Tom Werner gets a lot of credit for helping to revive the Boston Red Sox in recent years, and deservedly so. Randy Smith took plenty of blame for his work as GM of the Detroit Tigers, as well he should have. What often gets overlooked, though, is the role both men played in what was a very dark period for the San Diego Padres.
Baseball isn’t television
Werner, a television executive who was ill-prepared for the reality of baseball as a business, bought the Padres from Joan Kroc in 1990, at a time the team was headed back toward respectability. After their 1984 World Series appearance, the Padres had dropped to a miserable 65-97 by 1987. The following two seasons saw the club win 83 and 89 games, respectively, and the future looked fairly bright.
In Werner’s first season, the Padres went 75-87. They improved to 84-78 in 1991 before slipping almost imperceptibly to 82-80 the following year. The first sign of trouble (not counting Rosanne Barr’s apparently willful destruction of the national anthem before a July 1990 game) came on Aug. 31, 1992, when the Padres traded Craig Lefferts to Baltimore for two minor leaguers. Lefferts at the time had notched 13 victories for a team that was just seven games out of first place with 33 games remaining—hardly a gimme, but certainly not impossible.
Or you could say the trouble began when the Padres failed to sign second-round pick Todd Helton three months earlier. Wherever it began, the path from there is undeniable.
On March 30, 1993, the team sent Darrin Jackson to the Blue Jays for Derek Bell. The trade worked out well for San Diego, but it came just after the team sent a letter to season-ticket holders assuring them that the Padres would contend thanks to young players such as Jackson, among others. After a class-action suit was filed against the Padres, the club ended up offering refunds to ticket holders who asked.
On June 9, 1993, when it became evident that Werner and his cohorts would continue their slash-and-burn policy, Joe McIlvaine resigned as general manager. McIlvaine was replaced by Colorado Rockies assistant GM Randy Smith, who had been director of scouting for the Padres from 1989 to 1991. Just days shy of his 30th birthday, Smith became the youngest GM in baseball. Presumably such a young and inexperienced person would be less reluctant to balk at his boss’ orders to cut payroll regardless of the damage it might inflict on the franchise’s ability to compete.
Here. Kid, start giving stuff away
Within weeks, Smith found himself executing Werner’s plan. On June 24, 1993, the Padres traded third baseman Gary Sheffield and lefthander Rich Rodriguez to Florida for three unknown pitchers. Sheffield, acquired from Milwaukee 15 months earlier for Jose Valentin and change, had flirted with the Triple Crown at age 23 (and been named Sporting News Player of the Year) and appeared to be a rising star. The deal happened the same day Sheffield was named to the Padres’ “25th Anniversary Dream Team.” Needless to say, the timing could have been better. The saving grace is that one of the pitchers acquired in the deal was a guy named Trevor Hoffman.
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On July 18, 1993, the Padres shipped Fred McGriff—who had finished just ahead of Sheffield and some guy named Bonds to pace the National League in home runs in 1992—to Atlanta for three prospects. The best of the lot, Melvin Nieves, never amounted to much. Supposedly Smith had asked for Ryan Klesko, but when it’s public knowledge that your boss is intent on moving contracts, you don’t have a lot of leverage, which means you settle for Nieves.
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On July 26, 1993, in perhaps his finest moment under Werner’s thumb, Smith sent pitchers Bruce Hurst (who was attempting to come back from rotator cuff surgery) and Greg Harris to Colorado for Andy Ashby, Brad Ausmus and Doug Bochtler. Hurst (2 GS, 4.1 IP, 12.46 ERA) and Harris did almost nothing for the Rockies, while Ashby became one of the Padres’ more reliable pitchers over the next several years, including as No. 2 starter on the 1998 World Series team.
Meanwhile, the Padres, now largely gutted of big-league talent, saw their win total plummet 21 games to 61. For the first time since 1974, the team had lost 100 games in a season. In August 1993, rumors surfaced of a possible sale of the franchise and subsequent move to Washington, D.C., but nothing ever came of that talk.
The next year, the Padres lost only 70 games. Of course, that’s the year Major League Baseball couldn’t get its act together and a work stoppage limited the team to 117 games. The Padres were on pace for a 65-97 season (and Tony Gwynn—under some pressure to leave a team that apparently no longer cared about winning—was on pace to hit .400, but that’s another story altogether).
Also, don’t spend money on the draft
In June 1994, Smith and company made a couple of potential impact picks at the top of the amateur draft. In the first round, with the third pick overall, they snagged Kent State closer Dustin Hermanson. Although Hermanson never accomplished much in San Diego, he did net the Padres second baseman Quilvio Veras, who served as a catalyst at the top of the order for the 1998 World Series team.
The Padres’ second-round pick that year also has had a distinguished career in the big leagues. San Diego took a local high-school shortstop, but Werner wouldn’t spend the money needed to sign Troy Glaus, who went to UCLA instead and then starred with the Angels, among other teams. (Incidentally, in 1992, the McIlvaine-led front office had drafted Todd Helton in the second round, but under Werner, a deal never got done. A farm system led by Helton, Glaus and Derrek Lee boggles the imagination.)
New ownership group to the rescue
In December 1994, Werner finally sold the Padres to a group led by John Moores. (Some fans may be appalled to learn that Werner didn’t completely cut ties with the club until the 2006-2007 off-season.)
Less than a week into the Moores era, Smith made his first trade that didn’t involve slashing payroll. In a move that further positioned the Padres for a return to respectability, Smith sent Bell, Doug Brocail, Ricky Gutierrez (who had been acquired in the ill-conceived Lefferts deal), “the other” Pedro Martinez, Phil Plantier and Craig Shipley to Houston for Ken Caminiti, Andjuar Cedeno, Steve Finley, Roberto Petagine, Brian Williams and a player to be named later (minor-league lefthander Sean Fesh).
Smith’s final high-profile trade as GM of the Padres came on July 31, 1995. He traded righthander Andy Benes (and Greg Keagle) to Seattle for Marc Newfield and Ron Villone. In 15 regular- and post-season starts, Benes went 7-3 with a 6.31 ERA for the Mariners before signing with St. Louis as a free agent in December.
On the other side, neither Newfield nor Villone did much for the Padres, but both were later part of the package that brought Greg Vaughn to San Diego. Vaughn, of course, hit 50 homers for the Padres in 1998. He, Ashby, Caminiti, Finley and Hoffman were guys around whom the 1996 and 1998 playoff teams were built. Smith was directly responsible for acquiring those last four and he at least laid the groundwork for Vaughn’s arrival.
Smith departed as Padres GM in November 1995 and was replaced by Kevin Towers, who put the finishing touches on a contending club largely built by his predecessor. Towers has enjoyed considerable success in San Diego, while Smith became GM of the Detroit Tigers with disastrous results. There is no denying the damage Smith did to that franchise; at the same time, it’s difficult to overstate his positive contributions to the Padres even as his bosses were busy stripping the organization of identifiable talent. For that, San Diego fans should be grateful.
References & Resources
As usual, Baseball-Reference.com and Bill James’ Win Shares were invaluable in preparing data.