Is It Time for the Padres to Sell? (Not Yet)

The Padres’ season has gone poorly enough that, according to Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds report, their postseason chances have shrunk to 2.7 percent. Not only do the Padres trail the division-leading Dodgers by eight and a half games, they trail eight other National League teams, including the Diamondbacks, which makes climbing the playoff mountain all the more difficult. BP currently has the two projected NL wildcard teams, the Pirates and Cubs, winning 89 and 88 games respectively. The Padres would have to go 50-27 the rest of the way to win 89 games, which is a little like playing like the Cardinals have in the first three months of 2015. In other words, not likely.

It’s not as though the Padres have been unlucky. BP’s third-order winning percentage, which uses underlying statistics and strength of schedule to measure team performance, spits out a .422 winning percentage for the Padres, better than only the Brewers, Rockies, Phillies, and White Sox.

The offense has been surprisingly bad, in part because some of the big names have struggled — Matt Kemp, mostly — but also because some glaring offseason holes were left unfilled. Alexi Amarista‘s defense has remained better than expected at short, but he’s hitting .212/.281/.296. That’s a you-better-field-like-Andrelton-Simmons slash line, and Amarista is no Simmons in the field. Will Middlebrooks has shown glimpses of offensive competence surrounded by his usual flail-and-pray approach — his .629 OPS isn’t particularly surprising. Melvin Upton, getting regular playing time in part because of Wil Myers‘ absence, is also (not surprisingly) struggling with the bat, posting a .152/.250/.261 line (just 52 PAs) while inexplicably batting leadoff on seven different occasions.

Sometimes bad hitting teams make up for their offensive deficiencies with great glove-work. The Padres do not — their -29.6 UZR ranks second-to-last in the majors, ahead of only the White Sox, and their slightly-more-encouraging -16 DRS still ranks 26th in the league. Most of the ugly defense has come from the outfield, where the Padres have trotted out a Justin UptonWil MyersMatt Kemp trio 26 different times. Even substituting Myers with Melvin Upton or Will Venable doesn’t make the outfield defense an average one, and the infield doesn’t have a single standout defender.

The pitching has perhaps been the team’s biggest disappointment. James Shields and Ian Kennedy have combined to surrender 35 home runs in 191 and one-third innings. Odrisamer Despaigne and Andrew Cashner have generally been inconsistent while Tyson Ross, the only Padres’ starter to avoid the home run bug, has walked almost five batters per nine innings. The bullpen hasn’t been great either — the usually untouchable Craig Kimbrel has shown a human side, his 2.86 FIP well over a point higher than it was during his Braves career. The rest of the pen has been a mixed bag, from Brandon Maurer‘s 2.65 FIP to Frank Garces‘ 1.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Here’s the good news: things should get better. Kemp and Jedd Gyorko and, heck, maybe even Derek Norris — his on-base percentage has plummeted to .288 — should hit better in the second half. Myers should be back in time for a late-season surge, if one transpires. And the pitching can’t get much worse. The Padres’ staff currently has the second-highest HR/FB rate in the majors, at 12.5 percent, and it should continue to drop. A Shields-Ross-Cashner-Kennedy top four still looks pretty good on paper, despite the returns so far this season. The bullpen, too, should be fine. Kimbrel looks like Kimbrel, outside of a few bad outings, and Mauer, Shawn Kelley, and Joaquin Benoit highlight a capable group of setup men.

Here’s more good news: it’s only July 7th. The Padres have three and a half weeks and 18 games (19 if you count the July 31st game) before the trade deadline arrives, which gives them time to evaluate whether they’ll be buyers or sellers (or stand pat). Sure, that’s not a lot of time, but playoff odds change quicker than you might think. BP provides a column called 7 day delta in its playoff odds report, which is simply “the difference in a team’s playoff odds from seven days ago.” Here are the five biggest movers in the last week:

Team  7 Day Delta 
Giants  -31.6%
Pirates 22.5%
Rays -18.2%
Astros 15.8%
Angels  12.2%

The Giants, who are in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, have lost nearly 32 percentage points in playoff odds since last Monday, dropping from 54.6 to 22.9. The Pirates and Cubs (+11.8 percent) have been the beneficiaries, significantly boosting their playoff odds in the same time span. The Mets gained 5.5 percentage points in yesterday’s games alone. There’s enough time left in the season for a team to drastically change its playoff outlook in a single week, let alone a few weeks or months. The Padres have 18 games to do some damage, and even if they go, let’s say, 12-6 in those games, that might be enough to make an October run realistic. At the same time, they might go 6-12 in the games leading up to the trade deadline, signalling a sell-off that’s sure to see Justin Upton change area codes.

Either way, there’s incentive to be patient. As Dave Cameron noted last week, the Padres have a lot riding on this season, as they traded gobs of young players for older ones, making the 2016-and-beyond outlook not as bright as it could have been, with salaries rising and veterans aging. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Cameron wrote in that article, but his main point makes sense. While the Padres can remain competitive beyond this season, they did mortgage a good deal of the future for an immediate turnaround, and it’ll be tough(er) to put together a winning team when guys like Kemp and Upton (Jr.) are making over $30 million a year combined. In short, it’d be a shame if the Padres gave up on this season too soon, when it’s not like a couple of minor adjustments would turn them into legit contenders next season.

On the other hand, if the Padres do play poorly enough in the rest of the month, they’ll be forced to retool for the future. Whether that means shipping off the obvious trade candidates — like Justin Upton, perhaps one of Cashner/Ross, a reliever or two — or going full-on Astros-style rebuild remains to be seen, but at least the Padres will have given this season every chance to right itself.

This article probably could have been really short, like most articles, and it’s my fault that it ran on for 1,000-something words. It’s simple — there’s 18 games until the July 31st trade deadline, which gives the Padres some additional time to evaluate what they have and how well their playoff chances stack up. There’s no reason to decide to blow up the offseason plan just yet.

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