One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.
The San Diego Padres offseason has started in disarray, with General Manager Jed Hoyer and Assistant GM Jason McLeod joining Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs. It came as a bit of a surprise, naturally, as it looked like the young Jed Hoyer would be the Padres GM for the long haul.
Hoyer’s first year (2010) was a big success, as the surprise Padres went 90-72 and just barely missed out on the playoffs. Much of that team was composed of players left over from the Kevin Towers regime, but Hoyer made a number of astute, under-the-radar moves, and the Padres blew away expectations. Last year was more of a struggle, as the Padres went 71-91 in their first season since 2005 without Adrian Gonzalez at first base.
Hoyer tried for the best of both worlds, dealing Gonzalez to the Boston Red Sox for prospects while still trying to put together a competitive ball club at the major league level. This time, however, the offseason moves (signing Orlando Hudson and trading for Jason Bartlett, for example) didn’t work out as well, and the Padres offense could not even muster 600 runs.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it appeared that San Diego was headed in the right direction. The farm system was in good hands, with solid drafts and prospects coming in from various trades (most notably, the Gonzalez and Mike Adams deals).
Hoyer, groomed under Epstein in Boston, understood the importance of having a long-term plan and building through the farm system. McLeod, who also came over from Boston, where he was the Director of Amateur Scouting, was crucial in restocking the Padres farm system.
After Hoyer left for the Cubs, the Padres promoted Josh Byrnes to the vacated GM position. Byrnes has nearly five years’ experience in the role, as he was the Arizona Diamondbacks GM from December of 2005 through July of 2010. Byrnes has a similar background to Hoyer, making for a relatively smooth transition. Further, Byrnes has a good working relationship with Padres owner Jeff Moorad, who was a partial owner of the Diamondbacks during Byrnes’ tenure there..
The case to rebuild
Right now, the Padres simply aren’t that good. Over the last four years, they’ve averaged just 75 wins per season. The 2010 season in which San Diego won 90 games was largely looked at as a fluke, and when you look at that roster and the performances surrounding that year, it is certainly a plausible explanation. Not to mention, the anchor of that team, Gonzalez, now resides in Boston.
When you look at the Padres roster now, it’s a bit thin all around. The bullpen, which was a clear strength last year, will be without two of its best weapons. Adams was traded to the Texas Rangers last season, and Heath Bell is a free agent and likely will not return to San Diego in 2012.
The starting rotation has Mat Latos, who will be just 24 and still has a chance to develop into a true ace pitcher. His ERA ballooned into the mid-threes last season (not overly impressive in Petco) after a very solid 2010 campaign, but his excellent peripherals stayed intact—he averaged 8.6 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, and 0.7 HR/9.
The rest of the staff, however, is composed of interchangeable, middle-to-back of the rotation guys like Tim Stauffer, Dustin Moseley (season-ending, non-throwing shoulder surgery in August), Clayton Richard (season-ending shoulder surgery in July), and Cory Luebke.
The offense was terrible last season, hitting a combined .237/.305/.349 and scoring just 593 runs. The bright spots were catcher Nick Hundley, first baseman Jesus Guzman, third baseman Chase Headley, and center fielder Cameron Maybin. That’s really it. Will Venable has shown he’s pretty much a league-average hitter playing in right field. The middle infield of Bartlett and Hudson couldn’t hit a lick, and their defense certainly didn’t make up for it.
There is potential talent to be found, for sure. First baseman/left fielder Kyle Blanks bounced back last season and hit .229/.300/.406 in 190 plate appearances (following a disastrous 2010 campaign), and he mashed in his debut 2009 season (.250/.355/.514).
First basemen Anthony Rizzo struggled in the majors, hitting .141/.281/.242 in 153 PA, but he has raked throughout his minor league career and remains one of the Padres best prospects.
Shortstop Everth Cabrera had a nice year in Triple-A Tucson, putting up a .297/.370/.402 line with 29 steals in just 58 games. Cabrera had a breakout rookie season (.255/.342/.361, 438 PA) in 2009 after coming over from the Colorado Rockies in the Rule 5 draft but was plagued by injuries and severe regression to the mean in 2010.
In short, though, the Padres just aren’t built to win right now. Sure, they could catch lighting in a bottle again, but the chances aren’t all that likely. It appears they are at least a year or two away from seriously competing.
The current state of the San Diego farm system, however, is excellent. The Padres have a diverse group of talent that has been built over the last few years. They have high-quality prospects all over the diamond and at all stages of development. The aforementioned Rizzo and RHP Casey Kelly are very close to contributing at the major league level, while outfielders Reymond Fuentes and Donavan Tate offer lots of potential but are years away. Those are just a few names.
The state of the Padres organization right now points to a rebuilding effort. There’s really no reason to go all in and try to win next season. The payroll is still quite low as the ownership transition continues and, as we’ve mentioned, the roster isn’t quite there yet.
The majority of the Padres major league core will be in arbitration by 2013 and 2014, and by then a number of prospects should be ready to contribute to the big club. Most of the organization’s efforts should be put into building a winner from 2013 on.
The case not to rebuild
One could argue that the Padres have already done most of their rebuilding under Hoyer. He traded assets like Gonzalez and Adams to beef up the minor league system, and the Padres have drafted well over the past few years. They haven’t made any large investments at the major league level. In fact, they have nobody signed to a long-term contract. This gives them a lot of flexibility.
Perhaps San Diego should make a bit of a splash this season and fill in some holes. Maybe there’s no reason to throw away a season. After all, it’s certainly not something you want to do. Padres fans, outside of 2010, haven’t had a whole lot to cheer about in the recent past, and another lost season is never desirable.
Even if the Padres went out a signed a free-agent to a lengthy deal or made a big trade to bring in some MLB talent, it wouldn’t mean they’d have to go all in. They still would have a solid young nucleus and a slew of prospects on the way.
The National League West is a tough, yet always winnable, division, and the Padres are just one year removed from a 90-win season. The St. Louis Cardinals have won two recent World Series with teams that averaged 87 regular-season wins.
Further, who is to say that a rebuilding effort will pay off? There are teams that have been in a rebuilding state for years, if not decades, without putting together a serious contender. Putting all of your eggs into prospects is always dangerous. There’s a lot that can go wrong.
The conclusion: a hybrid approach
As we’ve talked about, Hoyer and company helped resurrect the Padres minor league system while still trying to put a winner on the field. For the short term, I think that’s the direction the Padres should take.
Last season, Hoyer made a bunch of moves. He dealt Gonzalez to the Red Sox for prospects, traded for Maybin and Bartlett and signed players like Hudson and Brad Hawpe. Unfortunately, outside of Maybin, none of the major league acquisitions really worked out as planed, and the Padres struggled to a last-place finish.
Hoyer was vigilant about holding onto all significant prospects, never including them in any trades for big league talent. Thanks to a build-from-within philosophy, the Padres now have a stacked farm system and were still able to compete in 2010.
This season, the Padres should try to build a solid roster with short-term, low-risk deals or trades while building toward a successful run in the middle part of the decade. They don’t need to tank a season; they’ve already accomplished most of the rebuilding. Still, they don’t need to go all out to put together a true contender until all their chips are in place.