Can the Padres still make the playoffs? How San Diego can clinch a wild card in 2023

Don’t look now, but the Padres are coming. The only question at this point is whether it’s too late.

Outside of the Mets, one could make the case San Diego has been baseball’s most disappointing team. The Padres made one of the offseason’s largest splashes in signing Xander Bogaerts to give them an offensive core of Bogaerts, Manny Machado, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ha-Seong Kim. Few teams even came close to matching that type of star power.

Yet for all the Padres’ glitz and glamour, they have lacked one thing in 2023: winning baseball. Despite a Cy Young-caliber campaign from Blake Snell and 4.0-plus WAR seasons from four core batters, the results have largely been disappointing. The Padres have been out of the playoff race for most of, if not, the entire season and watched the rival Dodgers run away with the division title a long time ago.

But all of a sudden, entering play against the Cardinals, another of baseball’s most disappointing teams, on Friday, the Padres have some life. San Diego has won seven straight games to move up to just four games out of the third wild-card. The four teams it’s chasing for that spot have played steadily, but Chicago, in particular, has slumped of late, opening the door for several teams in the wild-card chase.

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It might be too little, too late, but the Padres can at least not be counted out of the wild-card race completely yet. What is their path to reaching the postseason? Sporting News takes a look.

Can the Padres still make the playoffs?

Can they? Yes. Will they? That remains to be seen.

The path is extremely difficult for the Padres. For as well as they’ve played as of late, they’ve needed to play this well just to make it a conversation. The challenge now will be maintaining that hot level of play.

Entering Friday, the Padres found themselves as the fourth team behind the Cubs and Marlins for the third wild card. San Diego trails the two teams by four games with an elimination number of six. That would mean any combination of Padres losses and Cubs/Marlins wins that equal six the remainder of the year would eliminate San Diego from postseason contention.

Here’s the good news for the Padres: they face a slate of very winnable games: They begin a three-game set with the Cardinals on Friday and end the year with a three-game series against the White Sox. They’ll also hit the road to face the Giants, one of the three teams ahead of them in the pursuit of Chicago. That gives the Padres ample opportunities to pick up wins against two teams well out of contention and take down another contender down the stretch.

The problem for San Diego is that the Cubs aren’t the only team it has to worry about. The Marlins, Reds and Giants are still ahead of them. Before Thursday’s games, here’s a look at the remaining win percentage of opponents for each of the wild card contenders:

Team Opponents Opponent Win Percentage
Cubs Rockies (3), Braves (3), Brewers (3) .526
Marlins Brewers (3), Mets (3), Pirates (3) .501
Reds Pirates (3), Guardians (2), Cardinals (3) .459
Giants Dodgers (4), Padres (3), Dodgers (3) .575
Padres Cardinals (3), Giants (3), White Sox (3) .438

Based on strength of schedule, the Padres have it easiest, facing no teams the remainder of the year with a winning record. The Reds are next up, facing three teams out of playoff contention entirely the rest of the season. The Marlins face Milwaukee before finishing with winnable series against the Mets and Pirates. The Cubs face the Rockies but end with a gauntlet run against the Braves and Brewers. Then the Giants have the toughest schedule, twice facing the Dodgers. Only the Nationals, who face the Braves and Orioles the rest of the season, have a harder remaining schedule than San Francisco.

While it is ideal for San Diego that Chicago and San Francisco both face challenging slates the rest of the way, it is concerning that the Marlins and Reds have easy schedules during the stretch run. To make the playoffs, it won’t be enough for San Diego to pass the Cubs and Marlins; it also has to race past everyone else as well.

So what does that look like? The Padres, frankly, have to win both series against the Cardinals and White Sox. There’s no viable path to the postseason if they lose either of those. In fact, San Diego probably has to sweep at least one of them, if not both. 

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Then there’s the series with the Giants. The Padres winning that series would help the team leap over San Francisco, potentially dealing the final blow to the Giants’ chances while keeping hope alive before what should be an easier series against Chicago. Losing two of three could still leave open the slightest possibility of reaching the playoffs, if the Padres get some help from all the other teams. Getting swept, and hope would appear to be all but lost. That would give the Giants three games up on the Padres. Winning at least one means the Padres would move back only one of San Francisco, a challenging hole but not an impossible one.

FanGraphs gives San Diego a 0.6 percent chance of taking one of the remaining wild cards. Baseball Prospectus has it at 1 percent. Those are both the lowest for any MLB team that isn’t at 0 percent on the respective sites.

So can the Padres still make the playoffs? Sure, the window is still barely open. Will they? It certainly doesn’t appear all that likely.

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