SAN DIEGO — The scene at Petco Park, if you had never attended a game here, might have suggested the home team was in the midst of a special summer.
Former Padres pitcher Jake Peavy, channeling his memorable mound presence, owned the lectern as he was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame. Joe Musgrove, the hometown kid who wears No. 44 in tribute to Peavy, continued a sparkling two-month run with six shutout innings against the Texas Rangers and their American League-leading offense. The Padres’ star-powered lineup scored all seven of its runs before the top of the seventh, when franchise third baseman Manny Machado submitted a dazzling defensive homage to Ken Caminiti. An announced Friday night crowd of 44,241 drank it all in, and this was nothing new.
It was the 19th consecutive sellout and the 43rd in 50 games this season.
It also helped explain why this jewel of a ballpark is the site of so many conflicting emotions.
The Padres, as expected, are appointment viewing deep into a season in which they are running a previously unimaginable $249 million payroll. But not for the reasons they envisioned. As 30 clubs look to advance, retreat or tread water ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline, San Diego looms as a potential source of widespread inertia.
“They are in a really weird spot,” one high-ranking official for a National League team who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “Can’t imagine they sell. Feels like they do both.”
The Padres, indeed, appear to be occupying a murky middle ground — as well as the rapt attention of contending teams. Their underachieving roster includes not only Blake Snell, the best rental starter on the market, but also Josh Hader, the best rental reliever on the market. And while star outfielder Juan Soto remains unlikely to be moved more than a year before free agency, the Padres have at least shown a willingness to listen to offers for Snell and Hader.
No matter their ultimate course, the Padres’ actions — or lack thereof — could shape a large swath of the major-league landscape. A.J. Preller, one of the most unpredictable general managers in the sport, has done it plenty of times before, including with last year’s seismic trade for Soto, but he is now facing a most unusual set of circumstances.
The Padres perhaps added more uncertainty to their plans in the form of Saturday’s 4-0 shutout of the Rangers. On its own, it was another night that seemed to justify the unprecedented investment of owner Peter Seidler, who has voiced his reluctance to give up on the season. A two-time cancer survivor, Seidler is known as much for his relentless optimism as he is for his free-spending ways.
But the bigger picture remained dimmer. The latest victory merely improved the Padres’ record to 51-54. FanGraphs and other analytical sites give them roughly a one-in-three chance of qualifying for the postseason. That might feel optimistic. San Diego — which has gone from a popular World Series pick to a team in a logical position to sell off key pieces — still has not secured more than three wins in a row.
But the Padres, according to team sources and rival clubs that have spoken with them, have yet to commit to the path the equally disappointing New York Mets are going down by trading away closer David Robertson and starter Max Scherzer. At the same time, the similarly underwhelming Los Angeles Angels have charged in the opposite direction by taking the unicorn known as Shohei Ohtani off the trade block and acquiring pending free agents Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López.
As of Saturday night, no trade involving San Diego appeared imminent. Asking prices for both Snell and Hader, industry sources say, have been exorbitant but not unheard of with so much of the league vying for spots in a 12-team postseason. For now, that still includes the Padres, who have continued sending scouts to major-league ballparks and minor-league fields alike. Said one team evaluator, “We’re watching all of it.”
That has only added to the confusion around the industry, as has the Padres’ reported interest in Giolito before the Chicago White Sox sent the former All-Star to Los Angeles. (A team source downplayed that interest as due diligence, which the Padres seem to do more of than anyone else.) One team executive said Saturday evening that the front office’s approach to the deadline would be more dependent on potential trade returns — both selling and buying — than the results of Sunday’s series finale against Texas and Monday’s series opener in Colorado.
Not everyone is convinced.
“Every game the Padres play is huge,” one rival executive said.
Especially when their head of baseball operations is a proven wild card. Eight years ago, in his first full season as general manager, Preller made the ill-fated choice to keep intact a 49-53 team at the trade deadline. In 2019, near the end of a multiyear rebuilding process, he surprised even his own clubhouse by selling off fan favorite Franmil Reyes. A year later, he made a series of aggressive deals as most teams practiced caution amid the financial uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, he pursued a trade for Ohtani before settling for landing Soto in arguably the biggest deadline deal ever.
Now Preller could again turn the sport upside down if he decides to sell in a market thin on top-end pitching. Or if he goes the other way — to the disappointment of some contenders — and buys. Or if he attempts some complex combination of buying and selling as the Padres seek to balance their frustrating year with, they hope, a brighter future in 2024 and beyond.
The Padres, in the end, could more or less stand pat if no one meets their lofty asking prices. They could keep Snell and Hader and hope to go on a late run before recouping modest compensatory draft picks if both pitchers reject qualifying offers and sign elsewhere in free agency.
Late Saturday, there was a sense around the organization that the Padres were content to wait until the final 24 or so hours before Tuesday’s trade deadline to make decisive moves — or maybe not move much at all. One opposing general manager observed that the Padres might already be leaning in a certain direction while suggesting that, at this time of year, every win or loss could alter internal calculations in a tangible way.
If the Padres, who are 14-9 this month, continue winning at a .609 clip the rest of the way, they would finish with 86 wins. With mediocrity pervading the National League wild-card chase, that might very well be enough.
Saturday’s victory certainly felt important. For a second consecutive day, the Padres shut down a dangerous offense. They received another strong six-inning start, this time from Yu Darvish. The offense again came up with the kind of clutch hitting that has eluded it for most of the season. In the ninth, Hader struck out two in a perfect inning. Yet another sellout crowd, Petco Park’s 20th in a row, exulted.
Was it Hader’s last time pitching for San Diego? Will the same be true of Snell in his scheduled start Sunday? With a little more than 60 hours to go before the trade deadline, an entire industry is waiting to find out.
(Top photo of Blake Snell, one of the Padres’ most valuable trade chips if they choose to sell: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)