Why disappointing Padres doubled down at MLB trade deadline

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Nearly 2,800 miles separate Petco Park from Citi Field, but it often felt as if the San Diego Padres and the New York Mets were adjoined, connected — spiritually — through their expensive rosters and their disappointing outcomes, perceived cautionary tales by their sport’s frugal owners.

This weekend, they seem very different.

While the Mets are playing out the string with a stripped-down roster in Baltimore, the Padres are hosting their bitter rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in front of sold-out crowds in San Diego, holding on to faint hopes of catching them in the division. The Padres and Mets each began this season with top-three payrolls and had posted identical 49-53 records as the MLB trade deadline approached. On the morning of July 28, four days before the deadline, the Padres were 6½ games out of the final playoff spot in the National League and the Mets were a half-game behind them. And yet while the Mets proceeded to trade Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander and a handful of others in an effort to reset for as late as 2026, the Padres doubled down.

Blake Snell and Josh Hader, pending free agents who would have been highly coveted within a market devoid of pitching, stayed. Rich Hill, Ji-Man Choi, Garrett Cooper and Scott Barlow, depth pieces that cost more prospects from a farm system that has been depleted in recent years, arrived.

The Padres, who also briefly checked in on Verlander, approached this deadline with the same aggression that drove them in the summers of 2020, 2021 and 2022, their place in the standings be damned. They were underwhelmed by the offers for Snell and Hader, invigorated by a timely sweep of the first-place Texas Rangers and motivated by an essential truth:

They’re actually not the Mets.

The Padres — 55-56, three games out of a playoff spot and nine games behind the Dodgers in the division, with two others in front of them — own a plus-75 run-differential that stands as the third-highest in the NL. They’re baseball’s best defensive team based on outs above average, which grades them out at plus-27. Their 3.72 ERA leads the majors. Their offense boasts a healthy Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts and Fernando Tatis Jr. And they’ve been hampered mostly by elements some might consider fluky — a dreadful record in one-run games (6-18), a strange inability to win in extra innings (10 straight losses) and subpar results with runners in scoring position (a .717 OPS, ranked 22nd in the majors).

It’s what makes them so confounding, but it’s also what makes them so compelling.

“We have a team that we feel like can win,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller said about an hour after Tuesday’s 6 p.m. ET deadline. “And if we were able to add to the club and give us a good chance here in the next two months, it’s gonna be a good pennant race.”

The Padres arrived in Canada the week of July 17 uncertain about their direction, on the heels of three straight losses in Philadelphia to begin the second half. Back-to-back series wins over the Toronto Blue Jays and the Detroit Tigers merely allowed them to split a 10-game road trip. They returned home and lost two of three to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, at which point the industry buzzed about the Padres potentially trading players.

Interested suitors were told to let the weekend play out and wait until Monday, sources said, at which point the Padres would finally pick a side. Then they swept a Rangers team that had established itself among the sport’s most dominant this season, outscoring them 16-4 in the process — and any faint hopes of Snell and Hader getting traded were suddenly dashed.

“We just never got anything that was that compelling for us from that standpoint,” Preller said. “We were open-minded, very prepared from a scouting group, from a front office group, but ultimately there wasn’t anything really on that side that was last minute or really over the course of the last few days that pushed us strong in that direction. It came down to a team that we have belief in, and also some deals that we liked.”

Hill, Choi, Cooper and Barlow don’t bring the appeal of Hader and Soto, who arrived last summer, or even Adam Frazier and Daniel Hudson, who arrived two summers before that. But Hill provides some much-needed rotation depth in the wake of Friday’s news that Joe Musgrove, one of the team’s most important starting pitchers, will miss the rest of the month with shoulder inflammation. Choi and Cooper can bring more offense to a DH spot that has provided next to nothing all year. And Barlow brings a much-needed weapon to the back end of the bullpen. The next two months will determine whether they were enough — and whether a chance at better sustainability was missed by not following the Mets’ path.

The Mets were able to land three premier — though not necessarily blue-chip — position player prospects in Luisangel Acuna, Ryan Clifford and Drew Gilbert by sending Scherzer to the Rangers and Verlander to the Houston Astros. But their owner, Steve Cohen, had to pay down as much as $88 million of the roughly $151 million still owed on their contracts. The only upper-tier prospect obtained for a rental starter appeared to be Double-A catcher Edgar Quero, acquired in the Lucas Giolito trade between the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Angels.

Trading Snell and Hader, who would have represented the best available rental starter and reliever, respectively, by a wide margin, would have infused the Padres with some much-needed talent for the upper levels of their farm system, an essential element to sustainability. In Preller’s mind, it wasn’t enough to justify punting on 2023.

“When it comes to rental players, currently teams are pretty conservative on that front, even with impactful rental players,” he said. “We weren’t going to make moves just to make moves.”

The Padres, with FanGraphs playoff odds now at 43.4%, continue to sell out Petco Park on a regular basis, while on pace to draw more than 3 million fans for only the second time in their history. On the outside, industry executives note that their overly generous owner, Peter Seidler, will nonetheless lose significant amounts of money this year and stands to lose even more of it without any broadcast revenue next year, a result of Diamond Sports Group’s ongoing bankruptcy. In San Diego, though, some of those who know Seidler believe none of it matters. He wants to leave a legacy, they’ll say, and no amount of money trumps his desire to deliver the city its first major championship.

And that brings us to right now, and why this maddening, confusing Padres team was not broken up.

“If they find a way to get into the playoffs,” a rival executive said, “they’re going to be dangerous.”

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