It’s safe to say that the first half of the 2015 season hasn’t gone the way the Padres would have hoped. After making a number of surprisingly aggressive moves over the winter, the organization expected to contend for a playoff spot, but after another loss Tuesday night, the team now stands at just 37-42. Entering July at five games under .500 puts the Padres closer to rebuilding teams like the Braves and Diamondbacks, and they’re only barely ahead of the Reds, who are widely expected to start moving some of their best players as the trade deadline draws near.
Over the next month, Padres general manager A.J. Preller and his staff will have to make some tough decisions. For instance, Justin Upton is a free agent at the end of the year and a return to San Diego seems unlikely, so if the Padres don’t trade Upton before Aug. 1, they risk letting him leave for nothing more than a single draft pick as compensation. In a trade market with few sellers — and even those who are selling lacking impact hitters to sell — Upton could fetch a nice return, perhaps bringing back a decent approximation of what Preller sent to Atlanta to get Upton in the first place.
But despite the fact that we currently estimate their odds of making the playoffs at less than 10 percent, I don’t think the Padres should sell Upton, or any of their other players who would be attractive chips on the trade market. Even with the odds stacked against them, I think the Padres should keep this group together and hope for the best.
It isn’t that I think this Padres team is particularly good and just needs a little more time before things start to click. I was a fairly vocal skeptic of many of their offseason maneuvers, most notably the Matt Kemp acquisition, which I compared to the Angels’ ill-fated trade for Vernon Wells. The flaws that were pointed out by many observers — the team’s atrocious outfield defense, the over-reliance on right-handed hitters, and lack of any kind of decent middle infield — have all been borne out, and this roster probably isn’t any better than the seventh- or eighth-best team in the National League.
But there are some pretty notable guys on the roster who you should reasonably expect to perform better going forward. Kemp, for instance, has been something close to the worst player in baseball thus far this season, and that is unlikely to continue in the near future. He’s not as good as the Padres thought he was when they gave up Yasmani Grandal to get him, but he’s better than he’s been in the first half of the season. Jedd Gyorko, while not a particularly good player, is also better than he’s shown the first few months of 2015. These guys aren’t stars, but they can be serviceable role players, and even that would be a huge upgrade over what they gave the Padres in the first half.
There’s likely even more improvement coming on the pitching side, however. The pitching staff has allowed a 13% HR/FB ratio, the second-highest mark in all of baseball this year, with guys like Ian Kennedy and James Shields being particularly stung by a copious amount of home runs allowed. Even the Rockies, pitching half their games at high altitude, have only seen 12.7% of their flyballs allowed go over the fence; this is the kind of thing that probably won’t last much longer. If the Padres’ starters can stop allowing so many home runs, they’ve got a chance to be quite a bit more competitive than they have been. While it hasn’t looked like it yet, this is probably still a .500-ish team, and with a few hot streaks and some good breaks, .500-ish teams can play .600 ball for a few months and end up in the World Series; just ask the 2014 Royals.
But this isn’t really the crux of my argument. Almost any team in baseball could look at its struggling veterans, imagine a scenario where those guys improve, and think it is a decent run away from getting back into the race. For teams like the Reds and Rockies, I absolutely think they should be taking advantage of a seller’s market and trading their assets to build for the future.
So what makes the Padres’ situation different? In short: I think this might be their only chance for quite a while. After this season, it isn’t entirely clear that San Diego is going to have a clear window to win again anytime soon.
Let’s just look at what they have for 2016, for instance. The offseason acquisitions of Shields, Craig Kimbrel (which required taking Melvin Upton) and Kemp dramatically inflated the team’s future payroll obligations, and the fact that most of the Dodgers’ subsidy of Kemp’s contract was applied to the 2015 payroll means that the organization hasn’t yet begun to feel the real pain from that trade. The Padres opened the year with a 2015 payroll very close to $100 million, but with Kemp, Shields, Kimbrel and the Upton you don’t want under contract, the Padres are already on the hook for $65 million among them for 2016. Just for those four players, and one of them shouldn’t play regularly on a team trying to win.
Arbitration raises for core players like Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, Derek Norris and Yonder Alonso, plus the team picking up Joaquin Benoit’s reasonable $8 million option for 2016, will add roughly $25 to $30 million to that figure, pushing the team up over $90 million for seven core players and a center fielder with whom they’re stuck. A few more small miscellaneous guarantees — $4 million for Gyorko, $1.3 million for Alexi Amarista, and a $1.75 million buyout of Cory Luebke’s option — and the team already has nearly $100 million in committed salaries for 2016 even without trying to re-sign any of its own free agents, or add any talent from outside the organization.
And that’s not counting the fact that the guys who have to fill out the rest of the 25-man roster will make at least $500,000 each. In reality, the 2016 Padres already have something like $105 million in expected salaries for just their bare minimum roster. Sure, they could decline Benoit’s option, or trade Ross or Cashner in a cost-savings move, but dumping underpriced values isn’t going to get them any closer to contention, and no one is taking Kemp’s or Melvin Upton’s deals off their hands, so there’s no easy way to trim this number down significantly.
So, realistically, the Padres aren’t going to be able to be flashy spenders again this winter. Even if ownership approved a significant payroll spike up to the $120 or $130 million range, that wouldn’t even be enough retain the talents they’re going to lose in free agency. And if you take this same basic roster, subtract Justin Upton, Will Venable and Ian Kennedy, and then age Kemp, Shields and Kimbrel by a year, you’re really unlikely to have a good shot at the postseason next year.
For the roughly $100 million or so the Padres are already on the hook for in 2016, I estimate they have something like a projected +25 Wins Above Replacement in place for next year. To be a legitimate playoff contender, you need to be up closer to +35 WAR, and most teams that make the playoffs end up north of +40 WAR. If the Padres want to contend again in 2016, they basically need to find 10 wins over the offseason, and do so with minimal financial flexibility.
It’s just an absurdly tall order, made even more challenging by the fact that little to no help can be expected from the team’s farm system anytime soon. The Padres’ offseason upgrades removed a huge section of the team’s prospect depth, leaving behind just a few high-profile guys at the top and a bunch of guys who aren’t anywhere close to the big leagues. There’s no big wave of talent coming, so it’s not entirely clear how the Padres are going to find 10 wins with few assets to trade and not a lot of money to spend.
And it’s not like things are looking all that much brighter in 2017, either. They’re still going to owe Melvin Upton almost $17 million two years from now, along with the same large guarantees to Shields, Kemp and Kimbrel, each of whom should only be expected to decline from here on out. Ross will be on his fourth arbitration award, and likely quite expensive by that point. Cashner will be a free agent the team probably won’t be able to re-sign, especially if he pitches well; if he doesn’t pitch well, then the Padres definitely aren’t contenders next year.
Preller’s moves this past offseason were made to open the Padres’ window to contention in 2015, but the team needed to win this year in order to keep winning in the future. If the Padres made a playoff run and reinvigorated a fan base that was clearly tired of losing, there were — and maybe still are — large financial rewards that could be reaped, offsetting many of the future costs they absorbed over the winter. But that whole plan hinges on driving a bunch of new revenue with a winning team, and any remaining chance that has of happening goes away if the team trades Justin Upton at the deadline. Yeah, he’d bring back some solid young talent that could help the team in the future, but given what they have in place, a couple of decent prospects isn’t going to put this team over the top in 2016 or 2017.
In poker parlance, the Padres are somewhat pot committed to their win-now strategy. It’s probably too late in the game to switch gears and put themselves in a good position to win in 2016, and even 2017 looks questionable. So punting on the rest of this season might mean shifting into a longer-term rebuild. They just aren’t likely to get enough talent in return for Justin Upton to make a meaningful difference for the next couple of years, so it appears quite possible that this 1-in-10 chance at the postseason might be the best shot the Padres have for a while. You don’t usually want to bet big on a long shot, but if they don’t drive significant revenue gains through a 2015 playoff berth, this might be their last chance at the postseason for quite a while.