On the last Sunday night of December 2020, it began as Dennis Lin reported that the Padres had arranged a trade for Blake Snell. Around noon the following Monday, AJ Cassavell tweeted that the Padres had signed Ha-seong Kim. And then Monday night, Jeff Passan confirmed that the Padres would trade for Yu Darvish.
The message is clear: Slam Diego has pushed their chips to the center of the table while other MLB teams are cashing in and calling it a night. (“Financial flexibility,” you know.) Jeff Passan put it best:
The Padres’ aggressiveness in dealing for Darvish and former Cy Young winner Blake Snell over a 24-hour period stands in stark contrast to the vast majority of the rest of the sport, which has been hamstrung by an ownership class using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to pare payroll.
David Roth explains that in doing so, “[T]he Padres have taken advantage of the signal and single most important inefficiency in baseball at this moment, which is that only a handful of teams are even trying to improve their rosters, let alone compete for a World Series.”
The Padres are now projected to have the third highest payroll in baseball at around $163 million. In doing this, they have essentially set the 2021 market while announcing their intention to challenge the NL West dominance of the Dodgers. An already-good Padres team (37-23 with an NLDS appearance) got better.
You may remember this Mike Petriello graphic from a November 7 article.
In light of the Padres’ recent trades, Petriello published an update on December 29. The graphic now looks like this:
Petriello writes of the Dodgers and Padres, “It’s more or less a dead heat. It’s a rounding error. It’s a tie.” The Padres (43.7) now rank second, just behind the Dodgers (44.3) in terms of projected team fWAR. (The Rockies remain last with a projected 15.9 fWAR.)
Also in light of the Padres’ additions, Dan Szymborski re-ran the ZiPS projection for the Padres, and adds this forecast for the NL West:
The question, then, is what does this mean for the Rockies? The short answer is that an already-challenging 2021 just became even more difficult for three primary reasons.
The Rockies Will Face One of the Best Rotations in Baseball — A Lot
Here’s how Jeff Passan projects the Padres’ rotation for the next two years:
In 2020, this pitching rotation would have earned a 6.13 fWAR, if you include Lucchesi; in 2021, the same rotation is projected to be worth 13.4 fWAR. The Rockies will face it 16 times. For comparison, the Rockies’ 2020 starting pitching staff combined for a 4.1 fWAR while the entire offense had an fWAR of 2.7. In 2021, the starting pitching staff is projected to be worth 8.5 fWAR with the offense worth 5.0. The Rockies went 3-7 against the Padres in 2020, and right now there is no reason to believe 2021 will see an improvement. (The Rockies’ need for better hitting and analytics has never been clearer.)
It’s also worth noting that a sagging Rockies team is probably one of the reasons the Padres have decided to seize the moment. As it stands, only the Dodgers and Padres appear to be viable NL West contenders. Watching the Padres “go for it” makes even more infuriating the Rockies’ decision to pass on going for it in 2018.
The Dodgers Are Incentivized to Get Even Better
The Dodgers were already the best team in baseball: by winning the World Series and keeping a majority of their impact players, and by projected fWAR. As Petriello points out, right now, they are virtually tied with the Padres, which means the Dodgers have reason to improve.
Molly Knight explains why an improved Padres is the best possible wake-up call to end Dodger complacency. (Cue the Arenado-to-the-Dodgers rumors.)
In 2020, the Rockies went 3-7 against the Dodgers although they earned the distinction of being the only team to win a series against them. An improved Dodger team makes everything harder for a mediocre Rockies team relying on Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, a solid rotation, and lots of luck in 2021.
The Padres Gain Fan Engagement; The Rockies Do Not
As I was writing this, an ad came on ESPN featuring Fernando Tatís Jr. selling Bolt 24, a sports drink. Monday night, Breaking T sent me an ad for their newest “Slam Diego” t-shirt. Baseball news on Monday through Wednesday focused almost entirely on the Padres. For Padres fans, who went from 2007-2019 without a playoff game, that’s exciting. As Emma Baccelleiri puts it, “It makes a notably fun and dynamic team only more fun and dynamic.”
Watch this @Cut4 hype video, and tell me that San Diego does not look like a whole lot of fun:
2020 might've stunk, but these bat flips sure didn't. pic.twitter.com/HhvKrZ33IN— Cut4 (@Cut4) December 30, 2020
(BTW, a sweet, sweet Trevor Story bat flip is buried in there around 1:25.)
In addition to becoming a more talented team, the Padres became even more diverse.
From a marketing standpoint, the Padres were already in terrific shape (Tatis! Slam Diego! Those Unis!). Now they've added one of the stars of last post-season, one of the best Japanese players ever, and one of the best young players from South Korea.— Jason R.R. Martinez (@JasonRRMartinez) December 29, 2020
Conversely, if you’re a Rockies fan, it’s all deeply discouraging. The owner and general manager have yet to formally address the media; the team non-tendered two popular players to save money; rumors persist that the Rockies may trade Arenado and Story; and the offseason has been a series of quietly signed MiLB contracts with the owner explaining the team will be practicing austerity.
The Rockies are trying to sell tickets because they make money from attendance, but a team that is sitting quietly on the sideline does not exactly build fan engagement and encourage the buying of Rockies Passports.
This extends to distance fans. The data also suggest that a losing Rockies team draws a decreased TV viewership. Patrick Saunders reports this:
Overall viewership for Major League Baseball was up 4.2% for the 60-game regular season in 2020, but viewership for the struggling Rockies dropped 24%, according to Forbes. That came after a disappointing 2019 season when the Rockies’ TV ratings dipped 18% from 2018, when they made the playoffs.
Rockies fans need the front office to meet them halfway and give them something — anything — to be excited about. Sign a free agent. Make a trade. (Rumors are the Rays would like to move Kevin Kiermaier.) Hold a formal press conference and level with fans. But give them a reason for hope.
Right now, that’s not happening, and the Padres’ moves earlier this week worsens the malaise for Rockies fans.