SAN DIEGO — In light of recent events, the question has become more urgent: Can the Padres overtake the blue colossus to the north?
The Dodgers recently won the National League West for the eighth consecutive year, swept the upstart Pads out of the playoffs and won the World Series. Most of their best players will return. Their farm system was No. 5 in Baseball America’s latest rankings.
Oddsmaker BetOnline.ag has the Padres at 8-1 to win the 2021 World Series, behind only the Dodgers (9-2) and Yankees (13-2). The task brings to mind an infamous line from “The Godfather II,” when Rocco Lampone, a caporegime to Michael Corleone, contemplates a daunting hit. “Difficult,” he says, “not impossible.”
Start with the pitching. Without Mike Clevinger becoming the ace the Padres had in mind when they in essence traded six players for him in July, the odds will grow steeper. Clevinger started the Divisional Series opener against the Dodgers, only to last one inning.
“It feels like bones are hitting in the back of my elbow,” said Clevinger, who turns 30 in December.
A healthy Clevinger would be good for 25-30 starts and 150-plus innings. He would provide cushion and example for several young starting pitchers.
Against the Dodgers, Clevinger could represent the best chance to win a higher-stakes game. He has the pitch diversity, enhanced by a hot fastball, to weather repeated exposure to baseball’s most studious lineup.
“The more times we get to look at (a pitcher) the more we’re able to put a plan together,” Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, who coached at tiny San Diego Christian College in Santee, told Sports Illustrated this month. “It’s also picking up on any tendencies and patterns. Every puzzle is a little different. We put the puzzle together.”
Offensively, Padres leaders have their own Rubik’s Cube to solve.
And it’s a wonderful challenge to have.
In the past season, when the most important situations arose, Padres hitters performed like they knew what pitch was coming. Per a statistic called “high leverage wOBA,” Padres hitters ranked first in the 30-team majors. Their wOBA (weighted on-base average) of .411 in crucial spots, reported ESPN, dominated the field; even the Dodgers, who finished second, at .369, were far behind.
Can the Padres keep this up in 2021?
Probably not. The better questions are, how much of a dropoff should be expected over a 162-game season and how might it be addressed?
Elsewhere, a new challenge for the Padres is a big one: How to handle success. A string of nine losing seasons before 2020 afforded the franchise a low profile and perpetual underdog status.
Transgressions will command more attention, and not only on the field. The recent arrest of catcher Luis Campusano, a top prospect who was on the team’s postseason roster, wasn’t a good start to the offseason. Whatever the cause to outfielder Tommy Pham’s stabbing outside a strip club, after Pham reportedly was attacked by two strangers who stood near his car, it was an alarming outcome.
The franchise’s first playoff games since 2006 also trained a brighter light on the granular details, giving Padres players and coaches a few teaching moments to revisit in spring training.
Notice how Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw’s footwork held up during a surprise attack in Game 5 of the World Series. When former Padres speedster Manuel Margot attempted to steal home behind his back, Kershaw answered with hard-wired fundamentals. The pitcher, when alerted by first baseman Max Muncy of Margot’s attempt, stepped off the rubber before he threw home, avoiding a balk.
Not to pick on Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer, who had a fine season and is a stand-up guy, but his footwork failed him on two plays in the playoffs. Fernando Tatis Jr. sliding past second base on a steal gave the Dodgers an important out.
Playoff games reinforce the importance of mastering the details. The Padres need to get the most out of their October review.
The dominance of Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager in this year’s postseason also bears consideration, as it relates to Tatis.
“The biggest thing this year was how much stronger I feel,” said Seager, who hit five home runs in the LCS and was MVP of the World Series.
Seager, 26, said the shortened season benefited him in the regular season and October. Working back from injuries, he was able to do much more strength training, when he otherwise would’ve been playing.
Shortstops expend more energy, both physical and mental, than other infielders and also the outfielders. They’re more susceptible to injury and to wearing down.
Tatis, 21, evokes Marmaduke with his boundless energy. He chases every ball within an acre. On the basepaths, his urgency to return home makes him a delight to watch. The Padres shouldn’t try to curb his enthusiasm. His zeal makes many of his defensive gems possible. But the team should take measures to keep him relatively fresh. If the DH returns to the National League, manager Jayce Tingler should use it as a recharge station for Tatis. At any rate, he should find breathers for a player who was limited to 84 games two years ago as a rookie.
Tatis having a full tank in October, when 11 victories are needed — or 13 if MLB replicates the recent World Series tournament — would seem essential to the Padres earning their first Commissioner’s Trophy.
One more thing, as mentioned previously: By all means, the Padres should put free-agent Trevor Bauer, a durable pitcher Clevinger has invited to join the team, first on their offseason wish list.
©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune