SAN DIEGO — February 15 is a day that many baseball fans marked on their calendar right after the final pitch of the World Series.
Last Wednesday, all of the pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in Arizona and Florida. Some players competing in the World Baseball Classic had already arrived days ago. But for the vast majority of players, Wednesday marked the official start of the 2023 baseball pre-season.
For the San Diego Padres, who just made their deepest postseason run in a generation, anticipation for this upcoming year is at an unprecedented high. Season ticket sales have been capped for the first time in team history. To see just how excited fans are for this year, look no further than the recent FanFest as tens of thousands of fans descended on Petco Park.
In fact, one CBS Sports analyst currently has the Padres as the second-best team in baseball.
Despite making a deep postseason run, the Padres finished with just 89 wins last year. What is it that makes the Swinging Friars such a pre-season favorite this year? Well this season is going to look a lot different in San Diego... and that includes everything from the roster to the uniforms to the rules of the game itself.
The Padres have been spending big over the past couple years.
As recently as 2019, they had the seventh-lowest payroll in the league. Now, they have the third highest. In fact, the MLB has a revenue-sharing program that involves "large market" teams sharing money with "small market" teams. The Padres, who are in the fifth-smallest media market among MLB teams, have changed so much that they are sharing their revenue for the first time in history.
This past offseason, the Padres signed Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280 million contract. They also added some important depth, like Matt Carpenter, who had an unexpected career renaissance with the Yankees, and Nelson Cruz, an aging, declining slugger who had a MVP-caliber hitting season just three years back.
Don't forget pitching acquisitions like Michael Wacha, arguably the Red Sox's best starter last year, and Seth Lugo, a reliever who had a solid seven-year tenure with the Mets.
Meanwhile, they also gave out new contracts to Nick Martinez and Robert Suarez, and got Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove (when he's not setting records in Antarctica) to sign multi-year extensions worth at least $100 million.
But perhaps the biggest impact will come from three players who did not play a full season with the Padres last year. That includes Josh Hader, the flame-throwing closer traded from Milwaukee who was lights out in the playoffs. Then there's Juan Soto, the young phenom who is projected to be a top 5 player in all of baseball.
Don't forget about the other young star, Fernando Tatis Jr.
Injuries and a suspension for banned substances meant he didn't play at all last year. But he could return by the end of April.
By that time, Padres fans will likely be watching Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts every single day. MLB.com says this could be the second-best lineup in baseball... only behind the reigning World Series champs.
You may also a new addition to each player's uniform this year.
Starting in 2023, a Motorola patch will adorn the Padres jersey. This will be the second advertisement on their uniform after the Nike logo got added to baseball jerseys across the league in the 2020 season.
Motorola will also play a bigger role in Petco Park, incorporating new displays to the Padres Hall of Fame and placing new advertisements across the stadium.
Major League Baseball is instituting three key rule changes that will change baseball in a way not seen in years. Let's start off with one of the more interesting ones... bigger bases.
They will now be 18" x 18" instead of 15" x 15". MLB says this will help reduce the risk of injury by allowing more space for players to move around the bases, and also encourage players to steal more often. This change reportedly led to a one to two percent increase in stolen base attempts in the Minor Leagues.
However, the Padres aren't that aggressive on the basepaths. Last year, they had just 49 stolen bases - the four-fewest of any team. But that was without Tatis Jr., who averages 31 stolen bases per 162-game season.
Then there's the brand new pitch clock, which is designed to speed up the pace of play.
It has a 15-second timer between pitches with no runners on and a 20-second timer with runners on. Batters will also have 30 seconds to switch out.
Which Padres will have to work quicker on the mound next season?
The analytics website "Baseball Savant" tracks the time between pitches for every pitcher in baseball. Based on data from last year for the Padres, their new star closer, Josh Hader, will have to pick up the pace. He averaged 17.2 seconds with no runners on, so he'll have to cut that down by at least 2.2 seconds. Blake Snell is just a hair over the timer with runners on (20.6 seconds).
Then finally, there's the controversial shift ban.
As a pitch is thrown, a team must have four players on the infield dirt with two players on each side of second base.
The shift has destroyed the offense prowess of many pull-hitters in baseball who struggle with hitting to the opposite field.
Out of the nine hitters currently projected to bat in the Padres lineup, data shows a few were shifted on more than half the time last year. That includes Juan Soto (59%), Trent Grisham (64.3%) and Matt Carpenter (89.5%). Banning the shift could help these players contribute even more to the Padres lineup.
However, spring training has just started, and anything can happen in baseball. There are still about another eight months before the next World Series.
Between the roster additions, new rule changes and unprecedented excitement among the Friar Faithful, this 2023 season is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated Padres seasons ever.