Can the San Diego Padres turn around last year’s dysfunction and become a contender again?

Can the San Diego Padres turn around last year’s dysfunction and become a contender again? post thumbnail image

BILLY BEANE WAS a sports-obsessed 7-year-old in San Diego when Major League Baseball came to his city in 1969. He attended as many Padres games as he could, visiting what was then called San Diego Stadium so often he became part of an early promotional campaign that designated him as a “7up Junior Padre.” He rooted hard for Nate Colbert and Clay Kirby, scoffed at those who suggested Vin Scully was a better broadcaster than Jerry Coleman and approached each spring with unabashed optimism. The Padres accomplished only one winning season before Beane left the city as a first-round draft pick out of high school in 1980, but he continued to quietly root for them from afar, even while navigating his current job as the Oakland Athletics‘ celebrated head of baseball operations. He wanted it for San Diego.

“I know what that city’s capable of doing when an exciting, winning team is out there,” Beane said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.”

Now, weirdly, he might be part of it.

The Padres began a much-hyped 2021 season with 34 wins in their first 53 games, then underwent one of the most bewildering collapses in recent baseball history, ultimately missing the playoffs with a losing record and sending the team’s principal decision-makers on a search for new leadership in its clubhouse. Their greatest need, many throughout the industry noted, was an experienced manager with clout, someone who could expertly strike the balance of earning trust with players and building synergy with executives — a skill that often seemed to elude the departed Jayce Tingler. And it was Beane who helped deliver their ideal candidate.

Beane and Bob Melvin had grown exceedingly close while spending the past 11 years together in Oakland, sharing an affinity for red wine, wry humor and 5 o’clock dinners. But with the A’s staring down the likelihood of another rebuild after the 2021 season, Beane and A’s owner John Fisher granted Melvin the opportunity to entertain external opportunities, even though the team had already picked up his 2022 option.

Padres president of baseball operations, A.J. Preller, spent the early weeks of Major League Baseball’s postseason getting a feel for the team’s initial list of candidates, but with an eye toward asking Beane about the possibility of interviewing Melvin for the vacancy. The call came around the middle of October. “Let me talk to him,” Beane responded.

“It wasn’t something I embraced,” Beane said in a recent phone conversation. “But he’s at this stage in his life, and our relationship is such, that I wanted what was best for him. And this is what was best for him.”

The entire pursuit took about a week. Preller, striving to move quickly, walked Melvin through two separate meetings over the final days of October, one in the Padres’ spring training complex in Peoria, Arizona, and the other in the team’s major league ballpark in downtown San Diego. As the process unfolded, Beane became Melvin’s most important confidant.

“It was all about doing what was the best thing for Bob,” Beane said. “That was absolutely, positively it.”

Melvin, 60, wasn’t necessarily eager to leave, but he wasn’t necessarily eager to navigate a third rebuild, either. The New York Mets also expressed interest, but Melvin didn’t want to pit teams against one another. He would make his decision one team at a time, starting with the Padres. He never reached the Mets.

“I was comfortable with this,” Melvin told ESPN as spring training was winding down. “It wasn’t about money for me. It wasn’t about negotiating. It was about being comfortable in another place. That’s just kind of how I am. I was comfortable with this, so the New York process never took shape.”

Nearly 300 different players wore an A’s uniform from 2011 to 2021, and none of them, Beane asserts, ever said a bad word about Melvin. Beane points to the humility, empathy and calmness that make him the very best at managing a clubhouse and forging relationships. His open-mindedness, curiosity and intelligence, Beane added, make him fluent in the analytics that became prevalent long after his playing career ended in the mid 1990s. Together, despite scant resources, Beane and Melvin emerged from each of two aggressive rebuilds with impressive runs of three consecutive postseason appearances. They had been the longest-tenured manager-executive pairing in the sport.

“And it didn’t end because of failure on one part or the other,” Beane said. “In some ways it ended because he was so successful.”

JUNE 23, 2021, ended in euphoria. Padres third baseman Manny Machado snared a hard line drive off the bat of Albert Pujols and quickly fired to second base to retire Will Smith, ending a close game on a double play. Second baseman Jake Cronenworth boisterously pumped his fist, closer Mark Melancon let out a primal yell and a sold-out home crowd went wild. The Padres had swept the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, improving to 45-32 while cruising in the National League wild-card race. It felt like their arrival.

It turned out to be their peak.

When San Diego next met the Dodgers, on Aug. 24, it had lost 20 of 45 games since the start of July. The Padres lost three more to the Dodgers, then went 6-19 in September, playing themselves out of a playoff spot that at times had felt like a certainty. The month finished with another sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, this time in L.A., and the Padres navigated through that series like a team that had clearly lost interest.

In the words of one scout who closely followed them: “They looked dead.”

On the morning of May 30, the Padres held the majors’ best record, at 34-19. They finished 79-83 on the afternoon of Oct. 3, becoming the first team since the introduction of the second wild card 10 years ago to lead the majors in winning percentage at least 50 games into a season and end it with a losing record.

“If you’re gonna fall off a cliff like we did last year, you might as well make it dramatic,” Padres owner Peter Seidler said early in spring training. “And we did.”

ESPN spoke with more than a dozen people in several capacities throughout the Padres organization since the conclusion of the 2021 season, and a singular reason for last year’s slide often eluded them.

Many, however, pointed to one date: July 30.

Early that afternoon, hours before the start of batting practice, several Padres coaches sat in the stands at Petco Park. The trade deadline was approaching, Eric Hosmer‘s name was everywhere, and the tension it triggered within the clubhouse had become so thick, sources told ESPN, that some staff members preferred to sit outside.

Three years and five months earlier, signing Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract represented the Padres’ return to relevance. And though Hosmer had struggled to live up to the expectations of his salary, he had established himself among the strongest voices inside the Padres’ clubhouse. The mention of his name in trade rumors surprised and upset a segment of the team’s players, sources said, an initial spark in what became an unruly fire. In the end, even though Hosmer stayed put, the 2021 trade deadline was looked upon by many as a flashpoint in the Padres’ downfall — not just for the distrust sown by the Hosmer rumors, but by the inaction that came to define the rest of their season.

The Padres had aggressively pursued Max Scherzer, who eventually went to the Dodgers alongside star teammate Trea Turner. They found the asking price too high for Jose Berrios and didn’t believe any of the other available starting pitchers represented a considerable upgrade over Ryan Weathers and Chris Paddack. Their inactivity soon backfired. Weathers allowed eight runs in the first four innings of the Padres’ first game after the deadline, the start of a four-week stretch that saw him post a 13.50 ERA. The following day, Paddack suffered an oblique strain that would sideline him for a month. Two weeks later, Yu Darvish‘s back stiffened up, at which point Adrian Morejon was recovering from Tommy John surgery and MacKenzie Gore was retooling his mechanics. The Padres had suddenly run out of starters, triggering a litany of bullpen games for an overworked group of relievers.

The offense had the opposite problem. The Padres acquired Adam Frazier, the major league leader in hits, on July 26. But Hosmer stayed, no other position player was traded away, and evaluators from other teams noted troubling redundancy in the Padres’ lineup, one further complicated by Fernando Tatis Jr. playing the outfield in an effort to preserve his tender left shoulder. On any given night, up to three established players — from a group that included Trent Grisham, Tommy Pham, Wil Myers, Jurickson Profar, Ha-Seong Kim, Frazier and Hosmer — sat on the bench.

“Veteran guys can accept a limited role if the team is winning,” a former Padres staffer said. “If that happens and the team is losing, it can become a problem.”

The day after the deadline, the Padres remained 14 games above .500 with a 4½-game cushion on the second NL wild-card spot. By the start of September, that lead had shrunk to half a game. The month began with eight losses in a stretch of 11 games, then a stretch of 12 losses in 13 tries, by which point the Padres — swiftly, thoroughly — had played themselves out of contention.

“I really don’t know how we could’ve done something different or what we could’ve done different to turn that season around,” Padres starting pitcher Joe Musgrove said. “I don’t think it was one specific thing.”

But others privately placed the blame largely in one place.

THE PADRES WERE more or less treading water by July 24, and home-plate umpire Doug Eddings didn’t do them any favors. With two on and one out in the eighth inning of a game, the Padres trailed by a run and Emilio Pagan threw a fastball that appeared to catch the inside corner but was called a ball. Skip Schumaker, at that point the Padres’ associate manager, was fed up. He barked at Eddings from the dugout, got ejected, then stormed onto the field to give him an earful.

Afterward, some around the team wondered why it wasn’t Tingler who got involved. His typical player-friendly, hands-off approach, which had been celebrated at prior stops, backfired as the Padres began to slide last summer, sources said, believing they needed a firmer hand.

Reached by phone, Tingler didn’t shy away from the critique.

“I think there’s definitely some instances when I probably could’ve been a little firmer,” said Tingler, now Rocco Baldelli’s bench coach with the Minnesota Twins. “At the same time, even though we started to struggle the last two months, I had a lot of confidence. I had a lot of confidence in the players. I believed a lot in those guys. I believed things were gonna turn. I did have a really strong belief in that group.”

Tingler hadn’t played beyond Double-A or managed anywhere close to the major leagues when Preller hand-selected him as the Padres’ manager in October 2019, touting his expertise from their time working together in the Texas Rangers‘ minor league system. Tingler finished as the runner-up for the NL Manager of the Year award in 2020, when the Padres snapped a 13-year playoff drought during the COVID-19-shortened season, advanced past the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card round and played a thrilling division series against the Dodgers.

But Tingler appeared to lose his influence within the clubhouse as the 2021 season progressed, at least among a segment of the veteran players, sources told ESPN, prompting a room full of strong, divergent personalities to police itself, as evidenced by Machado publicly berating Tatis in September.

Despite his success in 2020, some of the players, sources said, never stopped viewing Tingler as an underqualified manager who got the job because of his ties to Preller, an opinion that only became more prevalent as the team kept losing. The makeup of his coaching staff — most of them accomplished coaches elsewhere, with no prior ties to Tingler — didn’t help dissuade the narrative.

Preller, reached by phone, declined to go into specifics about Tingler, opting instead to talk about the current makeup. Tingler didn’t shoot down the narrative but said he never experienced animosity directly from the players. After word spread about his firing on Oct. 6, many of them sent supportive text messages.

“It hurts,” Tingler said of how last season ended. “We didn’t play and perform the way we needed to. Certainly the last month. Ultimately, that’s why I’m not back anymore.”

Those who back Tingler believe he evolved into a convenient fall guy for a clubhouse that didn’t possess enough accountability in the aggregate, noting that the portrayal of Tingler being an ill-equipped leader formed only as a result of losing. They also debunk the notion that Tingler was merely a puppet for Preller, citing a large number of heated arguments between the two.

Few, regardless of their opinions, identify Tingler as the sole reason the Padres sank. Polled this spring, some of the players pointed to the unfortunate luck of getting uncommonly cold at a time when the Cardinals became inordinately hot, at one point winning 17 consecutive September games.

Others blamed the amount of injuries the team suffered — the Padres led the majors in days spent on the injured list in 2021 — and how they sapped its pitching depth. Others pointed to the tendency for individuals to put too much of a burden on themselves when the group was struggling, a sign of a team still growing into its own.

Other sources point to an inescapable reality about the 2021 Padres: The players themselves didn’t perform.

The bullpen, overworked early in the year, crumbled down the stretch. The lineup featured only three hitters (Machado, Tatis and Cronenworth) who produced better than 20% above the league average in OPS. And three of the team’s most important starting pitchers (Darvish, Paddack and Blake Snell) simply weren’t good enough.

“It’s really hard, especially with the huge expectations they had for us as a team,” Tatis told ESPN over the final days of the regular season. “It’s just hard. Simple as that.”

FIVE MONTHS LATER, Tatis’ No. 23 jersey hung at his locker unattended, a constant, distinctive reminder of what was missing. While the Padres navigated through an abbreviated, three-week spring training this March, Tatis was usually off somewhere else, rehabbing from the wrist injury that wasn’t addressed until he reported to camp and might have been caused by a motorcycle accident that occurred three months earlier. Tatis’ wrist didn’t begin to truly bother him, he said, until he ramped up his workouts a few weeks before the start of spring training, at which point the MLB lockout still prevented teams from communicating with players. An X-ray that was part of his entrance physical revealed a fracture that would sideline him for at least three months, forcing a win-now team to scramble without one of the best, most electrifying talents in the sport.

“Needless to say how big of a blow it is, because he’s such a great player and a key player for our team,” Darvish said through an interpreter. “But what happened is what happened. We just have to cover him and move forward.”

Darvish is one of four accomplished Padres starting pitchers scheduled to reach free agency within the next two years, along with Snell, Musgrove and Mike Clevinger. The foursome arrived amid a head-spinning 20-week stretch from late August 2020 to mid January 2021, when Preller pulled off nine trades that saw a combined 45 players switch teams.

The Padres have had six losing records in six full seasons under Preller, who began his tenure by acquiring the likes of Justin Upton, Wil Myers, James Shields, Matt Kemp and Craig Kimbrel, only to embark on a rebuild shortly thereafter. Preller quickly restocked a farm system that became the best in the industry, signed Hosmer and Machado, watched as Tatis and Cronenworth blossomed and supplemented the roster with another dizzying array of moves.

Preller is now hamstrung by a payroll that projects to be right at the new luxury-tax threshold of $230 million, a circumstance that makes it difficult to add impact talent without shedding salary and including promising young players who could be essential for 2022. Gore and top prospect C.J. Abrams are among those who have come up in trade talks. But Abrams’ ascension and Gore’s improvement are critical to the Padres’ chances of sustaining themselves without Tatis, who probably won’t return until June.

The Padres missed out on an assortment of impact bats this offseason — Seiya Suzuki, Kyle Schwarber, Nelson Cruz, Bryan Reynolds, Dominic Smith, Jose Ramirez — and rival evaluators believe their lineup is still lacking.

If Luke Voit, acquired in a minor trade four weeks ago, can tap back into the production he displayed with the New York Yankees in 2019 and 2020, and Kim, signed out of South Korea in December 2020, can adjust to major league velocity, the Padres’ lineup might have a chance.

But it’ll ultimately come down to the area that most betrayed them last season.

“I think the starting pitching will be key,” said Preller, who augmented his starting-pitching depth by agreeing with Nick Martinez in late November and trading for Sean Manaea in early April. “If we get good pitching, we’ll be in it.”

Melvin, Preller’s fourth full-time manager, began spring training with a message of unity, stressing that the roster is good enough to make up for the absence of any player, even Tatis. Seidler attempted to strike a supportive tone, harping on “the trust that the city of San Diego has in them.” It is evident in the box office. The Padres drew more than 2 million fans last season and ranked third in attendance even though their ballpark didn’t reopen at full capacity until the third week of June. They announced a 20% increase in ticket prices in early August, right before the team faded, and nonetheless set a franchise record with more than 19,200 season ticket commitments heading into Opening Day.

Melvin was asked if it all created pressure to win immediately.

“Absolutely,” he said. “And when you have a $200 million payroll, that’s exactly what you face.”

Melvin has a knack for embracing pressure but not succumbing to it. Pagan, traded alongside Paddack in an April 7 deal that brought back a new closer in Taylor Rogers, noticed it when he played for Melvin in 2018. The A’s got off to a rough start in April, but Melvin displayed calmness. He called a team meeting — a rarity for him — to tell his players to remain confident and stay the course because “we’re talented enough to be in the race.” The A’s won 97 games that year.

“It was something that stuck out to me,” Pagan said. “At least on the outside, from our perspective as players, there was no stress or putting too much pressure on winning the next series. It was, ‘Just keep doing what we do, and we’ll be fine.’ Over the course of a long season, you need that.”

Melvin didn’t ask too many questions upon taking the Padres job. He read the reports of friction throughout the organization and listened to some of the input from those who remained, but he wanted to attack the role with fresh eyes and no bias. A 99-day, owner-driven lockout prevented him from connecting with his new players over the offseason, so he made it a point to seek them out for conversations during spring training — always on the field, never in his office. Despite last year’s drama, Melvin has noticed “a group that’s tight, and a group that’s driven, and a group that wants to win.”

He believes the issues stemmed mostly from not doing so.

“Guys wanna win games,” Melvin said. “And when you don’t, and you feel like you have the ability to do better than they were doing, sometimes it gets contentious. And I don’t know that it’s not a good thing.”

ESPN’s Jeff Passan contributed to this story.

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