Are the Baby Padres the New Chicago Cubs?

Are the Baby Padres the New Chicago Cubs?

Wil Myers (No. 4) and Manny Machado of the San Diego Padres high-five as they play against the Philadelphia Phillies at Petco Park on June 5, 2019, in San Diego.

SourceDenis Poroy/Getty

Why you should care

Because today’s Padres look a lot like the mid-decade Cubs — on the verge of a breakout.

Even after signing superstar infielder Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300 million contract this winter, no one expected the San Diego Padres to win this season. Machado’s decision to leave Los Angeles for San Diego was a long play by a potential Hall of Famer capable of leading a young team to the World Series in years to come.

In January, Caesars Palace set San Diego’s expected win total at 77.5 games — projecting for third place in the National League West. At the time, few folks around the league batted an eye. But the Padres surfaced above .500 in June for the first time since 2010 and are looking to steal a wildcard spot, even as a recent slump left them at 34-37 through Saturday.

Through ups and downs, San Diego is following a proven blueprint that’s led to massive success for teams like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros. The key? Homegrown players who perform early — and often — after reaching the major leagues. Luckily for San Diego, the youngest team in Major League Baseball, they’ve got plenty of those players.

Of the Padres’ top 12 performers this season, 11 are in their 20s — and three are 23 or younger.

Those are San Diego’s top players by baseball’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, which measures a player’s total value against the league average. Typically, there’s a sweet spot when it comes to roster age in baseball. The last-place San Francisco Giants had the oldest average age in the major leagues on opening day at 30.63 years. At 27.11, according to the commissioner’s office, the Padres registered below rebuilding afterthoughts like the Orioles (27.79). Of course, a club’s average age is fluid based on trades, free agent signings and minor league promotions. Thanks to call-ups of highly touted prospects Josh Naylor, 21, and Luis Urias, 22, San Diego’s age dropped to 26.4 as of early June — but the Orioles got even younger at 26.1. Generally, competitive teams look for a more balanced mix of old and young players.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in San Diego is how well the Padres are doing given that Machado, 26, is on pace for his lowest slugging percentage and home run total since his injury-shortened 2014 season. “Manny’s settling in,” says MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds. “It’s only a matter of time until the real Machado is back.”

While San Diego waits on the real Machado, his teammates have taken on leading roles early in their major league careers.

So far this season, Machado ranks fourth on the Padres with a WAR of 1.5. Ahead of him are 20-year-old rookie shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. (2.1) and 27-year-old outfielder Hunter Renfroe (2.0). Pitchers Chris Paddack, 23, Trey Wingenter, 25, and Joey Lucchesi, 26, and 23-year-old breakout slugger Franmil Reyes (19 home runs) have also been major producers for the club. “The whole shabam was perfect,” Machado told ESPN during spring training, explaining his signing. “From the ownership and the plan down to the players. I saw a great opportunity to help out other guys, help younger guys.”

The Cubs began a similar undertaking back in 2011 when they hired general manager Theo Epstein (who worked in the Padres front office before emerging as Boston’s boy wonder). It culminated in Chicago’s curse-busting World Series win in 2016. If San Diego’s young stars can sustain their early success, they can contend with the National League-leading Los Angeles Dodgers in a year or two.

But with surprisingly competitive ball comes accelerated growth … and heightened expectations for this season.

No matter how well the Padres’ rebuild goes, catching Los Angeles will not be easy. The Dodgers have a core of young stars on club-friendly contracts, including the likely National League MVP in Cody Bellinger, and World Series experience. But the Padres do have younger pitching and, in Paddack, a potential Cy Young award talent to anchor a rotation.

Plus, much like the early-stage Cubs under manager Joe Maddon, the Padres are developing another aspect of winning culture this season. “No one expected much in that division, but the spirit they’ve been playing with is contagious,” says Reynolds. “That’s how culture is built.”

Yes, the above video is Paddack and Reyes — San Diego’s breakout rookie stars — singing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” after a teammate’s home run. They do this after every home run. The energy builds and the good times roll. At least as long as they’re winning.

Read more: In the hardest-throwing era of baseball, we’ve never seen fewer fastballs.

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