San Diego's future still bright as young Padres experience growing pains in NL West

NEW YORK – Kirby Yates gets to watch Fernando Tatis Jr. dazzle on a daily basis, showcasing why Tatis is an NL Rookie of the Year candidate.

Yates has also seen Chris Paddack perform like an ace. And, yes, Yates knows about the young talent waiting in the wings.

It’s impossible for the San Diego Padres All-Star closer not to be smitten with his teammates’ capabilities, and think about what this Padres team can be someday.

“The talent is as good as any team’s in the league with the young guys coming up and what they possess,” Yates said Tuesday afternoon at Citi Field. “Who knows what the future holds, but it’s a high ceiling.”

The Padres certainly appear to have the talent to start challenging the Los Angeles Dodgers for NL supremacy in upcoming seasons, but, for now, they’re a highly inconsistent young team that is experiencing some growing pains.

The Padres’ odds of making the playoffs have taken a hit in the second half as they’ve dropped eight of 10 after Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the New York Mets in Flushing.

Jason Vargas (5-5) flummoxed the Padres all night with his off-speed pitches, striking out eight batters while allowing just one hit in six innings. Paddack and the Padres (47-53) had no answers for Robinson Cano, who hit three homers.

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. watches his RBI double to deep left center field during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets, Tuesday, July 23, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
The Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. watches his RBI double to deep left-center field during the ninth inning against the New York Mets on Tuesday in New York. (AP)

“We’re improving as a team,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller told Yahoo Sports before the start of this three-game series. “Ultimately, where we want to be is still at the top part of the standings. Definitely getting better, seen some exciting moments in the first half of the season with some of the younger players and some of the guys showing they belong in the big leagues and can be successful in the big leagues. Getting to that consistency point, and some of the things we’ve seen, having more consistency so we can play into October is the next part for us.”

The Padres entered this season as one of the dark horses in the National League due to their combination of elite prospects, and an already solid core bolstered by the addition of elite free-agent infielder Manny Machado. ranked the Padres’ system as the top in the sport in March due to the likes of Tatis Jr., Paddack, infielder Luis Urias and lefty pitcher MacKenzie Gore.

Having elite prospects often leads to strong results at the major league level as shown in recent years by the Cubs, Braves, Yankees and Dodgers.

It can take some time, though, and much of the uncertainty surrounding the Padres centered on whether this team could win now or would need a year or two.

Tatis and Paddack have certainly lived up to their reputations, and Machado has rebounded since a slow start, but the Padres are once again at the bottom of the National League. They are a team without a clear strength.

They entered the night ranked 20th in OPS, 16th in starters’ ERA, and 19th in relief ERA. They’re in the bottom third in MLB in runs scored.

As they’ve faded in the second half, the Padres have scored 3.8 runs per game while allowing 5.2 runs. Losing three of four to the Mets and Marlins has hurt.

“We’re learning. This is a young team,” said Tatis Jr., who is hitting .325 with a .984 OPS. “There are going to be growing pains but we’re trying to get over it as quickly as possible. We’re going to be out there competing every single day.”

Jul 23, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; San Diego Padres starting pitcher Chris Paddack (59) talks to San Diego Padres catcher Francisco Mejia (27) after the end of the third inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
The San Diego Padres are last in the NL West. (USA TODAY Sports)

Team decision-makers knew those ups and downs would happen with a young team, and Preller and his staff were fine with letting the prospects learn on the fly. If it cost them some wins now but helped in the future, they were fine with the trade-off.

The odds were always against the Padres winning the World Series in 2019.

Players like Tatis Jr. and Urias — who just recently returned from Triple-A — are learning what it’s like to play through a full season, and how to handle success and failure. Being in a playoff race is also an experience that has to be learned by those who’ve never done it.

“We could have signed some [players], could have gone out and added some guys that could have filled in for a year or so,” Preller said. “Ultimately we believe in the guys that are in the organization and we believe in the guys in that room, and the ability to go through some ups and downs and learn what it takes to be consistent in the big leagues was probably the best track for us this year.”

Tuesday’s game showcased how each game can help the younger players.

Tatis Jr. struck out in each of his first three at-bats against Vargas before rebounding to hit two balls hard, including an RBI double off Mets closer Edwin Diaz.

Paddack had to grind Tuesday while lacking his wipeout change-up and curveball, but managed to keep the Padres in the game, allowing three runs in five-plus innings. Paddack is learning how to adjust to hitters who now have a book on him.

“You can’t take off days. This is a game that is going to eat you, it’s not going to be easy,” Tatis Jr. said of lessons he learned in his first season. “It’s a game of ups and downs, learn how to come out of the things.”

Even if the Padres ultimately miss the playoffs for the 13th straight season, this season still has the potential to be a success.

For all of the hype surrounding their prospects, it’s never a given that players will live up to that hype. Mets shortstop Amed Rosario was once hyped like Tatis Jr., but has not come close to living up to his billing as a can’t-miss prospect.

The Padres entered the year with certain projections for its young players, and most of the youngsters are meeting those outlooks.

Preller and his staff know they have a future, long-term stud at shortstop in Tatis Jr., and Paddack will be a front-of-the-rotation pitcher for years to come.

There are others on the way, and those prospects that are deemed expendable could be used to acquire a frontline pitcher.

It may not be long before these Padres are a force to be reckoned with, but, until then, there may be some tough moments to digest.

“Some of these guys, it’s their first full season in the big leagues. They are still learning and getting comfortable,” Yates said. “The best baseball is still ahead of us. You want to peak at the right time and hopefully we’re going to peak at the right time and make a push into October.”

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