Tommy Pham’s time with the Padres hasn’t gone as he or the organization would’ve hoped at the time of his acquisition from the Rays. The 33-year-old outfielder missed a chunk of “Summer Camp” last July after testing positive for Covid-19, and he suffered a broken hamate bone mid-August, limiting him to just 31 games. Even more alarming was a frightening offseason scene in which Pham was stabbed outside a San Diego club — a life-threatening attack that required 200 stitches and left the outfielder with a footlong scar on his back.
Pham, remarkably, managed to participate in Spring Training and was able to take the field come Opening Day for the Padres. It marked an incredible recovery, but it’s clear that that wave of health issues has taken its toll on Pham. Through 150 games and 553 plate appearances, Pham has posted just a .229/.342/.383 batting line. He’s drawing walks at a career-high 14.1 percent clip, but he’s also striking out at high highest rate since 2018 (22.8 percent) and hasn’t matched the power he showed from 2016-19. Given that Pham is set to hit the open market at season’s end, the combined .226/.336/.370 slash he’s delivered in two years with the Padres is all the more disappointing.
In a postgame interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Annie Heilbrunn (YouTube link), Pham was candid in discussing his health, his own lackluster performance and the second-half collapse of his team. Asked about the Padres’ descent from what looked like a surefire playoff club to a team fighting to finish .500, Pham placed no shortage of blame on himself.
“I didn’t play well enough,” Pham said when asked what went wrong for the Padres. “…I’ve got to be a more consistent hitter. I’ve got to work on regaining my strength and speed this offseason. I have a lot to work on.”
Obviously, the Padres’ nosedive in the standings is related to far more than just a disappointing season for Pham, who couldn’t have anything resembling a normal offseason while recovering from surgery in the wake of that stabbing. However, Pham’s acknowledgement regarding his speed and strength (or lack thereof) is indeed borne out when looking at his Statcast profile.
Pham’s average exit velocity dropped by a hefty 1.9 mph in spite of the fact that his percentage of “barreled” balls improved from 7.3 percent to 10.1 percent. As Pham explains to Heilbrunn: “…even the balls I’ve been barreling, the exit velocity just ain’t there.”
From a speed perspective, Pham is still a better runner than the average big leaguer, but his sprint speed of 27.8 feet per second is down from last year’s 28.2 ft/sec and down more handily from the 28.7 ft/sec he posted in each season from 2016-19. It should be noted that Pham’s 90.9 mph exit velocity and 27.8 ft/sec sprint speed still rank in the 78th and 70th percentiles among big league players.
It’s all led to a stark downturn in performance for Pham, who from 2017-19 was among the game’s most underrated players. A 2017 breakout saw him post a huge .306/.411/.520 batting line with 23 homers and 25 steals in just 530 plate appearances/128 games. Pham largely sustained his production in his two subsequent healthy seasons, wrapping that three-year stretch up with a composite .284/.381/.475 line. He was worth 13.5 and 13.8 wins above replacement, respectively, in the estimation of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs during that time.
Had Pham reached the market on the heels of that three-year run, he’d have been extremely well compensated. But as a late-bloomer who didn’t get an earnest look with the Cardinals until 2017, at age 29, Pham will instead reach free agency headed into his age-34 campaign and on the heels of a pair of highly unfortunate seasons. He’s realistic about the toll these past two years have likely taken on his market.
“I didn’t have the season I was expecting,” says Pham. “I’m fully prepared to take a one-year deal and reestablish my market.”
[Related: 2021-22 MLB Free Agent List]
That’s a tough proposition for a player entering his mid-30s, however. Pham will be 34 next March, so even if he indeed reestablishes himself as a quality all-around corner outfielder, he’ll do so in advance of his age-35 campaign.
Given the manner in which teams are increasingly reluctant to sign mid-30s and late-30s players to lucrative multi-year deals, it’s fair to question just what type of ceiling would be placed on Pham’s earning power even if he does rebound in full. Michael Brantley inked a two-year, $32MM contract covering his age-34 and age-35 seasons after playing for three years at a roughly three- to four-win pace, however, so there’s some recent precedent for a corner outfielder in this age bracket commanding a rather lucrative multi-year pact.
Of course, any such talk is putting the cart before the horse. Pham’s focus in the offseason will be both getting back into peak physical condition and finding the best opportunity for the 2022 season. It’s not out of the question that teams would have some interest on a multi-year contract, given Pham’s prior excellence. Pham, however, sounded plenty confident in his ability to rebound from these past couple seasons and position himself for a stronger annual value in future trips to the market. Unsurprisingly, he made clear that he’d welcome the opportunity to do so with the Padres, though he gave no indication any such negotiations have taken place just yet.