Depth: it’s fucking great

A few weeks back, the Chicago White Sox designated Yonder Alonso for assignment, ending his short stint with the club. The White Sox paid his million dollar buyout, which is a cool $299M less than the reason they probably signed him in the first place. It’s great to see Yonder Alonso’s failure work out in the Padres’ favor for once.

Speaking of the Padres, they were definitely right not to pursue Yonder Alonso, as would any other team hoping to be competitive. (I don’t get it, Rockies. I don’t get it.) Not that the Padres considered pursuing him, but just to be clear: he would have made no sense whatsoever. His release was shortly followed by Anthony Rizzo driving in eight runs in a three game series against the Padres. This serious of events reminded me of an interesting tidbit about why Anthony Rizzo is in Chicago and not San Diego: an erroneous assumption about roster depth.

Let’s rewind back to January 6th, 2012. The San Diego Padres traded Anthony Rizzo to the Chicago Cubs, allowing their old general manager (who left the franchise mid-contract without compensation, despite the Padres possessing all the leverage) to claim their top prospect in exchange for an injured relief pitcher:

“We’re not going to anoint him a role. We’re going to use him as a reliever and see where that takes us,” said Padres GM Josh Byrnes, who’s had a busy offseason since replacing Hoyer.

“We think this injury is non-predictive and hopefully he can be a healthy and productive pitcher for us.”

In general, trading a pitching prospect for a more-heralded hitting prospect is a poor proposition. Throw in a significant age difference (of four years) and questionable health for the pitcher and you have a recipe for disaster. So why did the trade happen? The Padres thought they were already set at first base:

“If we had a good deal it probably made sense to do it rather than spend a lot of time having sort of a quarterback controversy between Alonso and Rizzo,” Byrnes said.

This is the sort of planning you might attempt on a video game, where attrition rates and prospect progression are extremely predictable. Where having two players with potential at a position means you’ll soon have two good players at that position. In practice, baseball is much crueler.

The success rate for top prospects is considerably less than even the common informed fan believes. (The same is true for the uninformed fan who believes prospects are just prospects no matter how convincing the evidence is that good prospects are still extremely valuable despite the volatility.) That’s true even once they make the MLB level.

For years, I’ve been mumbling and shouting about the need to have multiple good prospects pretty much everywhere in order to be anywhere close to guaranteeing a solid core. In 2017, I wrote about how having a handful of potential breakout candidates – young, with a prospect pedigree – meant that someone would probably break out. And even with that laundry list of former top 100 prospects in the lineup, none of them actually broke out. Cruel indeed.

Since then, the Padres have been the beneficiary of more normal prospect luck. Some guys, like Tatis and Gore, are on the precipice of superstardom. Others, like Anderson Espinoza and Javier Guerra, have basically died on the vine. That’s normal! The thing is: if you hoard just enough prospects, normal progression means a burgeoning core. Enter the 2019 Padres franchise.

The present Padres outfield situation this year is a prime example of how things are different now than ever before. Before the season started, most fans would have ranked the Padres corner outfielders as Wil Myers, Franmil Reyes, Hunter Renfroe. By the end of April, you may have switched Franmil Reyes and Wil Myers. By the end of June, you probably now had it ranked Hunter Renfroe, Franmil Reyes, Wil Myers. And you’d be a fool not to believe that by the end of September, it may all get jumbled up once again.

The point is that the Padres didn’t gamble by selecting just two of them, and trading the third in an attempt to acquire value at some other position. Instead, they held onto their depth, “played the hot hand”, and let the situation play itself out, giving themselves an additional chance to find the best long-term fit. In addition to giving themselves another possible breakout player by holding onto all three, this has also had a few ancillary benefits like lifting their backup outfielder baseline, allowing themselves to optimize batter/pitcher matchups, ensuring their primary pinch-hitter was a starting caliber bat, and having the ability to liberally rest guys with minor injuries (instead of resorting to the injury list).

Yet there’s depth behind the depth. (*Takes a deep breath.*) The Padres have 21 year-old top-100 prospect Josh Naylor, the Texas League homerun leader Edward Oliveras, Franchy Cordero, and Travis Jankowski all on the 40-man roster. Nevermind former top-30 prospect Manny Margot possibly turning the corner as a 24-year old plus-defense centerfielder.

In years past, the Padres would enter the season with maybe a name or two in the outfield that you could dream on. The year before A.J. took over the job, the only outfielder under the age of 25 who played a single game on the senior club was Rymer Liriano. Abraham Almonte’s brief 40-man stint technically made him the next youngest, at 25. In El Paso, the players who saw the most playing time in the outfield were 25 year-old Rico Noel, 27 year-old Alex Castellanos, and 173 year-old Jeff Francouer.

There was basically no chance that the 2014 Padres were going to have a breakout performance in the outfield, except perhaps a random career year by Will Venable or whomever. At the very least, the odds were quite low compared to the present version of the Padres: a team with so many options that there’s actually not enough plate appearances to go around.

That’s a good thing. For too long, Padres fans have been subjected to absolutely shitty baseball played by boring players whose best outcomes were “maybe he’ll have trade value”. Often times, the best outcome occurred and the “maybe he’ll have trade value” answer was still “no”.

And that’s just the outfield. Something similar is happening nearly everywhere else on the diamond.

Multiple legitimate starting pitcher candidates, all of whom are former or current top-100 prospects, have been forced to pitch out of the bullpen (or as an opener) in order to simply play. That’s happened to no fewer than five former/current top-100 prospects this year: Matt Strahm, Cal Quantrill, Adrian Morejon, Michel Baez, Logan Allen. It’ll probably happen to several more arms – perhaps even Dinelson Lamet and Joey Lucchesi – before the year is over. For as bad as the bullpen has been, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Padres don’t end up with at least several viable mid-rotation starters and a handful of lights-out starters-turned-relievers. Let alone what the equation looks like if Gore and Patiño end up as top-of-the-rotation arms, with Paddack seemingly a good bet to be one, too.

And how about our clusterfuck of shortstops!

When Fernando Tatis Jr. hit the injured list earlier in the season, the Padres responded by shifting Manny freaking Machado back to his old home at shortstop. He was fine – at times great. They replaced Machado at third by calling up a 24 year-old who leads the entire PCL in OBP and OPS+. Ty France didn’t play particularly well, but the whole point is that there was a legitimate chance he may play well. In the past, we didn’t even get that chance or found ourselves considerably behind the 8-ball. (If this happened in the year before A.J. took over, the Padres would have given playing time to Irving Falu or Chris Nelson or Brooks Conrad.)

Then, earlier this week, the Padres recalled Luis Urías from El Paso. He started the final two games of the Chicago Cubs series, alongside Tatis and Machado. This effectively meant that the Padres were fielding an infield with three shortstops and Eric Hosmer. Life has been worse.

But the shortstop depth doesn’t stop there. Besides the collection of middle infield prospects the Padres signed in the international free agent market a few years back, the Padres also selected Xavier Edwards in the 3rd round in 2018. After annihilating lower minors pitching with 80 grade speed, a .330+ batting average, and plus plate discipline, the 19 year-old has already been promoted up to High-A and also promoted into the top 100 of at least one noteworthy prospect list. The Padres followed that up by somehow adding an even more intriguing shortstop prospect in C.J. Abrams. At the time of writing, C.J. Abrams has reached base in every professional game he has played, and sports a .419 batting average and 187 wRC+ through 115 plate appearances. He’s already a top 50 prospect.

Before this season started, the Padres last five seasons were littered with shortstops like Erick Aybar, Alexi Amarista, Luis Sardinas, Clint Barmes, Everth Cabrera, Allen Cordoba, Nick Noonan, and Alexei Ramirez’s corpse. I’m sure I’ve forgotten others.

Now they have two legitimate backups elsewhere on the diamond. Those backups have legitimate backups. The minor league system is so full of legitimate prospects that the international free agent middle infielders mentioned above were just a brief footnote, and I haven’t even mentioned Owen Miller.

I could go position by position, and I don’t think we’d hit one where the Padres aren’t legitimately stacked organizationally. In some cases, the Padres have too many immediate options. The Padres have parked a plus-offensive catcher in AAA because you really can’t carry and play three good young catchers at once.

It has reached the point where fans are forming factions and lobby the official team Twitter account, on a daily basis, about who should be playing. As a long-suffering Padres fan, I find that at the end of the day, the correct answer to the daily debate…

Should we play a 26 year-old, former top 30 prospect who is also the top framing catcher in baseball or should we play the 21 year-old, 26th ranked prospect in all of baseball?

… is a rousing “fuck yeah!”.

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