Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Less than five years ago, the San Diego Padres seemed destined for a championship.

They had a great homegrown prospect in Fernando Tatis Jr., and then went the extra mile to sign (and later extend) star infielder Manny Machado. Lots of young pitching, plus Yu Darvish! Now add a trade for Juan Soto and overpaying, er, signing Xander Bogaerts away from the Padres.

This leaves the Padres in a strange place in the NL West, even after making the NLCS two years ago. Last year was a flop and saw manager Bob Melvin defect to the Giants after just two seasons. Owner Peter Seidler passed away in November and Eric Kutsenda is interim chairman.

And to cap it all, Soto was traded to the Yankees to shed salary.

What’s strange is despite all that, the Padres have just enough talent to make a playoff run. How deep of one, on the other hand, is up to fate.

Greatest Addition: Michael King. Acquiring King from the Yankees was a win-win for the Padres and pitching coach Ruben Niebla. The young righty was a near-untouchable high-leverage reliever in New York who then made eight starts near the end of the season. King posted a 1.88 ERA in those starts and is expected to continue in that role in San Diego.

And if for whatever reason that doesn’t work out, no problem! King’s bullpen experience automatically helps cushion the loss of Josh Hader to Houston. King brought plenty of friends with him too, including reigning Minor League Pitching Prospect of the Year Drew Thorpe. Needless to say, the once-desperate Padres pitching staff seems in a much better position.

Greatest Loss: Blake Snell. The Padres got desperate for pitching at the worst time. Snell turned in his second Cy Young season and led the majors in both ERA (2.25) and walks (99). The lanky lefty remains a free agent, and spring training games have already started.

Unfortunately for the Padres, Snell isn’t coming back. Not unless general manager AJ Preller offers, perhaps, a one-year, $35 million deal with options. Meanwhile, an aging Yu Darvish and an early struggling Joe Musgrove sit atop the rotation.

Greatest Strength: Player development. The Padres’ farm system is fairly middle of the pack compared to the rest of MLB, if only because the top names are still a few years away. Regardless, San Diego has some exciting young bats and arms down on the farm, namely 17-year-old catcher Ethan Salas.

Jackson Merrill also offers upside at shortstop and possibly the outfield, plus the arms received from the Yankees in the Soto trade. Aside from Thorpe, Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez should get their fare share of big league innings in 2024. This might not be the championship season, but the Padres still seem set for a bright future.

Greatest Weakness: Organizational dysfunction. You never want a team with so much talent to be drowning in drama, but such was the case with the 2023 Padres. Soto, Tatis, and Machado were seen as the leaders in the clubhouse, but no one of the three stepped up as a voice. As a result, there wasn’t much accountability in the clubhouse, as reported by Ken Rosenthal and Dennis Lin at The Athletic.

Meanwhile, Preller continued his quest to just outwork all other teams with his head-scratching and oftentimes balance-sheet stretching decisions. Xander Bogaerts gets an 11-year deal, but Tatis is a more than capable shortstop. So is fan-favorite Ha-Seong Kim.

How about the genius move of handing out a six-year, $108 million extension…to the 37-year-old Darvish. The Japanese veteran isn’t completely in decline, but we all know it’s coming.

In case that’s not enough to convince you dear readers, let me sum it up another way. If you can’t get along with Bob Melvin, you are the problem.

Will the Padres play well enough to make the playoffs in 2024? I’m inclined to say yes. New manager Mike Shildt has his work cut out for him. The Dodgers are near-invincible and the Giants also look better entering the new season. In a three-way race, San Diego’s lineup puts them over the top.

But that depends on the Padres’ bats. The pitching rotation is shaky enough that a 2023 repeat isn’t an option. Bogaerts needs a bounceback year and so does Jake Cronenworth. How will Kyle Higashioka fare as a starting catcher after being the Yankees’ backup for years?

The talent is there on paper. Preller just has to trust it.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.