Seemingly nobody was in a mood to downplay the San Diego Padres' haul at Major League Baseball's Aug. 2 trade deadline, least of all the part that included Juan Soto. Even if they hadn't also reeled in Josh Bell, Josh Hader and Brandon Drury, it's just not often that a team trades for the modern-day Ted Williams.
Little did any of us know then how much bigger the Soto trade would look just two weeks later.
The Padres were dealt a huge blow on Friday when MLB announced that star shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr.—who had been nearing his long-awaited return from an offseason wrist fracture—has been suspended for 80 games after testing positive for Clostebol, a performance-enhancing drug.
Previously, the Padres had every reason to be stoked about how their everyday lineup would look with Tatís alongside Drury and Bell and especially Soto and Manny Machado. Tatís and Soto were top-five finishers in the National League MVP voting last year, while Machado has a shot at the fourth top-five finish of his career this season.
"It's going to be really tough to go through," Soto said in reference to San Diego's near-future lineup during his introductory press conference. "I wish good luck to the other pitchers."
With Tatís now out of the picture for the rest of the year and the start of the 2023 season, a tune of a different sort has been coming out of San Diego.
"It stunned everybody," manager Bob Melvin told reporters. "It's obviously disappointing. ...This is a blow for us, and we'll have to move on. I'm glad we made the moves we did at the deadline. We feel like we have a really good team still, and sometimes you have to deal with some adversity as a team."
"We were waiting to get him back and hopefully for him to be a spark plug for the team, but we've been doing it all year," said Machado.
To the extent that the Padres are 65-53 and in possession of the NL's third wild-card spot, Machado isn't wrong that the club has gotten along fine without Tatís. And thanks to the Soto trade above all, things have a chance to stay that way.
The Padres Are Going to Miss Tatís' Bat
Perhaps one could argue that the Padres will be better off without Tatís in their everyday lineup, but good luck trying to do so in good faith.
Through his first three seasons with San Diego from 2019-21, the 23-year-old was perhaps the most dynamic offensive force in the sport. His credentials included a 159 OPS+, 81 home runs and 52 stolen bases, much less one who set career bests (165, 42 and 25) in all three categories in 2021.
Unless one buys Tatís' explanation that his failed test was due to him "inadvertently" taking Clostebol for ringworm—which sure seems like hogwash—it's only natural to question whether he achieved all those numbers on the level. Especially in the context of the 14-year, $340 million contract he signed in 2021, he'll have a lot to prove when he returns.
Even still, it's hard to imagine any scenario in which Tatís' return would have been subtraction by addition for the Padres. At worst, he figured to be a substantial offensive upgrade over Ha-Seong Kim, who's played a good shortstop but has hit just six home runs. At best, the Padres would have gotten the superstar-caliber Tatís and reaped the benefits.
For instance, Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs put his ZiPS system to work and calculated that the Padres had a projected.582 winning percentage against league-average competition with Tatís down the stretch. Without him, it went down to .556.
Yet This Is Still a World Series-Caliber Lineup
If anyone nonetheless just thought, "Wait, that projection still sounds pretty good," well, you're not wrong.
Other rest-of-season projections are also bullish on the Padres, including FanGraphs' Depth Charts. They peg the Friars for more wins above replacement than all but five teams, with only the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets slated for more WAR from position players among National League teams.
Take Soto, Bell and Drury out of this equation, and the projection for San Diego loses 3.9 WAR. As Tatís was worth exactly 3.9 WAR over his last 75 games of last season, that's a pretty good mark for three guys over just 45 games.
In the meantime, San Diego's offense has already been perking up a bit since Soto, Bell and Drury joined the lineup. Getting shut down by Miami Marlins ace Sandy Alcántara on Monday didn't help matters, but the Padres are still up from 4.4 runs per game through Aug. 2 to 4.6 runs per game since Aug. 3.
The 23-year-old Soto has done his part, adorning his new team with a .326/.463/.512 slash line. His first and only dinger thus far as a Padre came on Aug. 9, accounting for his 22nd home run of the year.
As good as Machado was already going, the coming of Soto to San Diego seems to have given him still more motivation. He's at .392/.415/.706 since Aug. 3, with one of his three homers serving as a game-winner on the same day that Soto hit his first as a Friar. Drury, likewise, has gone deep three times since the day after the deadline.
As Trent Grisham is the only other Padres regular who's heated up, all the Padres need now is for the rest of their offense to get going. That's doable for at least Bell and fellow All-Star Jake Cronenworth, and don't overlook low-key on-base machine Jurickson Profar either.
San Diego's Pitching Is Also in Relatively Good Shape
While the Padres wait for their offense to come fully online, they can rest easy knowing that they don't have the same problems with injured pitchers as other NL powers.
Atlanta, for example, could be without ace left-hander Max Fried because of a concussion. The Dodgers likewise recently lost their own ace lefty, Clayton Kershaw, to yet another back injury. They also announced Monday that Walker Buehler is done for the season.
The Padres, meanwhile, have three aces in good working order.
It was mostly Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish carrying the freight through June, but 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell has been among the hottest pitchers in baseball since the calendar flipped to July. In eight starts, he's put up a 2.08 ERA and whiffed 67 batters in 43.1 innings.
Perhaps the biggest question hanging over San Diego's moundstaff is the status of Hader. The four-time All-Star closer was slumping even before the Padres nabbed him in a surprise deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, and it hasn't let up despite the change in uniform and scenery. All told, the lefty has coughed up 16 earned runs in 11 innings dating back to July 4.
However, Hader's upward-trending velocity perhaps rules out the notion that his struggles are injury-related. And he might have even more support in San Diego's bullpen than he had in Milwaukee. Since the All-Star break, Melvin's five most oft-used relief pitchers have a 2.28 ERA over 43.1 innings.
The Potential Source of Inspiration for the Padres
Embedded in baseball's history are precedents for just about every scenario, including a team losing its best player and going on to win the World Series anyway.
It happened just last year.
On July 10, 2021, Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL trying to make a highlight-reel catch in a game against the Miami Marlins:
The superstar right fielder had gone into that game batting .281/.392/.593 with 24 homers and 16 steals, yet it was all in service of an Atlanta squad that was a game under .500 at 43-44. Acuña's injury thus seemed to spell doom for their playoff chances.
And yet, Atlanta not only came from behind to win the NL East but kept right on winning long enough to capture the organization's first World Series championship since 1995.
Though Acuña's incumbent teammates rallied to the cause, the real difference-makers were the outfielders that general manager Alex Anthopoulos added at the trade deadline: Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall and eventual National League Championship Series and World Series MVPs Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler.
If Atlanta could pull off such an improbable feat without Acuña, why can't San Diego do the same without Tatís?
With their deficit to the Dodgers in the NL West at 17.0 games, the Padres have the obvious disadvantage of not having a clear shot at a division title and a trip to the National League Division Series.
But whereas Atlanta was a losing team even with Acuña, the Padres have been a winning team sans Tatís. And with respect to the players that Atlanta added last year, San Diego's haul of Soto, Bell, Drury and Hader looks better on paper.
The ol' "stranger things have happened" line therefore actually works in this situation. As unlikely as it may seem right now, these Tatís-less Padres mounting their own run at the World Series would be a less strange version of a thing that's already happened.