What is A.J. Preller doing?
He entered the offseason with several obvious needs:
- a starting shortstop
- a left fielder
- at least one new starting pitcher
- a restocked bullpen, following the trades of Craig Kimbrel and Joaquin Benoit
- trim the fat off of the payroll (i.e., trade away some of the bad contracts)
At the Winter Meetings earlier this month in Nashville, Preller acquired outfielder Jon Jay from St. Louis for Jedd Gyorko, this fulfilling the fifth need to an extent. Trading Yonder Alonso also brought some salary relief (around $3 million), and nabbing Drew Pomeranz will provide some pitching depth. They also acquired two catchers, Josmil Pinto from Minnesota and Christian Bethancourt from Atlanta.
However, Jay is not thought of as the new everyday left fielder. Which means that aside from trading Gyorko, the Padres are still in the same place they were a month ago.
Meanwhile, their NL West Division rivals (with the exception of Colorado) have all made great lengths to improve themselves:
- the Giants signed Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, and could be in pursuit of Justin Upton and other big bats;
- the Diamondbacks surprised everyone by signing Zach Greinke, and then traded prospects for Shelby Miller, thus suddenly making them strong contenders.
Meanwhile, the back-to-back NL West Champion Dodgers are perennial favorites.
Which leaves the Rockies and the Padres.
The Rockies are in rebuilding mode, having already traded popular All-Star shortstop Troy Tulewitski last July, and currently shopping Carlos Gonzalez. Their strategy is clear.
But the Padres’ is not.
Granted, the off-season is still in process, and you don’t want to make trades just to make trades. You want to get better as you trade and sign based upon a strategy.
Last year, the strategy was clear: win now.
That failed, but so far, there does not seem to be a clear, coherent strategy.
So then, given where the Padres are, here is what they need to do: rebuild.
Rebuild again, you ask? Haven’t the Padres been rebuilding since, oh, 1999?
Not really. We need to have some historical perspective: from 1994 until just four years ago, John Moores was the Padres owner. For the first 12-13 years of his tenure, Moores was focused on winning; note their division championships in 1996, 1998, 2005 and 2006, their NL Pennant in 1998, and their 2010 near-miss season (90-72, one game behind the eventual World Champion Giants).
Did they have some seasons that were clunkers? Yes. But most of the time they were a fairly competitive team that was always missing just a piece or two.
But then, Moores lost interest, cut payroll—saying goodbye to Adrian Gonzalez, Jake Peavy and others–and put the team up for sale.
Then, the Moorad ownership fiasco happened, leaving the Padres directionless and in a state of flux for the better part of two seasons.
Complicating matters was that then-GM Jedd Hoyer left after 2011 to go rebuild the Chicago Cubs with his old Red Sox pal, Theo Epstein (more on that later).
Ron Fowler and the current ownership group took hold in mid-season 2012. They gradually escalated the payroll, but not enough. In mid-2014, their offense was atrociously bad, hitting just .140 for the month of June, and finishing the year last in just about every offensive category. And so, general manager Josh Byrnes was fired in mid-season.
To replace Byrnes, management hired A.J. Preller to be the next general manager. Preller remade the team last offseason with a “win now” mantra, trading away rich minor league talent for Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Will Myers, Derek Norris, and James Shields.
Sometimes big gambles work and other times they don’t. The 2015 Padres were clearly an example of the latter.
What Rebuilding the Padres Should Look Like
And so, now, the Padres are at a crossroads. Management apparently is not happy with the return on Shields; Matt Kemp, with his atrocious defense and arthritic hips, is going to be around another four years; Melvin Upton Jr.’s contract is an albatross; the team is still lacking an everyday left fielder and shortstop; and the bullpen is a mess.
That’s the bad news.
The good news, though, is that the rebuilding process has already started. For starters, the trades of Kimbrel and Benoit helped to replenish the farm system—in fact, the Padres got a better return for Kimbrel than the Braves did a year ago. Center fielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra are potential stars who will likely debut in 2017-2018.
Also, many of their projected 2016 starters are young: Corey Spangenburg, 25 in March, figures to start at second base, and Wil Myers, who just turned 25, will probably start at first base. And while he is not a piece you want to build around, Yangervis Solarte, 28, can play a serviceable third base until someone better comes along.
So given that the Padres are already halfway down the rebuild road anyway, they might as well just go whole hog, put together a new core group that will be ready to compete in, say, 2019-2020, and have a five year window in which they can pursue their first World Series ring.
The Chicago Paradigm
Earlier, I mentioned Jedd Hoyer’s departure for the Windy City. The team he inherited at the end of 2011 went 71-91, and was directionless, and included such veterans as Marlon Byrd, 33, Doug Davis, 35, Ryan Dempster, 34, Carlos Pena, 33, Kosuke Fukodome, 34, Reed Johnson, 34, Aramis Ramirez, 33, Alfonso Soriano, 35, and Kerry Wood, 34.
It was with this roster that the rebuilding began; among other moves, Hoyer acquired Anthony Rizzo, then 21, from San Diego for Andrew Cashner, and build around young pieces like shortstop Starlin Castro, 21. The next year, the Cubs struggled to a 61-101 record.
But look at them now: while many prognosticators predicted they would win maybe 85 games (after just 71 in 2014), they exceeded expectations by going 97-65 and making the playoffs. For 2016, they will be highly favored to make their first World Series appearance since World War II, if not more.
And yes, I know that the 2011 Cubs are not the 2015 Padres. Not all analogies are perfect. For one thing, Chicago will always have more money to lavish on free agents that San Diego. My point, though, is that the two are close enough to provide a model for the Padres going forward. Like the 2011 Cubs, the 2016 Padres need to start over and rebuild.
With that in mind, they should make the following moves:
- Trade either Norris or Austin Hedges. Norris is still young, turning 27 next year. He has good offensive numbers that will only improve. Hedges is 23, and already solid on defense. Either one of them would be highly coveted, and with Pinto and Bethancourt ready as backups, the padres are already stocked here.
- Get a shortstop for 2-3 years. Guerra, 19 is the shortstop of the future. That is a given. But until he is ready in 2018, someone not named Alexi Amarista needs to man the post. There are options: Ian Desmond, Jurickson Profar, Jean Segura, and others. Yes, each has their disadvantages: Desmond may not want to sign with a rebuilder, Profar has had injuries, and Segura does not hit very well. But again, we are looking for someone to man the position until Guerra is ready (although Profar, still a young 23, may just be the guy himself).
- Trade Tyson Ross. Controversial? Yes—and I want you to know, I wince as I write this. Yes, Ross is 28. Yes, the Padres control him for two more years. And yes, he is a potential frontline starter. But then, all of those things combine to make him their most tradable asset. Look at the return the Braves got for Shelby Miller: shortstop Dansby Swanson (the number one overall pick in the 2015 draft), outfielder Ender Enciarte, 25, and pitching prospect Aaron Blair. Unlike Shields, Ross is highly sought after, and he could yield an even bigger return than Miller did.
- Keep Andrew Cashner for now. Cashner, 29, badly regressed in 2015, going 6-16 with a 4.34 ERA and a -0.9 WAR. He is a much better pitcher than that. And so, given that he is a free agent after 2016 and due for a rebound season, they should hold him for now. If he is doing well next July and the Padres are doing poorly, then he will be highly sought after.
- Put Kemp and Shields on the trading block, but be patient. The 2015 Padres don’t have nearly as many overpriced veterans as the 2011 Cubs did. But they do have some: Matt Kemp is owed $60 for the next four years, and Shields is owed $63 for the next three years. A lesson from the 2011 Cubs is in order here: they had an overpriced and overrated player in Alfonso Soriano who was about as unlike a player as Epstein and Hoyer would possibly want on their roster . And yet, they did not trade him until July 2013. While Corey Black (the young pitcher acquired for Soriano) has battled injuries and ineffectiveness and so is mired at AA, the move freed up salary to go after other needed position players. The Padres should pursue this route with Kemp and Shields.
- Let Hunter Renfroe take over in left field. Renfroe, 24, was the Padres’ highest rated prospect until the Kimbrel trade. He probably won’t be ready until midseason, but when he is, they should throw him out there and see what he can do.
- Play Upton in center field. He is overpriced, so you might as well play him. Plus, he had a pretty good bounce-back season in 2015. So at worst, they have a good defensive centerfielder who strikes out a lot who can hold down the position until Margot is ready in mid-2017. At best, they could have another tradable asset.
As Padres fans know, rebuilding tries one’s patience. It takes time. Sometimes, the prospects don’t work out. Witness the 2011 Cubs and second baseman Darwin Barney; though highly touted, it was soon revealed that he could not hit enough to justify playing every day. That will happen. Then again, look at the aforementioned Chicago Cubs, as well as the revamped Houston Astros. From 2011-2013, the lost over 100 games in three consecutive seasons. Now, like the Cubs, the Astros are stocked with talent and poised to contend for at least the next 5-6 years.
But given both the Padres’ and their division’s current state, this is the direction the Padres should pursue. Things will get worse before they get better; just ask any Cubs or Astros fan. But look at where they are now (and, I can’t think of anything more exciting than a 2016 World Series between those two teams). And “worse before better” is far preferable to perpetual mediocrity, right?
Rebuild. Do it now. And in two or three years, let the winning commence!