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Struggling Padres should take page from 1998 Yankees

The last time the San Diego Padres reached the World Series, it was 1998, and they had the misfortune of running into the history-making, 114-win New York Yankees. That series resulted in a triumphant sweep for the Yankees, and the Padres franchise soon tipped into a dormant period that lasted until A.J. Preller, the San Diego president of baseball operations emboldened by ownership, started gobbling up star players a few years ago.

San Diego’s first attempt at shooting the competitive moon under Preller fizzled before it ever sparked, but the reboot had legs. The original signing of Manny Machado and the emergence of Fernando Tatis Jr. melded to provide a thrilling taste of the playoffs in 2020. That winter, Peter Seidler assumed control of the team, having previously been the ownership group’s lead investor but not the chairman.

Since then, the Padres have operated in a way every fan base dreams about but few get to see. They have pursued virtually every superstar who has become available in any shape or form, plus quite a few other established stars, and reeled in quite a few of them — most notably Juan Soto at last season’s trade deadline. When Seidler’s Padres and John Middleton’s Philadelphia Phillies met in last season’s NLCS, it felt like a refreshing burst of openly expressed (and expensed) ambition. And with Tatis back from suspension and Xander Bogaerts signed, the Padres entered 2023 as baseball’s latest attempt at a superteam.

Now, the Padres could still have a super season, could still reach the World Series, but the path won’t be the one Preller and Seidler undoubtedly envisioned, nor the one fans were hoping for when they bought the team’s entire allotment of season tickets this spring. Instead, sitting at 23-27 after a visit to the Nationals and heading into a weekend series with the Yankees, the Padres are squarely in the running for baseball’s most disappointing team.

Beyond the sinking feeling, there is actual danger at hand. With Memorial Day signaling the beginning of reality, of sorts, the Padres’ odds of reaching the playoffs have taken the second-biggest dive in baseball since Opening Day by FanGraphs’ calculations. From being near locks in March, they are now at 57% and in danger of being overtaken by the plucky Arizona Diamondbacks.

In the meantime, as we wait for the gap between their expectations and their reality to fully unfurl, the 2023 Padres are hammering home a painful reminder about the very nature of baseball: Trying to build a superteam will often ensure you don’t.

What the 1998 Yankees tell us about baseball greatness

The Yankees weren’t technically under new ownership during their mid-’90s rise, but it was a new type of ownership. Having been banned from baseball in 1990 after paying a gambler for dirt on Dave Winfield, George Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993 with — at least temporarily — a new attitude about the relative value of free agents and homegrown talent.

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The 1998 Yankees team that broke the all-time wins record was the first to feature contributions from all of the Core Four, as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera would come to be known. That wasn’t an accident.

The New York Times’ Claire Smith, in December 1997, reported that Steinbrenner had developed a “newfound intransigence over trading away prospects.” That offseason, the Yankees did indeed refrain from dealing for the top names on the block: Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown, one of whom wound up on the Padres. The Yanks instead made more modest additions in Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Brosius.

This was not a securely terrific team at the beginning. A 1-4 start led to questions about manager Joe Torre’s job security, but then the Yankees kicked into overdrive. By July, they were on pace for history, and Buster Olney was documenting the industry’s amazement.

This history was happening, you’ll recall, simultaneously with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run chase, but the Yankees didn’t have those sorts of individual standouts. Their best players finished third in AL MVP and Cy Young voting, respectively (though the MVP vote looks comical now). Instead, they seemed to have an answer to just about every quandary the season threw at them.

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“They have their own little ‘Truman Show,’” Orioles pitcher Scott Erickson said after a loss, alluding to a well-disguised script. Surely, the logic went, a team shouldn’t be able to unearth a dynamic rookie starter — Orlando Hernandez — via an emergency start made necessary by David Cone’s painful run-in with his mother’s Jack Russell terrier. “Everything goes right for the Yankees.”

That magic wasn’t exactly magic, though. It feels like it sometimes, but mostly it bubbles up from successfully building depth through personnel decision-making and player development. Brosius, whom the Yankees acquired as a player to be named later in a deal jettisoning veteran starter Kenny Rogers, perhaps accidentally summed up the key to a superteam as the Yankees turned heads that July.

“The core of the team,” he told Olney, “is the team.”

You can never have too many good baseball players

The Padres’ roster heading into this season inspired conversations about excess. After the Padres signed Bogaerts, questions included “How many shortstops does one team need?” The glut of capable shortstops, however, was more a brief Twister act for manager Bob Melvin than it was a foundational issue.

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Still, there’s a distinction to be made in the ways Preller and Seidler have assembled this team. Spending money won’t drag a team down on its own, no matter how much your uncle wants to complain about the high salaries; team owners willing to shell out long-term, big-money deals simply must also be willing to cut bait if the need arises. Going after help in free agency is financially inefficient, but if Seidler doesn’t care about that, there’s no need for fans to wring their hands over it.

Trades, though, don’t have an undo button. And in many areas of the Padres roster, years of moves for immediate big-league help have drained any hint of surplus talent. Too many shortstops? Not inherently a problem. Too few competent big-league hitters? Problem.

That’s what the Padres are experiencing in this early-season turbulence. The 2023 team is suffering from Manny Machado’s slow start and subsequent injury, yes. They do need more from pitchers Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell. The problem less likely to be solved by time and regression to the mean, however, is a dramatic lack of offensive support beyond the stars.

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Only three Padres hitters have managed park-adjusted OPS+ marks of 110 or better, meaning at least 10% better than league average, so far this season. They’re exactly the three you think: Soto, Tatis, Bogaerts. The division-leading Dodgers have seven such players, as do the upstart Texas Rangers — who have paired big spending with some clear player development wins. The Rays have nine.

As an uneven whole, the Padres lineup just doesn’t have the threats to sustain scoring. San Diego is middle of the pack in team OPS+ but extremely dependent on walks to even get there. The dearth of hits hampers their practical production and leaves them sixth-worst in MLB in runs per game.

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What’s worse, their best potential solutions — young hitters they might be cycling through right now — are mostly playing for other teams. Since the end of the 2019 season, the Padres have traded a staggering number of players for established major-leaguers. There are 27 such former members of the organization — more than a full roster’s worth — who have played elsewhere in the majors already this season and could theoretically still be under San Diego’s team control.

To be clear, many of those deals were worthwhile to acquire top-level talent, but making this style of trade in bunches can have a compounding effect as unavoidable mistakes crop up. For example, among the 27:

That’s all without mentioning the future impact of having eviscerated a farm system that ranked among baseball’s best three years ago.

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Dealing away multiple young, undefined talents for fewer established major-leaguers is usually a losing strategy in the long term, undertaken with the justifying goal of producing a critical mass in the short term. But early in 2023, the risks of the Padres’ laudable but extreme efforts to be exceptional have surfaced in excruciating fashion.

Great teams — from the 1998 Yankees to the recent Dodgers to the potentially great 2023 Rays — have followed more balanced approaches to the now vs. later quandary, even when their payroll numbers were huge. Teams can be expensive and star-studded but retain an appreciation for options, for homegrown talent, for the uncertainty that might require improvisation. That restraint can make them frustratingly frugal contenders or stealthy superteams. The difference is usually not discernible before 162 games deliver their inevitable, unpredictable hurdles.

History tells us the 2023 Padres will probably wind up being closer to who we thought they were than who they have been so far. The grueling 162-game slate will come for far less talented squads than San Diego. But theirs is a particularly dicey problem to solve without furthering the spiral. Baseball spreads the burden of winning thin across a wide array of shoulders. Knowing you have some superhuman standard-bearers locked in for the next decade is a great start, but most of the load simply has to be carried by the uncommonly talented players who come and go, the overlooked common folk of the majors.

The core of the team, in other words, has to be the team.

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