The big splash: An uncertain 2020 becomes a reason to jump for the Padres

Soon they’ll sort through this thing we called a 2020 baseball season, which skidded along atop a pandemic, a national reckoning, a labor uprising and A.J. Preller’s ambition for long enough to seem real or real enough.

Much like A.J. himself, perhaps the season will be viewed as cool in a thin-shouldered, soft-spoken, oddly athletic way, as hiding something desperate or dangerous beneath the loose shirt-tails and heavy eyelids that beg to be underestimated.

The first step, you know about. It’s predictable. And then what? Who perseveres? Who gets lucky? Who stands at the end?

That’s the drama that remains.

In 27 days, 14 teams will leave the soft bubble that had its porous moments, leaving 16. Among the 16, surely, will be the San Diego Padres, who in a half-century of baseball have produced zero World Series titles and five postseason appearances. So, there were decisions along the way, some born of restlessness, others of recklessness, and they didn’t always pan out, and the team to the north became invincible, and fifth-place finishes became fourth-place finishes and back again.

This time they’ll get it right, they always said. This time is real. This time is for good. And then the small-market circle of life would turn and turn, and if they weren’t one good player away they were five or six, and then they’d choose poorly between patience and belligerence, and it was frankly exhausting.

The Padres and A.J. Preller returned to one of those moments late in that odd summer of 2020. They are not yet a year removed from last place in the NL West and now for a month have played as one of the more capable teams in the league. So the Padres are again what they call “all in,” and over about 50 hours leading to the trade deadline they added 10 players, including the ace-like Mike Clevinger from the Cleveland Indians, and shipped out 16, including eight of their top 30 minor-league prospects.

Having built out the rotation, the bullpen, the lineup, and swapped out two catchers, this is who they are now and for a while. So this is what will challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers or not, what will open a fresh era of Padres baseball or not, what will accompany Fernando Tatis Jr. into October or not.

“It’s hard enough to put something together where you can win for one season or two,” Preller said. “But to have a team that can extend that run and do it over the course of five-plus years. That speaks to a real organization. Obviously, looking at the Dodgers, they’ve done it as well as anybody here over the course of really the last decade or so. I told Andrew [Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations] the other day, I was actually disappointed in him, because I thought they were going to go about 50-10 this year, so they may be underachieving.”

He chuckled and continued, “They clearly have set the bar. From our standpoint, we’ve just done a lot of focusing on ourselves. And what we need to do to be an organization and a team that can sustain year in and year out, be competitive year in and year out. Internally we kind of targeted this 2020 season a few years ago as a year that we wanted to hopefully start a run of years where every single season we can be competitive and a team that we expect to play deep into October. So far it’s been a good month or so, a good month-plus, in the season, but I think we understand there’s a lot of baseball left to be played this year. We’ve got a lot of stuff in front of us.”

Mike Clevinger, abridor de los Indios de Cleveland, lanza durante un juego el miércoles 26 de agosto de 2020, ante los Mellizos de Minnesota (AP Foto/Tony Dejak)
Mike Clevinger joins the Padres after being sent down by Cleveland in the wake of violating COVID-19 protocols and lying about it. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Beautifully, Preller eye-balled this runt of a baseball season, circled it a few times, called to it, ignored its bent ear and distended tummy and dopey mien, and fell in love. Anybody can fall for a purebred. Maybe only a thin-shouldered, finger-brushed, last-place (now second-place) GM could love … this.

Somebody had to.

For a third day in the run-up to Monday’s deadline, and at a time there’d be only about eight teams, if they were being honest with themselves, whose Septembers would be spent in irrelevance, the Padres and Preller were the league’s foremost aggressors.

This feels smarter than the winter five years ago, upon Preller’s manic arrival, in which they sold out to a Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers misadventure. Clevinger won’t be a free agent until after the 2022 season. The veterans they did acquire — Mitch Moreland, Trevor Rosenthal and Jason Castro — will be free agents in two months. The next generation pitching — MacKenzie Gore, Luis Patino, Adrian Morejon, Chris Paddack — was untouched. On the other hand, they also changed out a good chunk of a team that had the third-best record in the National League.

That Clevinger was available at all would suggest the Padres’ luck had turned. Since 2017 one of the American League’s most effective starting pitchers, and still overshadowed in his own rotation by the likes of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber, Clevinger (along with fellow pitcher Zach Plesac) wandered away from the team hotel (and COVID-19 protocols) while in Chicago in early August. He compounded the breach when he lied about his whereabouts, then compounded it again when he flew home on the team charter. He pitched one time after that, five days before the trade deadline, which opposing general managers rightfully read as a showcase start.

The affable 29-year-old said he did not believe his behavior in Chicago led to him being traded away, though he seems to recognize his missteps.

“I think we all have some hiccups,” he said Monday afternoon. “I don’t think that one mistake in my life is going to define me or my career. It doesn’t define what I’ve done for the past five years, what kind of teammate I’ve been or what kind of person I am. I wasn’t going to let that moment define me as a person going forward. I knew the changes that had to be put in place. Maybe some self-reflecting that needed to be done was done. I never want to put any other organization, let alone the Indians, in some predicament like that again. I never was a distraction before. I don’t plan on ever being a distraction to anybody.

“Just looking from a business standpoint, I really think this might have been inevitable at this point. They were looking for a bat, I’ve got the two years of control, you got a lot more years of control with guys younger than me in the rotation, you got [Carrasco] already locked up and this is the position that we’ve had a plethora of talent in for years. So I think this was kind of inevitable whether or not Chicago happened.”

He added that he believed he left Cleveland, that team and that clubhouse on decent terms.

“As ugly as things got for a moment, that was such a good group of guys, we pulled it together,” he said. “My relationships were already starting to rebuild. I don’t think it was ever fully lost. I think it was more just disappointed [in me]. It’s like a friend let you down. It’s not like a friend completely screwed you over. They were never kicking me to the curb. The texts I received from some of the guys on the team, even some of the ones that were really mad, just show it.”

Prior to chasing a trade that came together early Monday morning, Preller and his staff discussed Clevinger’s misadventures in Chicago and decided everyone has a right to his knuckleheaded moment. They were satisfied he eventually owned up to a choice that put himself, his teammates and the Indians’ season in jeopardy. Plus, he can really pitch.

“You don’t usually get access to those types of pitchers,” Preller said. “There were some definite twists and turns in the last 24, 48 hours in the pursuit of Mike, but we’re really happy we got it done.”

What 2020 would provide was cover for teams whose seasons went wrong and, also, opportunity for those clubs presumed to be too far past or short of their primes. In general, the deadline played to those margins.

As they waited on a fuller starting rotation, and so assumed to be a year at least from pressing the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Padres used the deadline as their own sandbox.

Texas Rangers' Lance Lynn works against the Oakland Athletics in a baseball game in Arlington, Texas, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Lance Lynn remained with the Texas Rangers at Monday's trade deadline, ensuring the Padres' move for Mike Clevinger was the week's biggest move. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Few even mid-level starting pitchers were there to be had. Lance Lynn remained in Texas. The Cincinnati Reds held onto Bauer and the Los Angeles Angels did not deal Dylan Bundy.

But, also, the Toronto Blue Jays, who like the Padres have developed a young core and like the Padres live in a challenging division, acquired starting pitchers Taijuan Walker, Ross Stripling and Robbie Ray to add to the winter additions of Hyun Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson. Walker threw six shutout innings against the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday. Stripling is a serviceable right-hander squeezed out of L.A. by a handful of live arms. Ray had an ERA near 8 after seven starts with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Generally, the deadline operated in the margins, with teams either unable or unwilling to fully invest in 2020, or perhaps satisfied with where they stood. Then, 2020 won’t have provided much in the way of context. The choice was in or out, right now, today, before it seemed real or real enough.

In that way, Clevinger was thinking about pitching in the playoffs again, this time with the Padres, and that’s what’s out there. That odd thing 2020 hasn’t taken that away, yet.

“It’s like skydiving,” he said. “It’s an adrenaline rush you’ll chase for the rest of your career if you taste it.”

So, he’s a skydiver?

“No, no, no, no,” he said, laughing. “Definitely not. I’m afraid of heights, actually. But I’m assuming it’s like the feeling of skydiving.”

Sometimes you just gotta jump. Or not.

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