Evaluating a strange offseason in San Diego

Earlier this offseason, we talked about whether the San Diego Padres should rebuild this offseason or try to assemble a contender. Since then, the Padres have made a number of big moves, trading away ace right hander Mat Latos to the Cincinnati Reds, acquiring outfielder Carlos Quentin from the Chicago White Sox, and dealing highly-rated first base prospect Anthony Rizzo to the Chicago Cubs.

Before we get into the specific deals, let’s cover a little of the background story. The Padres manic offseason got underway in less-than-ideal fashion when general manager Jed Hoyer abruptly left the organization to join his former boss (with the Boston Red Sox), Theo Epstein, in the Windy City. We discussed Hoyer’s shortened tenure with the Padres just last month. Obviously, it’s tough to fully evaluate Hoyer’s skills as a general manager in two seasons, but he appeared to have a long-term vision for the organization, as he took a run-of-the-mill farm system and quickly turned it into one of baseball’s finest.

The vacancy at GM was quickly filled in-house, when the Padres appointed senior vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes to the position. Byrnes, like Hoyer, worked for the Red Sox in the mid-2000s. He went on to get his first general manager gig with the Arizona Diamondbacks in November of 2005. He was fired in July of 2010, with Arizona some 20 games back in the NL West.

An important figure in all of this is Jeff Moorad. Moorad was part-owner and CEO of the Diamondbacks when they hired Byrnes as GM. Currently, he’s the Padres CEO and leads a group of investors purchasing the team from John Moores. He was still part-owner of Arizona when the sale went down. It’s a bit of a convoluted situation (the transfer from Moores to Moorad and company was recently held up by MLB owners), but it’s important to establish the idea that Moorad has a relationship with Byrnes and clearly did not hesitate to promote him as GM of the Padres.

Minor moves

The Padres offseason started off inconspicuously enough, with Josh Byrnes sending 27-year-old left-handed starter Wade LeBlanc to the Miami Marlins for catcher John Baker. By both fWAR and rWAR, LeBlanc has performed right around replacement level in 293 and a third major league innings. Despite pitching his home games in Petco Park, a pitcher’s paradise, LeBlanc gave up 1.4 home runs per nine and posted a 4.54 ERA during his Padres career. With his fastball velocity limited to the mid-80s, there probably isn’t much room for growth, though LeBlanc could certainly put in slightly better than replacement level work in Miami.

John Baker is a 30-year-old part-time catcher who has racked up only 104 plate appearances over the past two seasons. Baker underwent Tommy John surgery on his right arm late in the 2010 season. Questions surrounding his health (and ability to throw out base runners) are prevalent, but Baker did have a nice start to his career with the bat, hitting .281/.364/.423 in 2008 and ’09 combined. He’s merely insurance behind incumbent backstop Nick Hundley at this point. This is a minor transaction, obviously, and appears to be pretty neutral on the surface. It doesn’t tell us too much about Byrnes’ long-term approach.

With closer Heath Bell leaving via free agency, Byrnes and the Padres were destined to find a replacement on the market, bypassing such in-house options as Luke Gregerson, Ernesto Frieri, and the less-heralded bullpen-by-committee. San Diego settled on Colorado Rockies right hander Huston Street, dealing a player-to-be-named-later (Nick Schmidt, it turns out) and cash considerations to the Rockies for their closer. Street has one year and $8 million remaining on his three-year, $22.5 million deal (plus a 2013 option).

Street was naturally better early in his career with Oakland (think age and park effects), but he remained effective over the last three seasons in Colorado. Street posted a 3.50 ERA with the Rockies, but put up an impressive 5.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He struggled with the long ball, though, giving up 1.2 HR/9 with Colorado (that number was .6 in Oakland). Street will benefit greatly from swapping Coors for Petco, and there’s little reason, outside of the general vagaries of relief performance, not to expect him to be a shut-down closer for the Padres.

Still, you could perceive this move as a little curious for a team coming off a 71-win season. Lefty starter Nick Schmidt isn’t a highly-touted prospect and the Padres have a deep system, but $8 million instantly makes Street the highest paid Padre. While he could be worth every penny, you might wonder if those resources could be better spent elsewhere for a team that still appears a year of two away.

Shortly after completing the Street acquisition, the Padres sent outfielder Aaron Cunningham to the Cleveland Indians for right-handed reliever Cory Burns. Cunningham, shipped over from Oakland in the 2010 offseason, debuted nicely in San Diego with a .288/.331/.417 line (147 PAs) in 2010. Still, Cunningham spent most of last season toiling in Triple-A Tuscon, OPSing .931 and waiting until June for another major league plate appearance. He struggled with the big club, but given sporadic playing time, that’s not too surprising. With a solid minor league track record, Cunningham could make a decent third or fourth outfielder with the A’s.

Cory Burns is a 24-year-old right hander with a Hideo Nomo-like delivery. In three seasons in the minor leagues, Burns has dominated all levels of Single-A and Double-A, recording a 2.02 ERA, 11.5 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, and .4 HR/9 in 147 and a third innings. There are obvious questions about how that’ll transfer to the majors, but we’ll likely find out quickly as Burns could be a contributor to the major league pen in 2012.

Up until now, the Padres have had a pretty standard offseason. They made a couple of roster-filling type moves, adding Burns and Baker. The addition of Huston Street filled a major void in the bullpen after Heath Bell’s departure. The Padres were just getting started.

Byrnes puts his stamp on the organization

Padres acquire first basemen Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal, and right handers Brad Boxberger and Edinson Volquez from the Cincinnati Reds for right hander Mat Latos

There were some initial rumblings prior to this deal that Mat Latos might not be in the Padres long-term plans. A few days later, he was gone. Latos was a draft-and-follow back in 2006 and he quickly worked his way through the minor league system. By 2010, he was a 22-year-old ace in a contending Padres rotation, throwing 184 and two thirds innings with a 2.92 ERA and a 3.8 strikeout-to-walk-ratio. Latos regressed last season, but still posted respectable numbers.

He has not quite established himself as a true top tier pitcher yet, as there are some questions about his ability to handle a big workload and some apparent maturity issues. Further, like any other pitcher, he benefited from pitcher-friendly Petco Park and will have to adjust to life in a more neutral environment. Still, Latos is under control for four more seasons and he should be a valuable asset for the Reds. Our own THT Forecasts project Latos to be worth 17 WAR over the next four years, and if he approaches those numbers he’ll provide significant surplus value for Cincinnati.

Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal appear to be the key pieces heading to San Diego. Alonso is a 24-year-old first basemen who hit .330/.398/.545 in 98 plate appearances last season with Cincinnati. His prospect status has gradually dropped over the past few seasons as he’s failed to put up monster numbers in the minor leagues, never slugging higher than .486. Still, he’s a polished line-drive hitter and he’s expected to fit better in Petco than the occasionally pull-happy Anthony Rizzo. He should be starting at first base in 2012 for the Padres.

Yasmani Grandal, a 23-year-old catcher, might still be a year or two away, but he raked at High-A and Double-A last season, putting together a .305/.401/.500 line. There are some questions about his defense behind the plate and he still has more to prove with the bat, but he has a chance to be a major coup as a catcher with good power and patience. Nick Hundley is holding down the fort at the major league level, so there’s no rush with Grandal. Brad Boxberger, 23, is a right-handed reliever who struck out 13.5 per nine last season in 62 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. His control hasn’t been great, but he’s dominated so far in the minors. It’s not hard seeing Boxberger contributing to the 2012 Padres bullpen.

Edinson Volquez is a wild card, to say the least, but he’ll benefit from the move to Petco. Last year Volquez posted a 5.71 ERA in 108 and two thirds innings. He gave up only 30 percent fly balls, but 21 percent of them flew out of the ball park, resulting in 1.6 home runs per nine. Over the last three years, he’s given up home runs on nearly 17 percent of his fly balls. Again, with the move to Petco, there might be some hope, as Volzquez still strikes out over 20 percent of batters faced.

Overall, this deal was almost unanimously praised nationally for San Diego. They traded a valuable chip in Latos, but they received too much in return to pass it up. However, the Padres did already have a top first base prospect in Anthony Rizzo, acquired from the Boston Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez deal last offseason. Rizzo struggled in his first big league experience last season, but he’s a couple of years younger than Alonso and has put up more impressive minor league statistics. More on this soon.

Padres acquire outfielder Carlos Quentin from the Chicago White Sox for right hander Simon Castro and left hander Pedro Hernandez

Carlos Quentin is in his final year of arbitration eligibility before hitting free agency. He recently signed a one-year, $7.025 deal with the Padres, avoiding an arbitration hearing. Quentin was a Diamondback when Josh Byrnes was Arizona’s GM, and Byrnes dealt him to the Chicago White Sox for first basemen/outfielder Chris Carter in 2007. Quentin went on to have a career year in 2008, blasting 36 homers and hitting .288/.394/.571. He hasn’t approached that level since 2008, but he still possesses a solid bat (his OPS+ is 115 from 2009-11).

Quentin has split time between right field and left field throughout his career. The fielding metrics generally agree that he isn’t very good out there. His career Defensive Runs Saved is -22. His career UZR/150 is -9.3 runs. Tango’s Fans’ Scouting Report rates him well below average in each of the past three seasons. As a corner outfielder, Quentin’s bat is good-not-great (and moves from hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular to Petco) and his defense leaves something to be desired. There’s not a whole lot of value to be added here, especially when a guy like Kyle Blanks is all but forgotten.

The Padres didn’t give up any upper-level prospects in the deal, as long as you ignore the fact that righty Simon Castro was rated as a top prospect prior to the 2011 year. Castro’s prospect status cratered when the 23-year-old repeated Double-A and posted a 4.33 ERA (his numbers were much worse in 25 and two-thirds innings in Triple-A Tucson). Still, his peripherals in Double-A stayed largely the same and it’s hard to believe a guy with a lot of hype last season could fall so quickly. The influx of talent in San Diego’s organization certainly didn’t help.

Left hander Pedro Hernandez is a small (5-10, 200), 22-year-old who has split time starting and relieving. He’s put up some impressive numbers in the minors, including a minuscule 1.5 walks per nine and a 5.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. There are questions about his size and durability as a starter and he may be relegated to the pen, but he certainly isn’t just a throw-in here.

While losing Castro and Hernandez isn’t going to cripple the Padres minor league system, you have to wonder if it’s worth the prospects and dollars to acquire a guy like Quentin. If the Padres were at a different point in the win-cycle, the move would make more sense, but it’s unclear if anyone outside of San Diego’s brass believes they are ready to compete in 2012.

Padres acquire right hander Andrew Cashner and center fielder Kyung-Min Na from the Chicago Cubs for first basemen Anthony Rizzo and right hander Zach Cates

As mentioned, when the Padres acquired Yonder Alonso in the Mat Latos deal, that gave them two excellent first base prospects. Although they didn’t necessarily have to trade one of them right away, they apparently didn’t want any playing time issues going into spring training and the odd man out was Anthony Rizzo. Jed Hoyer, who acquired Rizzo while in Boston (via the draft) and San Diego, picked him up again in Chicago for an injury-prone reliever and an unproven center field prospect. The Padres also had to throw in a mid-level pitching prospect in Zach Cates.

Cashner could certainly develop into a shut-down eighth inning guy or closer soon enough in San Diego (it doesn’t look like he’s destined to start), but you might expect more for a player with Rizzo’s minor league track record and general prospect status. Further, it’s always dangerous trading a position player for an arm, especially a reliever, when the two player’s perceived value is similar. There’s a larger injury risk with Cashner and there’s limited value for relief pitchers in general. Admittedly, they can often garner quite a bit in return on the trade market (see: Adams, Mike).

Rizzo’s value probably took a hit based on his first look in the majors, where he hit .141/.282/.242 in 153 plate appearances last year in San Diego. Further, the Padres may have lost some leverage in dealing him, when it was apparent that Yonder Alonso was higher up on the organizational depth chart. Of course, you can blame that squarely on the Padres who perhaps could have tried dealing Rizzo before they got Alonso or simply held onto both of them until someone offered a better package.

A changing of the guard

Initially, it appeared that replacing Jed Hoyer with Josh Byrnes was merely a formality, and that the organization would march forward on the same path that Hoyer had set. Byrnes and Hoyer are similarly educated (think small Northeast private colleges), they were both in the Red Sox organization in middle of the last decade, and they worked together in San Diego. While Byrnes may have a similar overall approach to Hoyer, he definitely has different thoughts on the specifics of the Padres organization.

Byrnes obviously didn’t have much faith in Anthony Rizzo, picking up Yonder Alonso and dealing Rizzo to Hoyer and the Cubs. Further, Hoyer made it clear in San Diego that he was going to trade relief pitching for position players and/or starting pitchers. He dealt Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb to the Marlins for Cameron Maybin and he traded Mike Adams to the Rangers for Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland, for example. Byrnes, on the other hand, traded Rizzo to the Cubs for Andrew Cashner, a reliever. He also acquired closer Huston Street.

Reading between the lines, it seems quite obvious that Jeff Moorad has more trust built up with Josh Byrnes. In a recent interview with Darren Smith (1090 radio, San Diego), Hoyer admitted to being jealous that Byrnes was given the go-ahead to acquire Carlos Quentin and his $7 million salary. Hoyer wasn’t given the same flexibility with the Padres, though part of that is certainly circumstantial: the payroll was going to gradually increase in time, regardless of whether it was Jed Hoyer or Josh Byrnes at the helm.

While Byrnes’ transactions have been sporadic, to say the least, it’s not as though he has failed in his first months as Padres general manager. The Latos haul by itself has a chance to override any of the less significant moves he’s made this offseason. There’s also more than a small chance that Yonder Alonso outperforms Anthony Rizzo, giving Byrnes a head-to-head win with his former boss. Still, in looking at the entirety of the offseason, it is worrisome that the Padres are suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, building themselves up as a contender in 2012 when the season could have been better spent building for 2013 and beyond.

References & Resources
Baseball Reference and FanGraphs

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Comments

  1. sam said...

    i’m a fan of friar forecast and this article didn’t let me down. I would like to ask how the new CBA has influenced the Padres in two ways.  – 1.the padres can no longer spend overslot in the draft, due to the harsh penalties for doing so, meaning a reinvestment of draft money into the Major League club. 2. i understand the new CBA has a clause requiring clubs to spend a certain floor on payroll tied to revenue money.
    As a seperate point – and this is a bit conspiracy theory, could the rise in the payroll be tied to Moorad showing the financial wherewithal of his ownership group?
    Does it make more sense to look at the quentin and street acquisitions in this context, as both increasing the payroll committed and as giving the Pads fodder to acquire more prospects in the future?

  2. Myron Logan said...

    sam, thanks for the comment.

    I’ve been meaning to look at how the new CBA will impact the Padres/big spenders in the draft. It’ll definitely have an impact, but I’m not sure if it’ll be huge, as there’s some flexibility in there. Still, the Padres will probably have to change their strategy somewhat, as they obviously won’t want to trigger any of the penalties.

    Sure, there’s something to the idea of increasing payroll to show the Padres ownership is “serious” about taking over the team. Continuing to hover around $40-45 million would not have looked good, especially as the full transition from Moores to Moorad is currently pending further investigation from MLB owners.

  3. Marver said...

    Myron,

    Perhaps the Quentin/Street additions are one way of increasing the team’s draft haul without violating the new rules.  Instead of paying over slot for better talent, they could just accumulate more picks and take that as the advantage.  In that scenario, Quentin and Street are both soon-to-be expiring players who should provide some sort of compensation, while simultaneously being acquired from positions of depth and making it appear like they’re actually trying in 2012.

    I still don’t think that would be a very wise strategy but I have to have some form of optimism, despite the overwhelming existence of evidence to point to the contrary.

  4. Ed I. Tor said...

    “With a solid minor league track record, Cunningham could make a decent third or fourth outfielder with the A’s.”
    Think you mean “the Tribe”

  5. Myron Logan said...

    Marver, from what I understand about the new CBA, the Padres are unlikely to receive draft pick compensation for Quentin and Street.

    The Padres would have to offer a contract equal to the average annual salary of the top 125 highest-paid players—or something like $12-13 million. It’s doubtable that they would offer that type of contract to Quentin or Street, as both would probably accept.

    They could deal either at the 2012 trade deadline and maybe get back a couple of prospects in return. However, the impending FA status of each player would probably lower that return somewhat.

  6. Ted James said...

    Interesting article.  The underlying question, “to rebuild or compete” is a little to black or white for me.  To truly compete the payroll needs to come up to at least $80 million.  That is nearly double what it is now.  But to just throw in towel before, trading all the pieces away for prospects, is going to really anger your season ticket holders.  I think that there is some truth in the idea that the team is doing some window dressing but I don’t think they see it that way.  Rebuilding team chemistry is probably way up on Byrnes’ list of things to do.  The difference between 2010 and 2011 was chemistry.  When guys are just there doing their jobs you will not get the most out of them but when they are there playing the game so they don’t let their team mates down, well that is when you get a little more out of each guy.  David Eckstein was about three inches taller than a treasure troll but he was a guy that made things happen.  I know we can not measure “grit” or “heart” but he had both and so did a lot of other guys from that team. 

    So going back to the underlying question, what is the goal for 2012?  I think it is to build a foundation, a culture, and to rebrand Padres baseball.  Jeff Moorad desperately needs to be seen as an active owner who is investing in wins. 

    I hope that the team on the field can at least be more exciting to follow than they were last year.  That last really good year of Padres baseball, in my humble opinion, was the 2007 season.  I hope we can get back to watching teams like that again sometime in the near future.  Sorry that this is a little disjointed, mostly stream of conscience thinking early Friday morning.

  7. Ted James said...

    Not only was that disjointed but full of typos,

    “But to just throw in towel before, trading all the pieces away for prospects…”

    edit

    But to just throw in the towel before the season begins by trading away all the pieces for prospects…

  8. Myron Logan said...

    Ed(itor), good catch. Apparently I confused where he came from and where he’s going.

    Ted, certainly there’s an urgency to win, especially with an entire new regime in place. Moorad (and company) is taking over as owner and could have full control by the start of the season, and the front office has been overhauled with Hoyer’s departure.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of the reason why they are—or appear to be—“going for it” in 2012. I’m still not sure if it’s the right approach.

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