on the field and in batting cages, while the coaching staff thinks such an approach tires players out over a 162-game season. Melvin is apparently not the first manager to take on Preller about this.
From The Athletic:
“Sometimes guys run out of gas,” one Padres player said. “I see it. And sometimes the sad part is they [club officials] see it, too. Why don’t you make adjustments?”
Not counting interims, Melvin is Preller's fourth manager since he joined San Diego in 2014.
Several more issues are presented in the article, mostly involving Preller. Maybe the oddest one is a fellow named Don Tricker, who was hired in 2017 as the Padres' director of player health and performance. His previous employer: the New Zealand "All-Blacks" rugby team, with whom he was a "high performance manager."
Tricker, previously a softball player and coach in New Zealand, was reportedly supposed to oversee San Diego's medical staff, training staff and analytics department, but some people believe his role ended up being a spy for the front office in clubhouse meetings, per The Athletic:
“I don’t know what Don does, honestly,” one former front-office staffer said.
“All he was doing was judging,” the ex-coach said. “He never provided any feedback to any coach or player.”
Those are awkward stories for Preller, but the much more awkward problem is the basic facts. The Padres entered this season with the third-highest 40-man payroll in baseball, ahead of even the Dodgers. They have embraced a win-now mentality for years, with just one NLCS appearance to show for it. They have All-Stars Blake Snell and Josh Hader hitting free agency this offseason, with Juan Soto's own dip into the free market a year after.
The Padres' spending as a small-market team is basically unprecedented, but so far, all that has made them is a cautionary tale. And that's enough to make Preller's seat seem mighty hot should they not turn things around soon.