The San Diego Padres Need an Onion-Like Approach

Layers are the key to San Diego's 2024 fortunes.

The San Diego Padres did not have an inspiring offseason. They traded away Juan Soto. Starting pitchers Blake SnellSeth Lugo, and Michael Wacha all walked in free agency. As did closer Josh Hader. When you’re in a division with the Los Angeles Dodgers and defending National League champion Arizona Diamondbacks, that’s not what you want. Prognosticators aren’t predicting a World Series. Projections sat them third or fourth in the NL West across the board.

And yet, because of the names still around — in conjunction with the inherent aggressiveness of their general manager — the Padres remain a tantalizing ballclub. Hence, the aforementioned spilled ink. Their upside remains that of a true postseason threat, most likely out of a wild card spot. The other end of the spectrum looks a lot like last year: bad luck running amok all over them. To realize the former, the secondary portion of the roster needs to provide support.


The Shrek Theory


In the 2001 animated masterpiece Shrek, the titular character is forced to see Lord Farquaad of Duloc in order to have the fairytale creatures that were unceremoniously dumped in the former’s home/swamp removed. Shrek agrees, but under terms that Shrek rescues Farquaad’s would-be betrothed from a tower defended by a fire-breathing dragon. You know the story.

Shrek and his archetypal sidekick, Donkey, leave on their quest. As they begin the undertaking, Donkey questions Shrek as to why he didn’t utilize violence in simply getting Farquaad to have the fairytale creatures removed. Shrek’s retort is that there’s more to ogres than people think, and likens them to onions. Layers, he says, are the reason behind the comparison. Donkey then notes that both cake and parfait have layers and are far more appealing to the masses. Shrek sticks with onions, never clarifying exactly what he means. Probably something about their emotional depth.

This is all to say that in order for the San Diego Padres to be successful in 2024, they are going to have to have layers. In layers, it’s not so much having depth. Depth matters, sure. But so does having the secondary pieces in your lineup to supplement the stars’ upper-tier production.


The Inner Layer (Core?)


The central core (Note: I am, at the time of this writing, still unsure if onions — scientifically known as Allium cepa — do, in fact, have coresof the Padres onion consists of a trio of names: Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny MachadoXander Bogaerts.

Tatis had a really strong 2023. To start the year, he has looked even more like his pre-injury, pre-suspension self. In ISO’ing .370 through the first few games of the season, he’s showing signs of being the player who can carry the squad for stretches at a time. Machado, while not playing third base yet, looks normal at the plate (.375 OBP, .296 ISO, identical strikeout and walk rates). Bogaerts is off to a slower start but was the second-best performer on this roster in ’23 by wRC+ (120).

It’s the three largest contracts on the roster, burdened with glorious purpose. When you’ve got established names like this, the expectation is that they will perform. And while each of these three may or may not be at their peak (save Tatis), there’s a certain element of reliability in their respective games.

At the very least, you’re getting a shallot out of these guys.*

*Author’s Note: I am classifying a shallot as a “smaller onion” in this case, which is not scientifically true. Just appropriate for the extended metaphor. 


The Middle Layer 


But we do not want a mere shallot out of this San Diego lineup. We want a fully formed, versatile, ideal onion. And that’s where the secondary components come in. Specifically, that’s where Ha-Seong Kim comes in.

Kim had something of a breakout in 2023. His first two years in the league were…fine. Strikeouts were a bit high, walks a bit low, and there was only occasional power to speak of. He wasn’t on base enough to utilize his wheels, either, having combined for just 18 swipes across 2021 and 2022. Something clicked last year, however.

In slashing .260/.351/.398/.749 and walking at an even 12.0 percent clip, Kim set a new bar for himself. Reaching base with more regularity led to 38 steals, even if the power (.138 ISO) remained just occasional. But he maintained a similar quality of contact while bumping up his overall Contact% and keeping the ball off the ground. He’s off to a similar start in ’24, with identical strikeout and walk rates (12.9 percent), a pair of steals, and an uptick in power (.192 ISO). It’s obviously difficult to say with any certainty that the power component is sustainable.

But Kim very much represents the mid-level layer of this situation. His skill set is a fairly unique one among Padre hitters, and he finally showcased it last year. A year into what was clearly established as a comfort threshold should yield dividends as the most important secondary piece of this offense.


The Outer Layer (Not the Skin)


Beyond Kim is where things become really crucial. That starts with Jake Cronenworth. Now in his second year as a first baseman, the Crone Zone was a negative space at the plate last year.

Unable to replicate his 2021 success, Cronenworth ran into some bad luck in 2022. He compounded that into an even worse 2023. Last year, he became more aggressive and actually made more contact, but wasn’t generating any level of quality in doing so. He parlayed a tied-for-a-career-low HardHit% (25.6) with a career-high pull rate (36.2 percent) into some awful luck. His .267 BABIP was 11th-worst among 134 qualifying hitters.

I refuse to believe he’s as bad of a hitter as either of the last two years have shown. He’s eased back on the swing rate a bit to start and is making harder contact as a result. I’m oversimplifying, but that’s exactly the trend the Padres need in order for him to serve as a key secondary component in this lineup.

Of just about equal importance is Luis Campusano. Finally healthy and finally with a runway as the team’s top backstop, Campusano has the chops to be one of the best offensive catchers in the league. He flashed it last year, but solid on-base skills combined with occasional power is exactly what you’re looking for this far down the lineup.

The keys for Campusano are contact and elevation. Not necessarily unique, because everyone should want to elevate solid contact. But for Campusano to remain effective, you’re looking for him to maintain his 2023 Contact% (roughly 84 percent) and his low-40 GB%. In doing so, you’re more likely than not to keep the lineup moving.

San Diego’s pair of rookies are also part of the equation here. Jackson Merrill helps to stabilize the lineup with his ability to avoid whiffs and all-fields contact. Graham Pauley, when in the lineup, isn’t entirely dissimilar (but also not quite as adept) in his ability to make contact, but also has the ability to draw a walk or add some extra pop over the former. Each adds Even as they develop at this level, you need that skill set to lengthen the lineup.


The Ideal Parfait Cake Onion


In 2023, the San Diego Padres had what I believed to be an elite lineup. Turns out, I know less about baseball than I do about onions. Who was I to think that a lineup featuring Soto, Tatis, Machado, and Bogaerts, supplemented by definitely-still-going-to-break-out Trent Grisham and Jake Cronenworth would be anything other than hilariously unlucky?

There’s almost no such thing as a perfect lineup. You can paint your ideal one, sure. But a lineup is always going to have certain shortcomings. The aim is to minimize those shortcomings and extend the lineup as much as possible.

San Diego does not have as good a lineup as they did in 2023, at least as far as paper is concerned. They’re giving regular plate appearances to Jurickson ProfarTyler Wade, and José Azocar in the early going. A far cry from Soto, Grisham, and Gary Sánchez, probably. But this club could have certain things working in their favor that last year’s didn’t. And it’s mostly in regard to the secondary element of this lineup.

Ha-Seong Kim is comfortable. Jake Cronenworth looks to be back on the upswing if he can be just a bit more choosey at the plate. Luis Campusano could be a massive upgrade over either of Sánchez or Austin Nola. Over the former for his contact consistency; the latter for the bat, in general. The rookies, Merrill and Pauley, offer more quality contact in the latter portions of the lineup. It’s almost exactly what this team needs.

Not that the Padres are going to defy expectations and steal the NL West. But a lineup built around more consistent quality contact, moving runners and, ultimately, generating runs, is one that can stave off the looming threat of bad luck that undid this team last year. Even sans a generational talent in Soto, there’s reason to think that this iteration of the Padres offense can have much more success as currently constructed than the last one.

And if they don’t, A.J. Preller will make darn sure he acquires someone to boost it.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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