Nobody will blame Fernando Tatis Jr. if the San Diego Padres' ongoing collapse ultimately leaves them on the outside looking in at the Major League Baseball postseason.
The 22-year-old was the frontrunner for the National League MVP as he was manning shortstop through the middle of July, and he's still the frontrunner for the award after even shifting to the outfield upon returning from his third stint on the injured list on August 15. Because when it comes down to it, it's hard to beat a .281/.361/.640 slash line with 35 home runs, 24 stolen bases and 5.3 rWAR.
Tatis has also been good in the clutch, as was the case when his two-run blast in the 15th inning tied Wednesday's contest against the Los Angeles Dodgers at 3-3:
But then the Padres did something they've been doing a lot lately—they lost.
The Dodgers won that one 5-3 in 16 innings and then completed the sweep with a 4-0 win behind Max Scherzer on Thursday. The losses dropped the Padres to 2-12 in their past 14 games and 19-28 since July. According to FanGraphs, their chances of making the playoffs are down from 97.1 percent on June 30 to just 20.4 percent now.
To be sure, the Padres are still safely above .500 at 68-61 and only two games out in the race for the NL's second wild-card slot. To these extents, it's not all bad and therefore perhaps too soon to bury them.
There are, however, also good reasons to break out the shovels.
The Pitching is Battered and Undermanned
Following an offseason in which they traded for aces Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove and signed once-and-future All-Star closer Mark Melancon, the Padres seemed to have all the arms they needed to mount a run at the NL West title in 2021.
That was still the case early on as Padres pitchers ranked third with a 3.24 ERA through the end of June, at which point they were 16 games over .500 and 2.5 games back in the NL West. Sure, Snell was struggling with an ERA north of 5.00. But Darvish and Musgrove each had sub-3.00 ERAs and Melancon and Austin Adams had sub-2.00 ERAs in relief.
Since July, however, the Padres are 20th in MLB with a 4.66 ERA. Somebody had to pay a price for this, so they fired pitching coach Larry Rothschild on Monday.
“Larry is definitely not a scapegoat in this,” manager Jayce Tingler, fooling nobody, said in a video conference attended by AJ Cassavell of MLB.com. “Me, as the manager ultimately, I’m responsible for the staff. I’m responsible for our performance and getting our players to play to their abilities.”
It is fair to pin some of San Diego's pitching problems on Rothschild. To wit, it was under his watch that Snell failed to live up to his billing as a Cy Young Award-winning ace, and likewise that youngsters Chris Paddack and Ryan Weathers failed to take steps forward.
Yet an even bigger culprit here is the injury bug. Padres pitchers have racked up 1,618 days on the injured list, the most of any NL team. Even after Darvish returned from back tightness on Thursday, San Diego's IL still consists of 14 pitchers and just one position player.
Lest he escape judgment, general manager A.J. Preller also bears responsibility for the Padres' pitching plight.
Though he tried to be Johnny on the Spot with a trade for Scherzer, he couldn't get that one across the finish line, and the three-time Cy Young Award winner landed with the rival Dodgers instead. Preller then turned to All-Star hurler Jose Berrios, but he couldn't beat the Toronto Blue Jays' offer for him.
When the deadline came and went, Preller had failed to acquire even a low-level starter. No cavalry of any kind came until the Padres scooped up Jake Arrieta after the Chicago Cubs cut him loose, but the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner could make just one ugly start before he also succumbed to the injury bug with a hamstring strain.
In all, it hasn't been pretty as San Diego starters have put up a 5.45 ERA and forced an MLB-high 108.2 innings on the bullpen since July 31. Getting reinforcements like Darvish, Paddack and Dinelson Lamet off the injured list can obviously only help matters, but at this point San Diego's arms alone likely won't be enough to rescue its season.
This Is Not the Same Offense
In 2020, the Padres offense wasn't just good. It was great.
Per its 115 wRC+, the offense San Diego had last season was 15 percent better than average and fifth-best in all of MLB. Its main weapon was the home-run ball, of which it produced 94 to place fourth ahead of even the New York Yankees.
Things just haven't been the same for the Pads' bats in 2021, and there isn't even a clear demarcation line like there is with the pitching:
At least the whole "Slam Diego" thing is still going on. With six grand slams this season, the Padres now have an MLB-high-tying 13 since the start of 2020.
But even among National League teams, the Padres are only in the middle of the pack with 151 total long balls. To the extent that Statcast metrics like barrel rate, launch angle and hard-hit percentage have taken a turn for the worse since 2020, this is a collective failure.
Yet individual targets for finger-pointing aren't hard to spot. Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers, for example, were a heck of a duo in 2020, combining for a 143 wRC+ and 24 home runs in 93 games. This year, though, they're down to a 107 wRC+ and just 25 homers in 238 games.
More recently, All-Star infielder Adam Frazier has gone bust with a .227/.272/.268 slash line since the Padres acquired him from the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 26. Manny Machado, who finished third in the NL MVP voting last year, has also gone into a slump with 14 hits in his past 76 at-bats.
Though, to be fair, it's A.J. Pollock's fault that Machado doesn't have 15 hits in this span:
The bright side is that one can still look at the Padres lineup and see an offense that should be really good. But it simply hasn't been, and there's no telling when things might get worse if Tatis' bothersome left shoulder acts up again and lands him on the IL for a third time.
Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is that the Padres have played a relatively easy schedule so far. That reality, however, is one for the file marked "Things About to Change."
The Road Ahead Is Brutal
When the Padres have played well, it's tended to be within the comforts of home at Petco Park. They're 41-29 there, compared to 27-32 on the road.
Through a strange twist of fate, the Padres have also lucked into something resembling an extra home game. Though their suspended game against Atlanta from July 21 started at Truist Park, it will conclude at Petco Park on Sept. 24.
Otherwise, it's pretty much all bad news regarding San Diego's remaining schedule.
For starters, only 11 of the Padres' 32 remaining games (not counting the suspended game, for the record) will take place at home. Further, the combined .538 winning percentage of the Padres' remaining opponents is the highest of any team in either league.
The Arizona Diamondbacks (three games) and Los Angeles Angels (four games) are the only losing teams the Padres will play the rest of the way. The latter isn't even that bad with a record of 63-65, and it of course features the game's best all-around player in slugger/ace Shohei Ohtani.
Of San Diego's other 25 games, there are three each against Atlanta, the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals. That leaves 10 games against the San Francisco Giants and six against the Dodgers, who rank Nos. 1-2 not just in the NL West but in all of MLB with records of 83-44 and 81-47, respectively.
As if all this wasn't a bad enough omen in its own right, the team directly ahead of the Padres in the NL wild-card race is in a different boat. The Cincinnati Reds have the second-easiest remaining schedule of any team in the NL, notably with 10 games left against the Pirates and zero against the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers.
Should the Padres emerge from their remaining schedule with a playoff spot in hand, they'll have achieved something akin to an act of heroism. Their slate would then be wiped clean for October, in which their Tatis-led offense and Darvish- and Musgrove-led rotation could potentially lead the way to their first World Series since 1998.
Yet this is very much a "Good luck with that" situation. The Padres are frankly on thin ice, underneath which the sharks are circling.