By now, you’re probably familiar with the story. The San Diego Padres’ executive chairman, Ron Fowler, went on San Diego radio and called his ballclub – specifically, James Shields’ performance on the previous day – an embarrassment. James Shields said that Fowler’s actions were “the wrong move“. And then the Padres traded James Shields to the Chicago White Sox for an underwhelming package of Erik Johnson and Fernando Tatis Jr., while also agreeing to potentially send the White Sox an overwhelming amount of money.
Perhaps the title of this blog post exaggerates the cause-and-effect just a little bit, but it’s hard to fathom how the owner of the team publicly sparring with a player does anything but hinder the team’s ability to trade said player. Obviously, some leverage was lost. And that leverage appears to have manifested itself in a significant amount of risk absorption being sent the White Sox’s direction, in lieu of waiting for something better to materialize.
Even if you believe the trade the Padres made was the same one they discussed before the saga, ownership’s comments certainly hurt other offers they could have received, and may have forced the Padres into accepting the sub-par offer the White Sox put on the table. (More on the trade later…)
To see how stupid this really is, just think about the entire process surrounding why Ron Fowler is on the radio to begin with: the team pays The Mighty 1090 to have “Padres Wednesday”, where team executives use their purchased radio air time as an advertisement, talking all things Padres in a jagged attempt to woo Padres fans to attend their games.
At best, that’s a small perk for the Padres. They get their name in the press, they offer some interesting information to get listeners, and maybe those listeners turn into additional revenue somewhere down the road, exceeding the cost of purchasing the air time.
The Padres should have terminated “Padres Wednesday” when they agreed to a new radio contract with a different radio station. Before that change, Fowler would have never been asked the questions that prompted the controversy. Of course the front office was going to be asked more difficult questions by The Mighty 1090… the team had just removed the sole reason why Scott Kaplan or Dan Sileo routinely asked softball questions: it could have strained the relationship between the interviewer’s employers and the Padres. Now what’s the worst case scenario for Dan Sileo when he asks a tough question?
Instead, the Padres executive chairman ran his mouth and cost his franchise far more than they could have ever gained by doing these radio bits. Where’s the Padres chief marketing officer on this? Doesn’t he want to protect his players and the team image (the brand!)? Where’s the team president on this? Doesn’t he want to protect the owner from looking like an absolute ass?
Every time the front office continues turning small things into front page news – in this example, making a minor fluff interview reach the cover of Deadspin – the higher the finger gets pointed up the food chain. The blame falls squarely on Ron Fowler. Not only was he stupid enough to blast his own players, he also managed to hire people utterly incapable of preventing him from doing so. And if you want to blame A.J. Preller for signing Shields in the first place, what about the guy (Ron) who hired the guy (Dee) who hired a general manager based on a “change of heart overnight”?
Finally – and mostly ignored in most write-ups on the trade – is how the owner publicly blasting the only “big name” free agent to ever sign in San Diego for an extended period of time will be perceived by future free agents. Even if you naively believe that Ron Fowler directly cost himself nothing through his tirade and subsequent trade of James Shields, I can’t help but believe that playing for an owner who would call out a player for slightly underperforming is something that most free agents will want to avoid. This could force the Padres into offering additional money to lure players to San Diego; an indirect cost of Ron Fowler opening his mouth.
Now to the trade itself …
It’s rare to be both excited and frustrated by a trade at the same time, but that’s where a Padres fan should find themselves right now. Trading James Shields means the Padres might finally recognize what every sensible person knew all along: the Padres suck and are in need of a major overhaul. For finally having some sort of self-awareness, I find the trade potentially exciting. But for trading James Shields to the first bidder (for an underwhelming package) while still absorbing a large percentage of the risk, I find the trade frustrating.
James Shields is not on an awful contract. He’s definitely paid more than most for what he produces, but that does not render him completely invaluable, making any old trade worthy of applause. You don’t have to look too far to see what a truly awful contract looks like: Matt Kemp and Padres-era Carlos Quentin are good examples.
Player contracts, like everything else in the entire world, derive value from the alternatives available at that specific point in time. Some examples of this principle are so obvious they’re barely worth repeating: a drink of water in the middle of the Sahara, or an umbrella on a rainy day.
In baseball, we don’t have weather or desserts to deal with, but baseball calendar and contract constructs. Players are only freely available at one point in time: the offseason. And even then, Major League teams don’t get the luxury of picking from every possible player, nor do they flexibly get the ability to find bargains at a position of need. The free agent market is limited to only a handful of players at each position, with any legitimate bargains scattered among the positions.
That’s one reason why the Padres’ rash approach in trying to build a competitive roster in one offseason failed so miserably. They found themselves forced into trading for awful contracts and couldn’t find a shortstop. Most of the time, what you need isn’t actually available. And if it is, expect to pay for it.
Additionally, player value isn’t consistent from team to team. Mike Trout at league minimum would have little value to the 2016 Padres. Sure, he would have absurd trade value and box office value, but his on-field production would only move the Padres from near-certain loser to below average. If what you measure player value by is how they affect World Series odds, then Mike Trout would be no more valuable to the Padres than small upgrades are to top contenders. This incongruity is why James Shields was worthless to the Padres, but worth something to other teams once the contenders and pretenders are sorted out.
Not to mention that during the season, the pickings aren’t any denser. There are no valuable free agents and most good players, by virtue of being good, belong to good teams. Good teams aren’t going to trade away good players – they’re in the middle of a pennant race themselves. Teams at the trade deadline are more likely to value Shields since they have a better understanding of their team quality, and can be more certain that a move will impact their World Series odds.
James Shields’ position is another boon to his value. Baseball insolvency, when a player becomes completely immovable without absorbing nearly the entire contract, is avoided in James’ case because of the fact that he’s still positively producing at a position of need for nearly every team.
Consider the shortstop position. Teams only start one of them and no one has ever given up the farm to acquire a backup shortstop for a pennant push. Starting pitching, though, is an entirely different animal. Every team uses five of them, with four of them having a very real impact on a World Series run. Unless the starting pitcher you want to trade is a complete pumpkin he’ll improve nearly every team. And Shields, despite underperforming based on his yearly salary, is no pumpkin: he’s still a plus W.A.R. player.
Basically, starting pitcher contracts are always a much more liquid asset than contracts for similarly skilled and paid position players. A 30th percentile contract at starting pitcher isn’t the same as a 30th percentile contract at shortstop, especially not in terms of movability, i.e. trade value. A 30th percentile starting pitcher is probably better than the number four starter on most ballclubs, so he is a tangible improvement despite being worse than 70% of his position mates. A 30th percentile shortstop, on the other hand, is probably worse than every contender’s starting shortstop; he’ll have no value to anyone in a position to trade for a pennant push.
All this brings me back to James Shields. James Shields has a below average contract, no doubt. That means, simply, that he’s paid more than he produces, in raw dollars per win above replacement on the open market. But this isn’t the open market. And when you put it all together – Shields’ positive production, his position, and the alternatives available to competitors looking to improve – you end up with a pretty clear picture: James Shields is definitely valuable to teams in 2016.
But what about after 2016? Doesn’t that hurt his value?
Well, it really shouldn’t. James Shields was very, very likely going to opt out of his contract. (One can use hand-waiving arguments about “nothing is a certainty!” all one wants, but if no true evidence exists to support the viewpoint …)
First, it makes economical sense for him to do so. While he might not get $21 million per season for the next two years, he’s much more likely to get a guaranteed paycheck for his age 38 and 39 seasons while attracting similar figures over the next two seasons. Four years and sixty million, as one bullshit example scenario, is a lot better contract than two years and forty-two million and just hoping you’re still worth something two years from now when you hit free agency again. In other words, it’s about the overall guaranteed money, not about making the absolute most in 2017.
Everyone knows the free agent market in 2016 is absolutely awful. The top available arms are going to be Rich Hill, Bartolo Colon, and Andrew Cashner. Even if you signed all three of those guys, you’d have a pretty crappy rotation.
Even if the market wasn’t weak, there’d be a reasonable chance James Shields would get a deal with more guaranteed money. Take a look at what guys got last year, in a relatively robust free agent class for pitching:
You’re telling me that in a weak year, a still-productive James Shields couldn’t get four years and sixty million? I find that hard to believe.
And even if he didn’t, many lower profile players have gotten absurd short term deals in free agency in recent seasons. In 2013, A.J. Burnett and Hiroki Kuroda both got $16 million on one year deals … and both were several years older than Shields will be. And completely busted Brett Anderson got $15.8 million for this year.
This is all to say nothing of the competitive aspect for James Shields, which was one of the main reasons he signed in San Diego:
“This organization is ready to win now. That’s what attracted me. I’m ready to win now.”
If his goal is to win a World Series, signing a series of one year deals at sixteen million would mean only sacrificing a small amount of money for the opportunity to choose where you play every year.
All of these options make a lot more sense, in a competitive or economical sense, than letting it ride with the Padres.
Interestingly, the Padres have also now perverted the opt out incentives. That he will not be tied to a compensatory pick makes Shields’ opting out more likely from an economical standpoint. But, by the same token, the Padres have greatly incentivized the White Sox to influence Shields not to opt out by promising to throw in twenty million dollars if he doesn’t. Since the White Sox will not be able to find a pitcher of Shields’ caliber available for two years and twenty million dollars, they’ll be doing everything they possibly can to get Shields to not opt out. This trade might actually end up raising the opt out risk for the Padres, if the White Sox can figure out exactly what would get Shields not to opt out.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the silliness of this trade is by comparing the scenarios of what could have happened to what actually happened. In order of least desirable to most desirable:
- Shields gets hurt. The Padres will now eat $20 million instead of $44 million. In a pure dollars sense, that implies a 20 / 44 = 45.5% chance of Shields getting hurt, which is an absurd risk hedge, given that the true odds were around 10% (given historical injury rates and pro-rating the proportion of the season remaining). For this option to make sense, you’d have to value the two players they got back as having a surplus value of around $35 million dollars, which they don’t.
- Shields does not get hurt and, for some reason, does not opt out. The Padres will now eat $20 million. But if the Padres still had James Shields next offseason, they still could have traded him in this scenario while eating the same amount of money. A healthy James Shields for two years and twenty-four million dollars is going to be valuable in the offseason. The Padres are not really any better off if Shields chooses not to opt out, compared to where they would have been if they kept him and Shields chose not to opt out.
- Shields opts out. The Padres will have effectively traded a compensatory first round pick for Erik Johnson, Fernando Tatis Jr., and a few million dollars. Given what we know about the surplus value of a compensatory pick versus what they received, this would be an expected net loss for the Padres.
Overall, I don’t see how it makes sense unless you’re completely chicken shit about player risk. If you are, I’m not sure how you’ll ever get anywhere as a franchise. The goal is to win the World Series, not minimize sunk costs.
So while the Padres made the obvious right decision to start their rebuild by trading James Shields, is it so much to ask that they don’t also suck at rebuilding? I’m not saying they definitively do, just that this isn’t the best way to build fan confidence. Sometimes, it’s the method as much as the decision itself that makes all the difference. A cannonball wouldn’t have been a very good way to jump off the Titanic.
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