When over a few hours in the same winter a chunk of prospects are sacrificed for two of the more decorated pitchers in the game, the goal isn’t to beat one team, it’s to beat them all.
Still, if you’re the San Diego Padres, it’s a reasonable place to start.
Maybe that’s over six months and maybe it’s across a single week in October, but they’re going to have to be better than the Los Angeles Dodgers or this — the waiting, the plotting, the long view and narrow vision, the daring strikes and occasional restraint and money spent, and the hope, mostly the hope — will be again the story of a lost season, and then another and another.
Late Tuesday night the Padres announced they’d acquired right-hander Yu Darvish from the Chicago Cubs, that press release chasing the one that confirmed they’d traded for left-hander Blake Snell from the Tampa Bay Rays, three months after they’d finished a competitive second in the National League West, then a distant second in the division series, both times to the Dodgers.
The sense, first in March and then in July, was that the Padres had closed the gap on even this Dodgers team, loaded with talent and favored to be a champion again finally, played to that expectation. That Dinelson Lamet could not throw an inning in the NLDS and Mike Clevinger managed one, and that still the Padres were game until near the end, was yet more evidence. And so they were perhaps a couple players away. Maybe those players were Lamet and Clevinger. (It wouldn’t be Clevinger, who had Tommy John surgery in November.) Maybe, as owner Peter Seidler and general manager A.J. Preller seem to have decided, and just as a good portion of the league seems to be cowering against the uncertainties of 2021, next time they’d bring a bigger hammer.
So, to a team that had the second-best record in the National League, to a team that scored with just about everyone and pitched with just about everyone and defended too, over these few hours they put Darvish on the mound with Snell waiting, or Snell with Darvish waiting, either way. Both are under contract for another three seasons.
The perky little challenge from down south — the Padres arriving last season with puffed chests and smeared smirks, then leaving after a nine-run October humiliation — has grown into hair-on-their-chests substance. Real relevance isn’t in a short-season, short-series, blind-windmill right hand. It’s about real depth with real players who aren’t afraid and don’t mistake smeared smirks for actually winning baseball games when the air gets thick and the blood thin.
Preller walked out of Game 3 of that division series in Texas knowing the work of six years, the trade for Fernando Tatis Jr. and signing of Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer, the building of a pitching staff and a more precise defense and smarter hitters, had left him at least those three games short. And that was assuming the Dodgers stood still. The Dodgers don’t generally stand still.
“When we left Texas after losing the division series,” he said, “the biggest thing we had was we had to get better. You know, just go out and get better. That’s a club that I think in general we feel like, throughout the year we had a chance to measure ourselves against that team and they were the best team in the game last year. But ultimately, leaving there, we knew we had to tighten up some things and we had to get better overall.
“So, for us, it’s just about playing championship-level baseball. And what that looks like, we have a measuring stick in our own division. Leaving after the playoffs, we knew we had another couple steps we were going to have to get to if we want to be a team that can play on the big stage eventually.”
Until the final innings of their 13th game against the Dodgers over 2 ½ months, the Padres certainly appeared to believe. Probably, even on the bus ride back to their hotel that night, they still believed. That’s a reasonable start. The rest, at least for the six months that would follow, would be for Seidler and Preller to decide. Not whether the Padres needed more. But how much more. And at what price. And would a league that lost hundreds of millions of dollars last summer come to them, a franchise that had too much invested in the past half-decade to stop now. They’d come, in the end, to within three games. That’s a long way back from irrelevance.
“Last year we took big strides in a lot of areas,” Preller said. “I think our team defense, overall in our pitching staff’s ability to throw the ball over the plate and control the strike zone. Offensively, we were a much tougher team to pitch against in terms of strike-zone discipline. All those things were big steps in the right direction last year. We did it with a very young club. I think we were one of the two or three youngest teams in the game. But that doesn’t guarantee you anything in the future. … I think there were some real positive steps last year but there’s some areas we’re going to have to continue to tighten up if … we’re going to play in a World Series.”
So, he was asked flat out, given the Padres have clearly gotten better, whether they are better than the Dodgers. And he grinned.
“Uh, that’s, that’s pretty better right there,” he said. “They’re obviously, they’re the class of the league right now and they’ve been the class of the division for pretty much the decade. We’ll see how it plays out. … The goal here is to win a championship. That’s the idea.”
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