The 2016 Padres: Um… So Now What?
By Hugh Rothman
The San Diego Padres finally tried something new last season. Sure, it ended up being a spectacular failure that might have set the franchise back a few years… but hey, at least they finally tried *something*. For too long, FAR too long, the Padres have just been content with being “competitive”, which apparently meant being just good enough to win about 75 games or so, year after year after year. Every now and then, the Padres would catch lightning in a bottle and have an outlier of a season in which they actually had a chance to make the playoffs and do some damage. 2010 for example was one shining beacon of a season in the barren desert consisting of two lackluster seasons previous and five seasons hence. In that one single, shining moment (of the last *decade*, by the way), the Padres needed just one victory over the Giants on the last game of the season to make the postseason, but they couldn’t get it done. That the Giants then went on to win it all that year was particularly frustrating. Oh what could have been… but again, even that brief moment of glory is now 5 years in the rear view mirror. Previous to that season, and ever since that season, it has been 75ish wins of mediocrity year after year after year after year (you get the picture).
But not in 2015! To understand why, let’s backtrack a bit…
For awhile now, the Padres have not really tried to win. Oh sure, they tried to make moves that they hoped would sorta, kinda work out, but these were the sorts of the moves that, if they failed, didn’t hurt the team much, but even if they succeeded, would just mean the Padres could trade a piece for C-level prospects, or even worse, sign the useful player to a multi-year deal immediately making him no longer a bargain, but rather an albatross. But again, they never tried to do anything to *win*. There was no plan in place; just the same ol’, same ol’, again and again and again.
Note that this is the very team that signed Mark Prior to a one year contract a few years ago. It was only for a paltry sum of $1 million, and the Padres were hoping/praying that maybe, just maybe, Prior could recover from his myriad of injury problems and pitch some games. Didn’t happen… but hey, no big deal, right? It wasn’t like Prior was being counted on. This is also the team that acquired Carlos Quentin, and he turned out to be a really good hitter for the team, when he could play, which was not very often. Still, in general, that initial signing worked out, but then the team mistakenly invested in a multi-year deal for him, ignoring the obvious and considerable risks. So even though that move initially worked out, in the end, it cost the team precious resources. Then again, this is also the team that acquired Seth Smith in 2014, and he worked out pretty well, and the Padres were able to acquire a quality reliever for him eventually.
So in general, the Padres most recent history has been making a series of small bets, hoping that they would catch lightning in a bottle, and passing off that one gamble as their big offseason move. Meanwhile the minor league system was moribund (the team hasn’t had a first round pick contribute significantly to the team since Khalil Greene, who was picked way back in 2002). The team refused to spend enough to acquire any free agent of any significance, and so, it was the same, year after year after year…
But again, not in 2015! However, it took an otherworldly 2014 season to finally convince the Padres to do something different.
That Amazing 2014 Season (and by amazing, I don’t mean ‘good’)
The 2014 season was a rather unusual year for the Padres, to put it mildly. The results were their typical mediocre 75ish wins (77 actually), but how they got there was surprising. The pitching staff had an excellent year – a championship quality year even. The starting tandem of Andrew Cashner and Tyler Ross both put up #2 starter numbers. The bullpen, led by Joaquin Benoit and Huston Street, were terrific, and all told, the team gave up a paltry 577 runs, better than any other team in the league save the Washington Nationals. It was the best pitching season the Padres had posted since the Jake Peavy days of yore back in 2007.
Unfortunately, the hitting, always rather suspect even in the best of times, was so bad that records of ignominy were being set. You might want to shield small children from these next few sentences: The Padres scored an amazing total of 535 runs. Only one other team was under 600 runs. That run total would have been below average even in the run depressed 1968 season! It was the teams lowest run total since 1972 (when they had existed for only four years). Jedd Gyorko was the team’s leading RBI man with 51, and he did that while compiling a stunning 210./.280/.333 slash line. The entire team batted .226 with a .292 OBP. Only one player, Seth Smith, who is a useful player but no one’s idea of a star, had the only above-average season, with a slash line of .266/.367/.440, and led the team in plate appearances (521) and runs scored (55). No other starter had an OBP higher than .300! Anyway… you get the picture…
What made this turn of events particularly frustrating was that before the 2014 season, the Padres, in their typical Padre fashion, decided to roll the dice with oft-injured pitcher Josh Johnson. Johnson was just the sort of player the Padres adored: legitimately great pitcher for a few minutes a few years ago, but since then, injury after injury after injury. Johnson was given $8 million to do, as it turns out, absolutely nothing to help the team. That money could have been used to buy a hitter or two. For example, Nelson Cruz was available, also for $8 million. Nelson Cruz has his issues, but he was far less risky a proposition to bet on than Josh Johnson. Think Cruz’s 40 homers in 2014 would have helped the Padres a wee bit?
Most of the time, assessing the deficiencies of a baseball team can be rather complicated. A myriad of factors must be considered, involving both intricate decoupling of hitting and pitching woes. However, after the Padres 2014 season, it was pretty easy to see the problem: FIX THE HITTING! The pitching – it’s fine.
Mr. Preller Comes to Town
Most fans, including those fans who happen to own baseball teams, don’t enjoy watching a plethora of 1-0 losses, so the 2014 fiasco unsurprisingly resulted in a GM change. To completely butcher a Who song, the new boss was most assuredly *not* the same as the old boss. New GM A. J. Preller, much to the surprise of every Padre fan still remaining, decided to fix the obvious problems with the Padres immediately. He did not sign some washed up, injury prone stiff and call it the big move of the offseason. Preller made offseason moves that had been unheard of the San Diego area since the halcyon days of Trader Jack McKeon. When Preller was done, the Padres had a new outfield: Justin Upton in left, Wil Myers in center, and Matt Kemp in right. He acquired a new closer, Craig Kimbrel, arguably the best closer in the game. A new catcher was acquired in Derek Norris, as was a new third baseman, Will Middlebooks. The team even managed to sign a nominal ace – starting pitcher James Shields.
And the cost for all of this? Nearly every single good, or even decent minor league prospect was shipped. Trea Turner, Matt Wisler, Max Fried, Mallex Smith, Jace Peterson, practically every top 20 minor league prospect, were all shipped off to other teams. It was clear: the Padres were going for it… RIGHT NOW! The fact that most of the incoming players were hitters made it clear that Preller had learned the obvious lesson of 2014. He was able to keep the pitching staff intact and in fact, even improved upon it (with the additions of Shields and Kimbrel). The hitting was definitely going to be improved (how could it not be?).
So what happened? The Padres won three fewer games in 2015 than they had in 2014. How in the world could that have happened? The long answer is hopefully discerned in the following series of Padres blog entries. The short answer is simply this: The hitting did improve somewhat, but the pitching regressed mightily, and the pitching regression might very well have been tied to the abysmal outfield defense.
And speaking of questions, how will the Padres fare in 2016? What lessons have they learned and how will they recover from their hugely disappointing 2015?