Will the San Diego Padres be okay?

Will the San Diego Padres be okay?

A few hours before Rougned Odor hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the ninth inning to help the San Diego Padres avoid their sixth straight series loss, Joe Musgrove offered an unintentional referendum on the state of the team’s offense.

“You got another one in you today?” Musgrove asked Odor, who had hit a two-run shot the previous night, as the veteran utility man headed toward the weight room.

“Hell yeah,” Odor said, before disappearing.

The San Diego Padres did not expect to need a journeyman infielder to carry them like this. This team was built to score and score often, to homer and play defense and look like a roster worthy of its price tag. But as it happened, Odor’s big hit Thursday was the only thing separating the 2023 San Diego Padres from having the same win total as the rebuilding 2023 Washington Nationals that day.

Since A.J. Preller took over the Padres, and particularly since Peter Seidler decided to spend freely, the Padres have collected baseball talent with abandon. They are doing what every fan hopes their team will do, never skimping on stars, willing to pay the cost of rejuvenating a baseball city, whatever that cost might be.

But the result is a gallery of high-priced masterpieces, a collection accumulated by bidding on the most high-profile or expensive piece available, hoping everything will find its place eventually, rather than curating cohesiveness ahead of time.

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That approach is one reason the lineup they used Thursday afternoon against the Nationals did not include a single player drafted by the Padres. It explains why their Opening Day roster included three different all-star shortstops — and one of the best defensive shortstops in recent KBO history — but only one proven defensive outfielder. And it is also responsible for creating one of the game’s more star-studded and exciting lineups, at least on paper.

But in practice, their lineup is lifeless, the way all struggling lineups are lifeless until they are suddenly … well, alive. Despite the accumulation of all-stars at the top and middle of their lineup, they have the eighth-lowest OPS in baseball (.699) entering Thursday. They have scored fewer runs than all but four teams, none of whom are expected to be in playoff contention. And they have been abysmal with runners in scoring position.

“You’ll have guys that are swinging well and guys that don’t. But teams that sustain periods where they’re going well and you’re winning games, when you do it offensively, it becomes a contagious thing,” Manager Bob Melvin said. “It has not been contagious for us, really at any time this year.”

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Only Juan Soto is mirroring his usual production levels, but only just — and he started the season so poorly that he spent San Diego’s last East Coast trip answering questions about why he, the prodigy who had never failed in the big leagues, was suddenly doing so. Superstar Manny Machado was forced to the injured list for the first time in his long career with a broken hand, but even with him, the Padres offense was less than, not greater than, the sum of its parts.

They have had multiple meetings, including one last week, to try to jolt their team to life. They ended their day off in Washington with a team dinner, according to Soto, the kind of thing struggling teams do off the field to try to fix some intangible disconnect on it.

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“I think the energy and camaraderie and buzz around the clubhouse is really powerful. But it’s a very individual sport. It’s hard to get everybody together to do a certain thing at a certain time of the day because everyone has their own program. In a sense, it’s difficult to get everybody to buy into the same thing because everyone is good and bad at different things,” said Musgrove, a San Diego native who signed a five-year extension with the Padres last summer. “It’s not as simple as play together as a team.”

When high-powered, high-priced teams underachieve, even in two-month stretches, eyes always seem to dart to the manager’s office. Managers have that nebulous job of getting the best out of their players — though of course, players are paid to get the best out of themselves — and getting the best out of them one season does not inoculate a manager from questions in the next.

Preller expressed faith in Melvin, though even needing to express faith in a manager so early in the season confirms something has gone wrong. But Melvin is one of the game’s most widely respected managers, the kind of guy opposing coaching staffs look at and hypothesize something must be wrong with the roster, not with the way Melvin is handling it. For his part, the veteran manager seems to understand exactly what needs to happen for the Padres to rise.

“You’d hate to think we need several games in a row to gain confidence with the guys that we have, but that’s probably what it’s going to be at this point,” Melvin said. “We have not had that. We all believe it’s coming. We’ve got to make it happen.”

Let us say “it” here is a much-needed big hit with runners in scoring position, or that run of good offensive showings that Melvin thinks could restore confidence to a group that should already have plenty. Presumably, the Padres are already trying to make that happen. Presumably, they would flip the switch if they could find it. Soto, who watched the 2019 Nationals flip that switch, said the key is not so much bearing down as loosening up.

“I think what makes everything turn over is when you start playing as a team. You forget about your personal stats and you just go out there and try to help the team and enjoy the game,” Soto said. “ … I think that’s what the 2019 team understand, that it’s a game, and we all came together to play as a team and have fun. We didn’t even think about playoffs.”

But the Padres have to think about the playoffs. They are supposed to be there, and they know it. They are supposed to challenge the Dodgers in the National League West, and they know that, too. As of Friday morning, they were 7½ games behind them. The Dodgers seem to have mastered the art of playing with annual expectations. The Padres, it seems, are still adjusting to them.

“You look around the clubhouse, and you have all-stars and Cy Young contenders, Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, all over the field,” Musgrove said. “The confidence is there, but also that comes with a lot of expectations. And those expectations are because of what we’ve done in the past, not because of what we’ve been doing recently.”

What they have been doing recently is looking like a top-heavy lineup that cannot succeed if its heavy hitters struggle, a lineup that looks like it is searching for flow and rhythm and all the things that come so naturally when things are going well but feel so elusive when they aren’t. And ultimately, individuals have to swing their way out of that.

“We’re always just focusing on ourselves. We might say that we have to be more team-oriented, but the team’s not with you in that box,” Trent Grisham said. “When we’re saying team stuff, I would say we’re talking more about being together as a team off the field, building in relationships, investing in relationships, really caring about each other and being there for each other.”

Right now, being there for each other means finding a way when others cannot. By the end of Thursday, the Padres had just three hits with runners in scoring position in their last 11 games that scored more than one run. Odor had all three.

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