Growth spurt: How close are the Padres to catching the Dodgers after a flurry of moves?

Mike Oz
·7 min read

Out west, they’re circling the wagons.

The San Diego Padres, the upstart contenders of 2020, are already making it clear they don’t want to be second fiddle in the NL West in 2021. But when you’re talking about dethroning the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers, that’s a power move.

As Padres GM A.J. Preller is fond of doing, he’s gone all in for 2021, with a flurry of moves Sunday and Monday that netted San Diego two potential aces and the top international free agent on the market.

Yu Darvish is joining the Padres after news broke Monday night of a deal with the Cubs that will reportedly send Zach Davies and four prospects (none of them in San Diego’s top 10, it should be noted) to Chicago. Hours earlier, the Padres reportedly came to terms with Korean star Ha-Seong Kim. Kim isn’t quite Fernando Tatis Jr., but he’s a versatile infielder who hit 30 dingers in the homer-happy KBO last season.

On Sunday night, in their first move toward the throne, the Padres acquired Blake Snell from the Tampa Bay Rays for a handful of prospects.

The final result: The Padres can roll out a rotation of Snell, Darvish, last season’s breakout starter Dinelson Lamet and Chris Paddack, with top prospect MacKenzie Gore waiting in the wings and Mike Clevinger expected to return in 2022 after Tommy John surgery. With Tatis, Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer anchoring the lineup, the Padres have a wide open window to compete.

Were they in another division, they’d be the easy pick. In 2020’s shortened season, their 37 wins would have led four of MLB’s six divisions. Only two teams had more wins and they met in the World Series.

So this flurry of moves isn’t just about becoming one of MLB’s top teams, it’s also about leapfrogging the Dodgers.

Wins Above Replacement may not be the sharpest tool for measuring this type of thing. But just for the sake of boiling things down: FanGraphs’ WAR projections for 2021 have the Padres adding 9.3 WAR worth of talent in Darvish, Snell and Kim. They’ll also subtract Davies, of course, but when you consider the Padres finished six games behind the Dodgers in 2020, the additions have to make Padres fans feel good about the season ahead.

So does this make the Padres the better team? Well, no. The roster as currently constructed would project to be more talented than every team except … the Dodgers. There’s still a lot of offseason ahead and this doesn’t take into account any additions the defending champs might make. But the Padres could make a serious run at it.

It’s all conjecture until the offseason is done and the games are played. But what’s the offseason for if not conjecture? So let’s look a little closer.

Infamously pulled from a dominant outing in World Series Game 6 in the sixth inning, Blake Snell will now have many more matchups against the Dodgers.
Infamously pulled from a dominant outing in World Series Game 6 in the sixth inning, Blake Snell will now have many more matchups against the Dodgers. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

How the pitching matches up

Both teams will head into 2021 with rotation question marks even despite these moves. Because, well, this is baseball and all teams do.

The Dodgers are well armed at the top with Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. But what about David Price? Will he return in 2021 after opting out of the COVID-shortened season?

Meanwhile, the Padres have questions too. Lamet is coming off an injury that kept him out of the postseason in 2020 and Darvish, as good as he was last year (with a 2.01 ERA), has often been up-and-down during his career. When he’s on, he’s lights out, but his tenure in Chicago is a case study in how control can come and go in a flash. Paddack also didn’t measure up to his stellar rookie season in 2020, so his outlook is a bit of a toss-up

The Dodgers had the best ERA in baseball last season. As good as Padres were, they were still almost a full run worse — the Padres were at 3.86 while the Dodgers were at 3.02. A big part of that, though, is the bullpen, where the Dodgers ranked No. 2 in baseball and the Padres ranked No. 14. Starting pitching was a little more even: The Dodgers’ ERA was 3.29 and the Padres’ was 3.46. This is all very close.

Both the Dodgers and the Padres should expect to make the postseason in 2021, barring any catastrophic complications, so maybe a way to look at this is who looks best in a short series.

If the Dodgers have Price, then their top three look pretty daunting. And they could also benefit from further improvements by Dustin May or Julio Urias. Snell, Darvish and Lamet seem good, but not quite as good as what the Dodgers could roll out. If the Padres had Clevinger, this debate might be a little closer.

How close are they? It’s the Dodgers if Price is back, but the Padres are closing the gap. After years of being head and shoulders over their neighbors, L.A. might need to stand back to back and get a ruler to measure out the difference at this point.

The Dodgers swept the Padres out of the playoffs in the NLDS, but it's San Diego that is cleaning up in the offseason.
The Dodgers swept the Padres out of the playoffs in the NLDS, but it's San Diego that is cleaning up in the offseason. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

How the lineups match up

This is still a little more of an incomplete because the Dodgers have some decisions to make. Like whether they re-sign Justin Turner and Joc Pederson. Or whether they try to trade for one of the bigger bats on the market, namely Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado.

But let’s size up what we know:

  • The Dodgers were the top team on offense last season, both by runs scored and homers.

  • The Padres weren’t too far back in either category, ranking fourth in homers (but 23 behind) and third in runs (24 behind).

While these Padres moves will certainly help the offense — and perhaps make things tougher on Dodgers hitters — the Dodgers seem to have more to gain on their current roster than what the Padres will get out of Kim, who will have to adjust to the pace of MLB.

Cody Bellinger wasn’t great in 2020, so any regression toward his previous level of production may just cancel out the addition of Kim. Gavin Lux, a former top prospect, is bound to improve too. Will Smith, another young Dodgers talent, continues to be on his way up.

You can say the same about many of the Padres’ good, young players. But the Padres had MVP-type seasons out of Tatis and Machado and still couldn’t match the Dodgers.

How close are they? L.A. still feels a bit more proven here. The Padres need to actually win an arm wrestling match to know it’s possible.

What the Padres need to do next

If we know A.J. Preller, there’s a good chance he’s not done even after landing two potential aces, but there are a few other moves he needs to pull off to close the gap between the Dodgers:

  • Fix the bullpen: That’s where the Dodgers were one of the best teams in 2020. Beating them in October will require a deep bullpen. The Padres will return some pieces, like Drew Pomeranz, that missed portions of 2020 with injuries, but have also lost some key contributors.

  • Get another starter: The Padres certainly don’t need to get Trevor Bauer — by all means, go nuts — but after trading Davies, they need at least one more reliable arm to slot in behind their top four. This might be the time to buy low on a former ace. There are plenty on the market. Or find another low-cost guy who can eat innings at worst and pitch in October at best.

No matter who you think is the better team at this point, it’s pretty clear — the NL West just got a whole lot more interesting.

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