Prelude – Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, 1:12 a.m. ET – Globe Life Field, Arlington Texas
As Trent Grisham watched Dylan Floro’s fastball pass into the strike zone without so much as a flinch, the San Diego Padres’ first playoff run since 2006 came to an end. Instead, the NL West rival Los Angeles Dodgers would advance out of the NLDS, eventually claiming their first World Series crown since 1998.
For Padres general manager A.J. Preller, the playoff berth had offered a taste of success after six years of trading and dealing to try to end years of subpar seasons.
With talents such as Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado – amongst a plethora of others – the lineup was in good shape for a deep postseason run. Of note during the regular season, the Padres became the first team to hit grand slams in four consecutive games – much to the Texas Rangers’ chagrin during a four-game sweep in August.
The offensive firepower reflected in Stats Perform’s Raw Value+ metric, with the Padres ranking second in the majors during the regular season at 126. As a reminder, Raw Value+ (RV+) examines how a batter performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, while Raw Value- (RV-) does the same from a pitcher’s perspective. The higher the number, the better for batters, with the league average set at 100.
The challenge for Preller came with pitching. While not disastrous in terms of RV- (where the lower the value, the better), his starters ranked 10th (94 RV-) and the bullpen was ninth (86 RV-). The hope that trade acquisition Mike Clevinger would be a postseason difference maker came to an abrupt halt in Game 1 of the NLDS. His elbow injury led to one of baseball’s more effective starters having Tommy John surgery in November, and he won’t be part of the rotation in 2021.
That left Preller looking at his deck of cards, knowing he needed to make some bold deals if he is going to help produce the team’s first World Series appearance since 1998.
Act 1 – Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, 11:16 p.m. ET – Dennis Lin’s Twitter Feed
BREAKING: The Padres have an agreement in place to acquire Blake Snell from the Rays, sources tell @JCTSports, @Ken_Rosenthal and me. Luis Patiño, Francisco Mejía, Blake Hunt and Cole Wilcox would head to Tampa. Deal pending review of medical records.
— Dennis Lin (@dennistlin) December 28, 2020
As we stated in our Evolution or Revolution series focusing on the Tampa Bay Rays, there was a chance 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell would be on the trade block this offseason. It made sense that Preller would turn to a familiar friend to land a blockbuster deal.
Heading into the 2020 season, Preller and Rays general manager Erik Neander agreed to a package that saw Hunter Renfroe, Xavier Edwards (he of subsequent Snell Twitch outburst fame) and Esteban Quiroz head to the Rays in return for Tommy Pham (124 RV+) and Jake Cronenworth (145 RV+), who broke out enough to come close to claiming NL Rookie of the Year honors with a .285/.354/.477 slash line plus four home runs and 20 RBIs.
The two GMs also put together a package that saw Emilio Pagan join the Padres’ bullpen with Manuel Margot and Logan Driscoll heading the other way. By 2020’s Raw Value ratings alone, it appeared the Padres got the better of both trades, so no wonder Preller was keen to raiding Tropicana Field once more.
The price for a talent like Snell, who has three years of team control left on his contract, was always going to come at a higher price. Luis Patiño impressed in part during the past season (82 RV-) and despite arguably being one of the leading prospects in a stacked Padres’ farm system, he appears a couple of years away from being at his best, which is not what a team looking to win right now needs.
Catcher Francisco Mejia didn’t replicate his 2019 form, batting a paltry .077 in only 39 at-bats before a thumb injury derailed his campaign. Two other prospects, Blake Hunt and Cole Wilcox, who set a third-round record in the 2020 draft with a $3.3 million signing bonus (which the Padres will still pay), completed the package.
In return, the Padres secured one of baseball’s more effective pitchers when it comes to generating swings on pitches far off the plate, or as we call it Extreme Chase+. Snell finished fourth in the majors amongst those who threw at least 500 pitches.
The only concerns surrounding Snell come with his ability to pitch deep into games. Now whether this was by Rays design (his last appearance for the franchise in the World Series will leave many pointing their fingers at manager Kevin Cash), the 28-year-old left-hander hasn’t completed six innings in a game since July 2019 or gone beyond that point since May of the same year.
Still, less than 24 hours later, Preller and the Padres were ready to go all-in in 2021.
Act 2 – Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, 9:33 p.m. ET – Mark Feinsand’s Twitter Feed
Cubs-Padres deal will be Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini to SD for Zach Davies, SS Reginald Preciado, OF Owen Caissie, OF Ismael Mena and SS Yeison Santana, per source.
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) December 29, 2020
There’s often fire where there’s smoke. When rumors swirled the Chicago Cubs might look to trade Yu Darvish in search of payroll relief, it certainly seemed to point toward the 2020 NL Cy Young runner-up being gently eased toward the exit door.
The 34-year-old right-hander led the NL in wins (8) and recorded the best ERA of his career (2.01) as he threw more strikes than ever, dramatically decreasing his walk percentage to 4.7. This didn’t see an uptick in his strikeout percentage (remaining level with his 2019 mark at 31.3) but was still enough to see him ranked 10th across all majors with an RV- of 61.
Having missed most of the 2018 season with arm injuries, Darvish came back to make 31 starts in 2019 and all 12 of his turns in 2020. He will be joined in San Diego by Victor Caratini, who was his personal catcher in recent years. With three years also remaining on his contract, it’s a bit surprising what little the Padres are giving up in return.
Only Zach Davies will be expected to make an impact for the Cubs in 2021 and is the definition of league average when it comes to RV- at 100. Four other teenage prospects also will join the organization, but none may start the season above Double–A, so while Theo Epstein has left the franchise, his blueprint is firmly embedded into the Cubs Way.
With the dust seemingly now settled, the Padres can look to the new year with hope and expectation. Concerns about their starting rotation have been put on the backburner. Last season’s breakout starter Dinelson Lamet (60 RV-) will be given the space to recover from an elbow injury (the concern goes back to his Tommy John surgery in 2018). Chris Paddack (125 RV-) may not have lived up to his stellar rookie season but will look to bounce back, with highly touted prospects MacKenzie Gore and Ryan Weathers waiting in the wings.
If all that movement wasn’t enough, Preller still found the time to add KBO star Kim Ha-seong to the mix as well, adding more potential punch to an already stacked infield.
The question now is, having put all the chips seemingly into the center of the table, can the Padres live up to this new hope at Petco Park?
Data modeling and analysis provided by Lucas Haupt.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to The Analyst to receive five stories each Friday from Stats Perform. It’s free.