I think it goes without saying that the 2015 Padres have been a huge disappointment. For a team that is slightly better than last season’s, the disappointment is largely rooted in the massive expectations that the fanbase had for this season, fueled by front office hype, promotion, and kingmaking of AJ Preller. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect a one offseason turnaround, but I don’t think there would be much disagreement in saying this offseason was more exciting than any Padres on-field action for the past five years – and we didn’t even have to buy a ticket for it! The front office has itself to blame for the disappointment after setting sky high expectations, throwing flashy press events, and producing hour long circle jerk FSSD features of the owners. But where do we go from here? Despite the fantasies of this team finally going on a sustained run, it’s time to back away, lick our wounds/gashes/lacerations/gunshot wounds/decapitations/incurable diseases and figure out where this team goes from here.
While the offseason was incredibly exciting (look no further than our numerous EMERGENCY PODCASTS), it has put this team behind the eight ball due to long term payroll obligations. People forget that prior to this season, the highest single season salary in Padres history was Chan Ho Park and his $15M. Going into 2016, the Padres will have three players making more than that: Shields, Kemp and Upton Jr. Throw in Kimbrel’s salary and you’ve got nearly $70M going to four players. Add in $4M for Jedd Gyorko, 1.35M for Amarista, and 3.25M in buyouts for Benoit and Luebke, and you are looking at nearly $75M. You’ve got Cashner and Ross going into their third arbitration year, and based off recent results, would be looking at roughly $15M total for both of them. So now you’re at $90M for a total of 8 players. There are some other players hitting arbitration like Norris, Alonso, Thayer, Middlebrooks and Vincent, but for the purposes of this analysis, let’s just hypothetically say the other 17 roster spots are filled by players making the Major League minimum of ~$500K. That adds $8.5M, and we’re sitting at ~$100M to field a team of Kemp, Upton Jr., Gyorko, Amarista, and a bunch of guys making Major League minimum (albeit this includes Wil Myers, Alonso and Derek Norris), and a pitching staff consisting of James Shields, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, along with Major League minimum guys. And that’s for $100M, which would be the 2nd highest payroll in team history. Current payroll counting all of the Kemp credit is about $108M, giving AJ Preller about $10M to play with in the coming offseason assuming ownership commits to keeping payroll steady.
$10M doesn’t buy as much as it used to. It buys you a Brett Anderson, a year of Michael Cuddyer, a year of Jason Hammel, or if AJ can get ownership to throw in a couple more millios, a year of Adam LaRoche. Now given the roster as assembled, does anyone think we are a Michael Cuddyer away from contention?
I know, we can just trade for some hot prospects that aren’t making arbitration salaries yet, right? Well… The best asset we’ve got right now to trade is Justin Upton, who would be a summer rental for whomever takes him. Looking at historical deadline trades for marquee rentals, it’s a mixed bag. The Angels traded Jean Segura for Zack Greinke. I think the best case scenario is when the Giants traded Zack Wheeler to the Mets for Carlos Beltran. The Indians trade of Cliff Lee in 2009 looked like a bust until Carlos Carrasco started being great last season, continuing into this season. The Indians also acquired Michael Brantley in the CC Sabathia trade in 2008, which took a while to pay dividends, but saw him get 6.3 WAR last season. On the other hand, for every Brantley, there is a Matt LaPorta or Justin Smoak. Brantley is the one player who has been All-Star caliber, so historically, the majority of players acquired for an Upton caliber player have not been franchise changers. OK, so we pick up an A grade prospect, or maybe a handful of B grade prospects and hope one pans out. This likely doesn’t help the dismal looking 2016 or 2017 teams.
So what to do? I see some people saying the team just needs to retool? How? There are a few scenarios to clear up payroll. The most obvious is to trade one of Cashner or Ross, preferably Cashner, as he’s not as good and going into his walk year. That would push up our money to play with this offseason to $17.5M, but then we have another starting pitcher slot to fill. We could force anyone that wants Justin Upton to take Melvin or Kemp, and essentially get nothing back. This would be huge in clearing payroll, but doesn’t necessarily make the 2016 team any better. Once you get beyond those options, you get into “fire sale” territory. I could craft a great argument for trading Shields, who is underperforming compared to his salary, or this team’s lack of a need of a lights out but highly paid closer. I think packaging one of the albatross contracts with Kimbrel would make sense. But at the point that you lose those players, we’re left with a roster of essentially Major League minimum players highlighted by Myers, Alonso, Norris, Middlebrooks and Despaigne, plus Tyson Ross. It seems that any way you move the pieces around, a competitive 2016 team looks very difficult to find. There is very little immediate help on the farm after the gutting of it this offseason. We could hope for some buy low rebound guys in free agency (a la Morrow/Josh Johnson), but at the point that we’re counting on those guys, we are essentially back to the Moorad/Byrnes era of roster construction.
My solution? Go full Luhnow. Burn it down. Ship out everything that has value and start over. I wanted this to be done last year, and as exciting as the offseason and first 1/4 of the season was, we are basically running in place here. With so much talk of “AJ guys” being valued higher by the front office, then go ahead and remake the team how he wants it with the players he drafts, develops or signs. I’d argue that in most cases so far the “AJ guys” have been largely failures, but Dee and Fowler entrusted AJ, so you might as well see it through. Pursuing mediocrity is the path that this team has followed for decades now, and continuing on that path will not fix anything. There were only so many bullets in the gun to make big trades. With Hunter Renfroe falling out of the top 50 prospects, there isn’t a pile of desirable prospects to ship off during the next offseason to “retool” with established Major Leaguers. It will hurt, but if we want a championship team, it’s looking more and more like we need to follow the Astros model.