Nearly all season, MLB has dealt with the paradox of the San Diego Padres being one of the league's better teams, except when it comes to actually winning games.
Despite a September surge, that's no longer an issue. The Padres were eliminated from MLB postseason contention Friday when the Miami Marlins, current owners of the National League's third-wild card spot, defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3.
After making the playoffs as a wild-card team and reaching the NLCS last season, the 79-80 Padres are 19 games back from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West and four games back from the Marlins with three games left in the season.
The Padres took forever to get eliminated
Before we get into the Padres' struggles for the season, they at least deserve credit for not going quietly into the night.
The Padres could've been eliminated as early as Tuesday, which they entered five games back from the Chicago Cubs with six games to play. A Padres loss and Cubs win would've eliminated San Diego that day. Here's what happened over the next four days, up to the Padres' elimination:
Braves beat Cubs 7-6
Padres beat Giants 4-0
Braves beat Cubs 6-5 (in extras)
Padres beat Giants 5-2 (in extras)
Braves beat Cubs 5-3
By Thursday, the Marlins had overtaken the Cubs for the third wild-card spot and needed only a win over the New York Mets to end the Padres' season. They took a 2-1 lead into the ninth and then ... Mother Nature intervened. A day later, the Marlins finally finished off San Diego.
Basically, the Padres survived four straight days on the verge of elimination, and that's not something you often see from a team in the Padres' position. They have actually spent all month charging back in the stands, with an MLB-best 17-7 record in September.
Of course, there were many reasons that was too little, too late.
The 2023 Padres made no sense
Allow me to describe to you a baseball team. They were pretty good last year. They went 89-73 — their first 162-game season above .500 since 2010 — and defeated their big, bad division nemesis in the NLDS. The dragon was slain, even if the campaign ended one series later in the NLCS.
That team entered this season with basically every major contributor returning. The only player worth 1.5 bWAR in 2022 who didn't come back for 2023 was Jurickson Profar, who rejoined San Diego midseason after being released by the Colorado Rockies.
The team — we'll just call them the Padres now — wasn't content to bring everyone back, though. It also signed Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280 million deal to assemble a quartet of superstars: Bogaerts, Manny Machado, Fernando Tatís Jr. and Juan Soto. What's more, not only were the Padres adding Bogaerts but they were also getting Tatis back from a PED suspension and a full season of Soto after trading for him last year.
The 2023 Padres were built to be a very good team — and an expensive one at that, with their $296 million 40-man CBT payroll ranking third in MLB, ahead of even the Dodgers. However, as we saw with the teams ranking first in payroll and second, money and hype don't automatically make you a good baseball team.
The twist with the Padres, however, is that they actually were kind of a good baseball team. They just didn't win.
Here's everything the Padres had going for them in the 2023 season, with all stats entering Tuesday:
A plus-97 run differential, tied for third-best in the NL
Soto hitting .275/.409/.520 with a career-high 35 homers while playing every game of the season
Tatís, Bogaerts and Machado all posting an OPS+ above 115 (i.e. an OPS at least 15% better than MLB average) and playing at least 135 games
Ha-Seong Kim, last year's starting shortstop, becoming another star and ranking in the top 10 in bWAR among MLB position players while playing mostly second base
Top catching prospect Luis Campusano getting his first regular playing time and hitting .319/.356/.491
Blake Snell running away with the NL Cy Young race, holding an NL-best 2.25 ERA and 234 strikeouts in 180 innings
Michael Wacha posting one of the best seasons of his career at 31 years old with a 3.39 ERA in 23 starts
Seth Lugo breaking out from long reliever/swingman to become a starting pitcher with a 3.57 ERA in 26 starts
Closer Josh Hader ranking second among MLB pitchers (min. 30 innings pitched) with a 1.15 ERA
An active but not earthshaking trade deadline that featured the acquisitions of Ji Man Choi, Rich Hill, Scott Barlow and others
A farm system that went from 23rd in MLB before the season, according to MLB Pipeline, to ninth
That combination sounds like it should add up to a playoff team. Except it didn't.
The main symptoms of San Diego's issues are well-known among the statistically inclined. The team holds a 7-23 record in one-run games and is 1-12 in extra-inning games, by far the worst marks in MLB. You could blame bad luck for that, or you could blame a lack of a clutch gene, but it's brutal either way.
Also not helping the team were down seasons or injuries for key players including Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Jake Cronenworth, Trent Grisham and Robert Suarez.
No game was more emblematic of the Padres' struggles than their loss Monday to the San Francisco Giants, another would-be NL West contender. Snell threw six scoreless innings to wrap up his Cy Young case, while Tatís, Machado and Bogaerts all went 2-for-4, but a 1-0 lead slipped away in the eighth and turned into a backbreaking, 2-1 loss.
The Padres didn't win their first extra-inning game until Wednesday, when they beat the reeling Giants 5-2 in 10 innings.
Where do the Padres go from here?
The finger-pointing has already begun around the team's leadership. A rift between the Padres' famously aggressive general manager, A.J. Preller, and their veteran manager, Bob Melvin, was reported last week and described as "the worst-kept secret in baseball."
Machado — the team's longest-tenured player, who signed a franchise-record $350 million extension last offseason — was also targeted with questions about a clubhouse accused of being a little too casual.
When a team face-plants as hard as the Padres did this year, it often gets ugly. Not only do the Padres have to hope this year was a fluke and their core of players really can win a World Series, but they also have some very expensive roster decisions on the horizon. Snell and Hader, the team's top starter and reliever, are free agents this winter, while Soto is set to become one of the most expensive free agents ever after 2024.
The Padres have made waves for years now as a small-market club willing to spend like a big-market one. This season was supposed to be the one in which it all came together, but instead, it looks like owner Peter Seidler will once again have to open the checkbook to keep the dream alive.