San Diego Padres' best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2024

Feb 13, 2024; Peoria, AZ, USA; San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish throws during a Spring Training
Feb 13, 2024; Peoria, AZ, USA; San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish throws during a Spring Training / Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Any question whether a team that would trade away Juan Soto was serious about its 2024 playoff ambitions was clarified a few days ago when the San Diego Padres acquired Dylan Cease. After finishing 18 games behind the division-champion Dodgers but just two behind the Wild Card Diamondbacks in 2023, the Cease acquisition clears up all offseason ambiguity

San Diego Padres' Best-Case Scenario for 2024

There are all kinds of reasons to take the 2024 Padres seriously, if not as division title contenders then certainly as a playoff probable. Begin with the three rotation leaders, Cease, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove.

Musgrove is coming off the best season of his career, a 10-3 record and 3.05 ERA, although he was limited by injuries to just 17 starts and 97 innings. He appears to be healthy.

Cease was bad for a bad White Sox team in 2023, but he was excellent in 2022, running up a 14-8 record and 2.20 ERA in 32 starts. If he can deliver his 2022 season to San Diego in 2024, he’ll be a Cy Young contender.

Darvish is an older, more experienced version of Cease. He was 16-8 with a 3.10 ERA as recently as 2022, then 8-10 with a 4.56 ERA last season. He’s 37, making a bounce-back more problematic. But if he can give it, that trio -- coupled with an offense that still features Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Xander Bogaerts -- can make the Padres a serious threat.

The numbers also argue the Padres’ case. Last season San Diego was 9-23 in games decided by a single run, a reality-defying .281 winning percentage in games that should have broken 50-50. That creates a potential seven-game positive swing before talent is even considered, and turns the Padres from an 82 to an 89-win team.

San Diego Padres' Worst-Case Scenario for 2024

The loss of 2023 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell leaves the Padres highly dependent on two big-name rotation starters – Darvish and Cease – who are both coming back from poor 2023 seasons. What if they don’t?

Of the two, Darvish is the more suspect, if only because he’s 10 years older. Looking back on the last five full seasons – that’s since 2018 – Darvish has been a full-time, quality starter for only one of them, that being 2022. His ERA since 2018 – and excluding the short 2020 season – is an ordinary 3.95. Even a five percent performance decline – a perfectly plausible scenario for a 37-year-old arm – puts Darvish at 4.15. It gets worse if you use Darvish’s 4.56 ERA of 2023 as the baseline; then he’s due for a 4.79 season and the Padres are in trouble.

The assumption is that Tatis, his PED suspension and his position shift both behind him, will resume hitting like .975 OPS guy he was in 2021 rather than the .770 guy he became last season. Realistically, however, Tatis has to re-establish his offensive credentials both to his fans and to his post-PED self.

The reality was that, with the notable exception of the dearly departed Soto, every part of the Padres' 2023 offense – Bogaerts, Machado, Tatis, Jake Cronenworth, Ha-Seong Kim – was just a notch or two above average last season. That’s why the team finished with a consummately average 4.64 runs scored per game, and a consummately average 82-80 record.

If the Padres offense comes up consummately average again this season, San Diegans probably will again find themselves rooting for a .500 team.

Most realistic scenario for 2024 San Diego Padres

The test will be how the Padres rotation performs early. If Darvish and Cease in particular come out of April looking like their old selves, it will be a big boost to San Diego’s postseason hopes. If Michael King, obtained in the Soto trade, can be a competent No. 4 starter, Padres fans can feel even more secure.

But neither King nor Cease is likely to replace the 2.25 ERA in 180 innings that Snell produced. That kind of pickup probably has to come from an offense that was more ordinary than it ought to have been last season.

The only 2023 Padre regular with an OPS above .800 was Soto. The average of the rest was below .740, barely above the MLB .734 average. In the NL West, the Padres can’t survive with Machado, Bogaerts and Tatis producing at league-average levels.

In 2024, San Diego must hit in order to challenge the Diamondbacks for division supremacy behind the Dodgers.

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