A remarkable turnaround unfolded this winter. ESPN Films isn’t going to make a “30 for 30” documentary about it, but in its own way it was an exceptional thing:
Without a single regular-season game played, the San Diego Padres erased a 30-game deficit to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
This is merely theoretical, based only in the realm of projection. In the real world, the Dodgers are coming off a 111-win season, most in the history of the storied franchise. They won the National League West by 22 games over the Padres last year. (And then San Diego beat the Dodgers in the playoffs. You gotta love October.)
The wild thing is, San Diego was lucky to finish only 22 games back. The Dodgers outscored opponents by a whopping 334 runs. That margin translates to a club that, all things being equal, ought to win 116 games. The Padres, on the other hand, were just plus-45 in terms of run differential, suggesting they “should” have won 86 games. Thus, in effect, there was a 30-game chasm between these teams when the 2022 season ended.
Flash forward to right now and, according to Las Vegas, the Dodgers remain the favorite in the division — but the margin is narrow. Check out the current forecasts of some leading projection systems:
How did this happen? To get a sense of how the NL West race has evolved, let’s take a closer look at how the winter went down and how the projections changed at key points since last year.
How the 2022 season ended
Actual gap: Dodgers 111 wins, Padres 89 wins (L.A. +22)
Pythagorean gap: Dodgers 116 wins, Padres 86 wins (L.A. +30)
The Dodgers won a bunch of games in 2022, swamping the NL West. The Padres, on the other hand, started strong, floundered for much of the middle of the season, but remained in the thick of the NL playoff picture even as they fell farther behind the Dodges in the division. One potential boost, the hoped-for return of Fernando Tatis Jr. from an injured wrist, didn’t pan out, as after a short stint on a rehab assignment in San Antonio, Tatis was suspended 80 games for PED use.
We’ve already noted the statistical gap between the clubs, the theoretical 30-game bulge. But the Padres had already started to evolve as a result of in-season moves that landed them a star closer (Josh Hader) and a generational hitter (Juan Soto). The end-of-season standings were what they were, but the gap had already started to close.
That there wasn’t a true 30-game gap between the clubs was evident during the playoffs, when San Diego knocked off the heavily favored Dodgers. But that’s the playoffs and random events happen at that time of the year, so it told us little about how the Padres were going to close the win gap as the offseason dawned.
2023 Projection 1: Pre-free agent frenzy
Gap: Dodgers 97 wins, Padres 92 wins (L.A. +5)
• Padres get Fernando Tatis Jr. back in their forecast
• Padres get a bounce-back projection for Juan Soto
As we trace through some key checkpoints of the offseason, let’s begin with a glance at what the teams looked like from a projection standpoint at the close of the 2022 season. That is, how would these teams fare in the forecasts if they brought back exactly the same rosters?
Injured players would heal and the Padres could look forward to the end-of-April return of Tatis. Other players would age. Regression would enter the fray in the projection systems, affecting players such as the Dodgers’ Trayce Thompson, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2022, but also Soto, the Padres’ star who had an uncharacteristically down year.
This estimate serves as the starting point of the offseason for both clubs. Players haven’t yet been traded or non-tendered. Those on expiring deals haven’t hit free agency. These are the 2022 rosters of the Padres and Dodgers projected forward.
The result? Had the teams been able to run it back with the same on-paper rosters as the ones they finished last season with, the Dodgers’ edge would be all but gone. The preseason version of the Padres had been bolstered by their in-season additions and the return of Tatis. The Dodgers are still great — their 97 forecast wins at this point is a tremendous baseline projection — but the Padres have already reentered their orbit at 92 forecast wins.
These baseline numbers are a testament to the power of regression to the mean. Other than the addition of Tatis, regression is the primary reason why these teams, so far apart in the 2022 standings, were back on relatively even footing from a projection standpoint. The 30-game gap had largely closed before any moves had been made.
This projection is important because it’s with their own version of these numbers that the teams set out upon their offseason plans. The Padres knew they had already made a move in the right direction. And the Dodgers knew they didn’t really have a 30-game buffer, or anything close to it.
Nevertheless, a gap did remain as the offseason dawned.
2023 Projection 2: Free agent exodus
Gap: Dodgers 86 wins, Padres 86 wins (Even)
• Key Dodgers hit free agency: Clayton Kershaw, Tyler Anderson, Joey Gallo, Chris Martin, David Price, Justin Turner, Trea Turner, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Heaney and Danny Duffy
• Dodgers non-tender Cody Bellinger
• Key Padres hit free agency: Josh Bell, Mike Clevinger, Sean Manaea, Wil Myers, Jurickson Profar and Brandon Drury
• Padres re-sign Nick Martinez and Robert Suarez, who both return after opting out of their deals
The Dodgers and Padres began November in similar fashion: Watching the Philadelphia Phillies represent the National League in the World Series. After the Fall Classic was settled, the hot stove season arrived.
This period took a much bigger bite out of the Dodgers’ talent pool than the Padres’. That’s a lot of talent for both teams to lose, but that group on the Dodgers is especially painful. Still, the Dodgers are known for their organizational depth, so would their projection suffer all that much?
What we have here are the wonkiest projections of the winter. All those free agents and non-tenders are off the roster. Teams not only haven’t filled those roster spots but they also haven’t started the process of securing veterans on minor league deals, some of those players sure to end up on the eventual regular-season roster.
To make the playing time balance out for projections, you have to pump up the depth chart forecast for a lot of organizational players who aren’t going to play that much. Thus the end-of-November roster glance for most teams is the nadir of their offseason forecast, unless the team is just starting a rebuild and is shipping away productive veterans. For those teams, the forecasts can only get worse.
So by this measure, the Padres appear to have already caught and passed the Dodgers. But what this really says is that because of the November activity, L.A. has more work to do on its big league roster. At this juncture, one would expect plenty of activity in free agency and trades by one of these teams, and, if we didn’t know the reputation of San Diego general manager A.J. Preller, we’d assume that team would be the Dodgers.
2023 Projection 3: Dust settles after wild winter meetings
Gap: Padres 90 wins, Dodgers 88 wins (San Diego +2)
• Padres sign Xander Bogaerts, Matt Carpenter and Seth Lugo
• Dodgers sign Noah Syndergaard, J.D. Martinez and Jason Heyward
If November is largely an exercise in dismantling for most teams, December is a month of building back up. Free agents are making their choices. The winter meetings move to center stage. The landscape of the majors begins to transmogrify.
December was a very different experience for fans of the two rivals. For San Diego, it was exhilarating, with the club swinging big to land a premier free agent in Bogaerts. Beyond that, Preller was in rare form. He added lefty Jose Lopez in the Rule 5 draft and, at one point during December, seemed to be holding to some sort of pledge to sign at least one veteran minor league contract per day.
Things were much quieter at Dodger Stadium, with few of their moves doing much on the projection front. Adding Syndergaard and Martinez helped. Also, not to be overlooked: Kershaw was back. Add it up and while it doesn’t offset San Diego’s addition of Bogaerts, the L.A. roster is starting to round back into form.
The projections at this point are a lot more real. There are still some name free agents on the market and at this juncture, not many major trades have occurred. (Though there never really was a spate of trades this winter.) The Padres have set themselves up nicely. The perennial favorite Dodgers still have work to do.
2023 Projection 4: Spring training begins
Gap: Dodgers 92 wins, Padres 92 wins (Even)
• Padres sign Nelson Cruz and Michael Wacha
• Dodgers sign David Peralta and Alex Reyes
• Dodgers acquire Miguel Rojas from Miami Marlins
The Padres stayed active as 2023 began, adding a veteran DH in Cruz and an end-of-the-rotation option in Wacha. This ticked their projection some but mostly just bolstered their depth.
The Dodgers added a pair of position players who figure to play a lot in the coming season, bringing in Rojas, who helps shore up a weakened team defense, and Peralta. Reyes will help in the bullpen. With these veterans taking the place of unproven types on the depth chart, the Dodgers’ forecast has pretty much drawn even with the Padres, though few of their fans probably noticed they had actually fallen behind.
This observation of an even NL West race wasn’t a consensus. Different systems had slightly different conclusions. What was consistent is that the systems had the Dodgers and Padres close, give or take two or three wins in either direction.
That, by itself, is remarkable given where the teams stood at the end of last season.
2023 Projection 5: Opening Day looms
Gap: Padres 92 wins, Dodgers 90 (San Diego +2)
• Dodgers lose Gavin Lux for the season
For the most part, the spring projections are going to be largely the same as the Opening Day projections. We might tweak the playing time some as position battles clarify. And we might be forced to juggle things if an important player is injured … an important player such as Lux, who will miss 2023 because of a spring training knee injury.
And that’s where we leave off — with the Padres as a slight favorite over the Dodgers in our system.
History tells us that the Dodgers will probably beat their projection, if only because of their propensity for helping players become better versions of themselves. Also, a big reason the Dodgers decided to hold back this winter and keep their payroll in check is because they have young players they like. Miguel Vargas will play more than he has. James Outman will get a look in the outfield. Michael Busch and Yonny Hernandez will help in the infield. Everyone is excited about young starters Bobby Miller and Gavin Stone.
Still, if you’re the Padres, this is your chance to finally flip the script in the NL West. On paper, it looks like San Diego overcame its 30-game deficit and passed its archrival during the offseason.
But that’s on paper. Now the real work begins.