Let's get this out of the way now: The San Diego Padres are going to be terrible.
Every year there is one team that is obviously, egregiously, irreparably bad. This year, that team is the Padres, who spent all of about $7 million to augment the least talented roster in baseball, a group that is now projected to feature exactly one above-average regular. In 2017, the Padres will be paying almost as much to players no longer on the team ($31.5 million) than they will be paying players who were on the opening day roster ($34.5 million).
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The Padres will bat Hunter Renfroe, a man with 11 career major league games and a walk rate that has declined for three consecutive seasons in the minors, in the heart of its order. Their most exciting rotation arm is former Rule 5 pick Luis Perdomo, and they'll send Jered Weaver's ashes to the hill every fifth day. It's certainly plausible for another, less obvious suspect to finish even worse, but no team has foreshadowed its own ineptitude for 2017 quite like San Diego.
Accordingly, you would be well within your rights to recuse yourself from watching. This is what failure looks like, in the macro sense.
But on a micro level, there is a difference between the Padres and others of their ilk. Whether the contracts dictate it or it's simply the path of least resistance, teams in San Diego's situation usually weigh down a healthy chunk of its lineup with milquetoast veterans or dead-end flotsam. The Phillies' interminable rebuild has bequeathed copious plate appearances to Freddy Galvis, Ryan Howard, Peter Bourjos and Jeff Francoeur. The Cubs, at their 2012 nadir, allotted plenty of space for Darwin Barney, David DeJesus, Joe Mather and Reed Johnson. In 2011, the Astros marked the first of three consecutive 100-loss seasons by rolling out Clint Barmes, Angel Sanchez, Humberto Quintero and Jason Bourgeois as four of their 10 leaders in plate appearances.
Collectively, they are dullness fitted for starched pants and a belt. Everything that can be learned about these players is well-gleaned, making them the worst sort of roster filler for a brutally bad team—the kind who long ago exhausted the possibility of delivering anything but consistently subpar results.
But with the exception Erick Aybar—last seen skulking around a similarly moribund Atlanta team—the Padres stand out for a total dearth of those players. The rotation is the rotation, an unsightly mosaic fashioned from other clubs' discarded bric-a-brac. But in the field, every single player of consequence is worth watching.
In the outfield alone, there's Renfroe, whose inexperience and eroding patience are married to a brick house frame that crushed 30 home runs in Triple-A last year, and has cut strikeouts alongside the walks. Alex Dickerson, meanwhile, is Renfroe's antonym, an analytical darling who lacks Renfroe's ceiling as a power bat but gets on base everywhere he goes with dependably excellent plate discipline. Manuel Margot was the crown jewel of the Craig Kimbrel trade, a top prospect who gets his first real crack at becoming the team's center fielder and possible leadoff man for the next decade. Travis Jankowski snuck his way to the majors' least-noticed 30-steal season, as well as an even more overlooked .368 on-base percentage against right-handed pitching. Should that stick, it's a skills package that could land him atop a batting order as the strong side of a platoon.
Wil Myers, the aforementioned plus regular, finally grew into his projection as a top-five prospect, with the added twist of stealing 28 bases—nearly twice as many as the rest of his major league career combined—along the way. To his right is Yangervis Solarte, among the game's more poignant stories between his gradual ascension from anonymous farmhand to an everyday stalwart, and his transition to a single father of three daughters following the death of his wife, Yuliette.
For now, the third baseman is Ryan Schimpf, a previously anonymous farmhand who made his major league debut at 28, ripped 20 home runs and posted the second-highest flyball rate in the last 15 years. He might give way to Cory Spangenberg, yet another former top-100 prospect who turned in a respectable 2015. Or maybe it's Carlos Asauaje, an intriguing secondary piece of the Kimbrel haul and one of the game's most analytical minds.
Behind the dish is Austin Hedges, who for years was rightly pegged as a defensive savant who struggled to hit his body weight. Then, a couple of adjustments morphed in Triple-A last year suddenly turned him into the minor league equivalent of Buster Posey. Depending on how they carry over to the major leagues, he could range from an All-Star to out of baseball.
And behind him is Christian Bethancourt, from whom the organization will attempt to splice a hybrid backstop-outfield-reliever in one of the more unorthodox experiments in baseball history.
Not all of the non-Myers, non-Solarte players will pan out, of course. It's a good bet that the majority will not. But each one of them remains unformed and capable of settling into something genuinely useful, which makes them interesting. By extension, the same applies for the Padres themselves.
You can learn things from following the Padres, which is an achievement of some kind, even—and perhaps especially—when the end product will lose a shitload of games. It won't make the next seven months bearable, per se, but this is the rare on-field mess that is not unwatchable. Not every bad team is a total failure. The ones that make failure a lens for self-discovery are a certain kind of success.