After their generally gleeful 2020 season ended with them snapping a 13-year postseason drought, the San Diego Padres probably didn't envision any scenario in which 2021 devolved into a gloomy slog punctuated by their two best players getting in each other's faces.
Life, as they say, comes at you fast.
Because they're just 10-24 since Aug. 11 and 4 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League wild-card race, the nadir of San Diego's 2021 season is arguably more of an ongoing thing than a specific moment.
But as a candidate for the latter, it's hard to do better than when Manny Machado lost his cool with a vulgarity-laden tirade at Fernando Tatis Jr. on Saturday:
Micro-wise, Machado was upset at Tatis for how he reacted to what he saw as a bad strike-three call in the fifth inning. As Padres manager Jayce Tingler, who was ejected for a league-leading seventh time in defense of Tatis, told reporters: "It's not viewed negatively. We're a family. We're not going to discuss the details, but we care."
Macro-wise, however, reporting from Ken Rosenthal, Dennis Lin and Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic and Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune paint a picture of a long-bubbling soup of frustration that finally boiled over.
The Players Made This Happen
Though they were eventually dispatched by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, the '20 Padres announced their arrival as an up-and-coming superteam with a 37-23 romp through the shortened season. Then came trades for aces Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove during the winter, and a 34-19 start to the 2021 campaign.
Tatis was deservedly the face of all this. His MVP-caliber play and utter disregard for baseball's unwritten rules in 2019 and 2020 netted him a video game cover and a $340 million contract. He then began 2021 by making good on the hype by quickly grabbing the NL leads for both home runs and stolen bases.
A $300 million man in his own right, Machado had actually edged Tatis in the NL MVP voting for 2020. Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers also entered 2021 as name-brand stars. Darvish, Snell and Musgrove, meanwhile, would have combined for a 2.82 ERA and 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings if they had been teammates in 2020.
With this much talent at their disposal, it was no great surprise when the Padres began the '21 season as well as they did. And the sky really did seem to be their limit. According to FanGraphs, San Diego's odds of making the playoffs in any capacity were nearly 100 percent. Of winning the NL West, about 50 percent. Of winning the NL pennant, close to 25 percent.
That was then. This is now, wherein the Padres are 42-54 since their peak on May 29. Those same odds are down to 3.6, 0.0 and 0.4 percent, respectively.
Because the Padres have lost more cumulative days to the injured list than any other team, those who would blame their demise on the injury bug have a gripe.
They have, however, nonetheless gotten at least 27 starts out of each of their three headlining aces, yet only Musgrove has an ERA so much as under 4.00. Darvish (4.13) and Snell (4.20) have simply underperformed. There's also been little to no help from the back end of the rotation, where Chris Paddack and Ryan Weathers each have ERAs north of 5.00.
Further, the Padres are one of only four teams that's gotten as many as 450 plate appearances out of seven different players. The clearest explanation for the team's below average 97 wRC+, therefore, is that not enough guys have pulled their weight.
As their combined OPS is 166 points lower than it was in 2020, Hosmer and Myers are the worst offenders. More recently, Machado and All-Star newcomer Adam Frazier have been cold since the trade deadline. Even more recently, Tatis has fallen into a slump of his own.
That may not be the only reason that Tatis has been, as Acee put it, "brooding" of late. He has put a lot on the line this year, not only playing through a lingering shoulder injury but also agreeing to move from shortstop to the outfield in August. But with both San Diego's playoffs odds and his own MVP chances dwindling, it's looking like it'll all be for naught.
Of course, this is not to suggest that Machado was in the wrong when he confronted Tatis. Until the season is over, the Padres do indeed need Tatis to "play f---ing baseball."
If this was April, the Padres could hope for Tatis and Machado to make amends and do their part to lead the team to the playoffs. But with the October ship having pretty much sailed, the Padres might count themselves lucky if any further feuding simply happens out of sight.
The Manager and GM Also Made This Happen
It's never a good look for a manager when his team had fewer wins than its run differential suggests it should. Per their 79-70 mark, Tingler's Padres would be in possession of the NL's second wild card spot right now if all teams actually had their Pythagorean records.
But while this makes Tingler look bad enough from the outside, it's apparently worse on the inside. Acee's reporting is particularly damning, as he wrote that the impression he's gotten from Padres players is that the second-year skipper is "not the leader they needed or wanted has been growing in some corners of the clubhouse for a while."
Making matters even worse for Tingler is that he's already tried using a human shield, as he insisted that the club's firing of pitching coach Larry Rothschild in August was his call:
Unless, of course, you subscribe to the notion forwarded by former Miami Marlins executive-turned-CBS Sports podcaster David Samson: Canning Rothschild was actually general manager A.J. Preller's call.
If so, that would only be Preller's second-biggest failure of the 2021 season.
Atop that list would be his catastrophe of a trade deadline. Though he went hard after Max Scherzer, Preller ultimately only got Frazier, reliever Daniel Hudson and reserve outfielder Jake Marisnick while the Dodgers (Max Scherzer and Trea Turner) and the division-leading San Francisco Giants (Kris Bryant) each scored proper stars.
All told, the guys driving the bus for the Padres this year haven't exactly been steady at the wheel. It may have always been a matter of time before the team's season went off the road.
So, What Happens Next?
Has Preller had the sort of season that would get any other front office chief fired? Perhaps. But the Padres just extended him through 2026, so the odds of him getting the axe are slim.
It's also beyond unlikely that the Tatis-Machado duo will be broken up. You don't get rid of two players like that on purpose. Especially not while their one and only public spat was a frustration thing and not a bad-blood thing. And especially not while both players are signed to mega-deals that last well beyond 2021.
And yet there is little doubt at this point that the Padres need to make big changes, starting with the manager's chair.
This is to say that the last few days have turned Tingler from a perhaps acceptable omission from our manager hot seat list to a glaring one. It's also not as if there's some great mystery as to why he couldn't gain better control of this clubhouse. He's only 40 years old, and he neither played nor managed in Major League Baseball before the Padres hired him for the latter job in 2019. It was always a risk, and it has backfired.
If the Padres do give Tingler the boot, his ideal replacement would be somebody with actual experience and bonafides. Should the Houston Astros cut him loose, Dusty Baker would be perfect. Buck Showalter, who formerly managed Machado in Baltimore, is another possibility.
Mind you, hiring a new manager figures to be the easy part.
Free agency will claim only five mostly inconsequential players from the Padres this winter, hence why they already have more money ($162.4 million) committed to 2022 than any other team. So unless Preller gets a blank check from ownership, some large salaries may have to go before he can perfect what's currently a talented, yet flawed roster.
The obvious candidates to go are Hosmer, who's owed $60 million through 2025, and Myers, who's guaranteed $23.5 million through 2022. To get their money off the team's books, Preller would likely have to attach prized talents from the club's farm system so as to allow the other team to effectively buy prospects.
Should Preller succeed there, he might have the capital to circle back on Scherzer in hopes of signing the three-time Cy Young Award winner as a free agent. He might even get in on this winter's stellar class of shortstops, with the idea being to either keep Tatis in the outfield full-time or move the new signee to second base.
For now, the bright side is that the general concept of the Padres as an ultra-talented and fun-loving team doesn't need re-designing. What's needed is more of a precise blueprint, the likes of which shouldn't be unattainable in the weeks and months to come.