The Padres are headed to Mexico City sitting under .500. What's up with Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. & Co.?
Let's check in with MLB's most star-studded cast of characters after a tumultuous first month
The San Diego Padres are taking their star-studded show to the international stage this weekend with a two-game set against the San Francisco Giants in Mexico City. Fresh off Team Mexico’s deep, enthralling run in the World Baseball Classic, the country will host MLB’s first international games since before the pandemic. While the league has played several times in Monterrey, this is its first venture to Mexico City.
Saturday’s game begins at 6:05 p.m. ET, and Sunday’s starts at 4:05 p.m. ET. Both will be broadcast nationally on MLB Network, as well as locally on the teams' usual networks.
After knocking off the Los Angeles Dodgers and reaching the NLCS in 2022, the Padres made yet another splash this offseason by signing star shortstop Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280 million deal and further stacking a lineup that already included Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. (once he returned from suspension).
Many projections saw this as the season the Padres leapt over the Dodgers in the regular season and perhaps even made a claim as the best team in baseball. So far, though, that has not been the case.
Let’s check in on the Padres’ constellation of stars and see if there’s anything to watch for in Mexico City.
The Padres are 13-14. What has been amiss so far?
Well, most notably, the offense. The Padres have a bottom-10 offense in MLB by park-adjusted wRC+, trailing such luminaries as the Miami Marlins and Oakland Athletics. Patience and perhaps strong reputations are the main factors saving them from drooping even lower.
Their 10.3% walk rate as a team is one of baseball’s highest, while their team batting average is an MLB-worst (!) .215 entering Saturday.
Is new addition Xander Bogaerts hitting?
Yes. Bogaerts has been by far the best every-day player for San Diego so far. The new shortstop is batting .316/.409/.510 in 115 plate appearances, good for a 161 OPS+, while the next-best regular starter (Jake Cronenworth) is at a 106 OPS+.
The other hitter firing on all cylinders is Matt Carpenter, who has a team-high 14 RBIs in only 62 plate appearances while splitting time at DH.
So Manny Machado, Juan Soto and the other stars haven’t gotten it going?
No. You’ve probably heard the most about Soto’s struggles. His perpetual, precocious excellence with the Washington Nationals didn’t make the flight to San Diego following last summer’s blockbuster trade. Something is off.
Soto has publicly diagnosed it as a swing issue causing him to pull the ball too much, but there’s also a sense of general anxiety swirling around Soto. He bristled at idea of batting second — manager Bob Melvin and the broader baseball world’s preferred spot for any team’s best on-base threat — and more prodding questions keep coming up about his extended slump in conjunction with the contract offer he reportedly turned down and his ballyhooed future free agency. It’s a lot.
All the while, it’s true that Soto’s trademark plate discipline has remained sterling. Despite batting a gruesome .183, he is keeping his overall production afloat with MLB’s third-highest walk rate (19.8%).
So you might be surprised to hear that Soto’s overall offensive marks so far this year — he has a 98 OPS+, meaning he has been 2% worse than a league-average hitter — are outpacing those of Machado. The team’s third baseman and vocal leader, who signed an 11-year extension this spring, has looked out of sorts at the plate, running a brutal 66 OPS+ thus far.
Perhaps pressing a bit, Machado is chasing more bad pitches and not swinging as much as he usually does at strikes. The result is a bad cycle, keeping the 2022 NL MVP runner-up from accessing his usual diet of hard line drives and leading to his worst offensive month in the big leagues, by OPS, since May 2014.
Fernando Tatis Jr. is back, though, right?
He is. The 24-year-old superstar’s saga of injury and steroid suspension finally concluded when he returned to the field April 20. He hasn’t been scorching hot to start, but that was probably to be expected. Tatis has played in only seven games since returning, and no amount of mauling minor-league pitching could totally shake the rust off after such a long layoff.
He is also adjusting to a new position, playing right field in deference to Bogaerts and the host of other would-be shortstops on executive A.J. Preller’s crowded roster.
As for how he’s handling the glare of his suspension? This week, Tatis responded to jeers at Wrigley Field by busting out a defiant dance move.
Do your dance @tatis_jr 🕺@Padres | #BringTheGold pic.twitter.com/tLUQMM7rOx
— Bally Sports San Diego (@BallySportsSD) April 26, 2023
How’s the beefed up rotation working out?
Last year’s Padres boasted an apparently strong top three in Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell but came up mostly with questions after that. Add Snell’s troubling inconsistency, and you had a dicey pitching situation.
Preller spent the offseason making lots of additions, some of them unconventional, to the pitching equation. First, he re-signed Nick Martinez — who excelled for San Diego in the postseason as a multi-inning reliever — to a new deal that carries incentives for starts. Then he brought in free agent Seth Lugo, a longtime New York Mets setup man, with the intention of giving him a chance to start. Finally, he made a late addition with veteran starter Michael Wacha.
All the depth, which includes young, homegrown left-hander Ryan Weathers, came in handy early after Musgrove was delayed by a toe injury suffered in spring training. But now there are some questions to sort out behind Darvish and Musgrove.
In short, the pitching staff hasn’t been much better than the offense. Besides one stellar start against the Braves, Wacha has gotten knocked around. Snell is again struggling mightily to tamp down walks; he has yet to go more than five innings, and the Padres have lost all five of his starts. Lugo has looked solid in five starts, logging a 3.58 ERA that the peripheral stats back up, making him the best performer outside of Darvish.
For now, Lugo is sticking in the rotation while Martinez and Weathers take stints in the bullpen. It feels safe to say those might not be permanent placements if Wacha and Snell can’t turn things around.
Should Padres fans be worried?
Look, things aren’t great. This loaded team somehow has the third-worst run differential in the National League, topping only the hapless Colorado Rockies and the Miami Marlins (at -37 despite a winning record). But it has been only a month, and the good news is the NL West hasn’t had anyone stick their necks out yet.
The young Arizona Diamondbacks are a nice surprise, but they are leading the division with just a 15-12 record. The Dodgers are beat up and just one game ahead of San Diego at 14-13.
There are bright spots for the Padres. Closer Josh Hader looks like himself after a wobbly summer last season, and one-time top prospect Brent Honeywell has emerged as a bullpen weapon, often going more than one frame with his wild array of pitches that includes, yes, a screwball.
Still, this team’s hopes reside squarely on the potential multiplier combo in the heart of the lineup: Machado, Soto, Tatis, Bogaerts. It’s by no means too late for them to reach their ceiling this year — and there's no good reason to think Machado and Soto are meaningfully different than their usual excellent selves — but the Padres need more than one of that quartet to get going soon.