The Padres are starting over, which leads to a question:
What if they simply had done nothing rather than make a series of costly acquisitions during the 2014-15 offseason?
The answer will not be known for years, and even then it might not be entirely clear.
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This much is certain: The Padres sacrificed a wave of major-league ready talent in trades for closer Craig Kimbrel, first baseman Wil Myers, catcher Derek Norris and outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Melvin Upton Jr.
The moves, combined with the signing of free-agent right-hander James Shields, resulted in a team that won only 74 games in 2015 despite a season-ending, club-record $110.4 million payroll, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
But the expenditures didn’t end there.
The Padres included a combined $60.7 million in their recent trades of Shields, Kemp, Upton Jr. and right-hander Andrew Cashner – deals that rid them of approximately $72.4 million in future obligations, according to major-league sources and published reports.
Those trades helped accelerate a rebuilding program that includes six of the top 85 picks in the recent amateur draft, as well as an investment in the 2016-17 international market that will top $70 million, according to the team’s lead investor, Peter Seidler.
The new talent is not as close to the majors as the group that the Padres traded away – a group that included catcher Yasmani Grandal, infielder Trea Turner and outfielder Mallex Smith; a potential rotation of Joe Ross, Matt Wisler, Zach Eflin, Jesse Hahn and Max Fried; plus a number of other prospects.
But A.J. Preller, who took over as general manager in August 2014, was not high on a number of those players, Seidler said. Turner and Ross, sent to the Nationals in a three-way trade for Myers, were notable exceptions, but that trade no longer looks one-sided – Myers was an All-Star this season.
“With perfect hindsight now, we felt that A.J. did not inherit a farm system that had enough volume of core players where we could build what we want to build – a championship-level team,” Seidler said.
Preller, who took over for Josh Byrnes, also thought that if he added offense, the Padres had good enough starting pitching to contend. The new GM was wrong in that assessment – the rotation ERA increased from 3.55 in 2014 to 4.13 in ’15 – but Seidler said that the team’s splurge excited the San Diego market and generated a “big pop” in revenue. The end result financially, he said, “is probably pretty close to neutral.”
I endorsed the Padres’ push at the time while questioning whether it would produce an actual contender. Seidler said he supported Preller completely, explaining that while the team’s plan always was to build from within, “the sexy trades were an attempt to bridge us to success . . . a tactic, not a strategy.”
Yet Seidler admitted that he, too, had reservations.
“Everyone in town was so excited: ‘Look at the Padres – they’re all-in!’” said Seidler, who is the nephew of former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley. “I had a feeling in my gut, having enough experience to know, that whoever wins the offseason almost never is there at the end.”
The Padres since have pivoted dramatically, but they could have begun implementing their new strategy even sooner.
They held onto pitchers such as Cashner and Tyson Ross at the 2015 non-waiver deadline, and reportedly declined a Justin Upton-for-Michael Fulmer deal with the Mets before the Tigers landed Fulmer for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
They also held onto Kimbrel, a decision that proved astute when Preller negotiated a better return in the offseason than he would have at the deadline, landing four prospects from the Red Sox, including outfielder Manuel Margot.
Preller unloaded much more aggressively this season, not simply escaping contracts, but also receiving highly regarded prospects in deals for Cashner, closer Fernando Rodney and left-hander Drew Pomeranz. The Padres still do not boast a top 10 farm system, according to MLBPipeline.com. But they are getting closer.
Of course, they might have reached this point while saving countless millions if Preller had simply built upon what he had.
The Padres still would have would had outfielder Hunter Renfroe and catcher Austin Hedges, the top prospects that Preller inherited from Byrnes. They would have had only one fewer draft pick this year, the one received for Upton. And they still could have emerged as a force in the international market.
It’s all hindsight now; the Padres are moving forward with their revised plan, trying to create a high-ceiling core that by 2019 might include Renfroe, Hedges and Margot, plus the team’s latest No. 1 pick, right-hander Cal Quantrill, and three recent international signees – Cuban left-hander Adrian Morejon, Cuban outfielder Jorge Ona and Mexican outfielder Tirso Ornelas.
“We’re taking all of our poker chips and putting it in the center of the table on this strategy,” Seidler said. “One of the things I tell our fans is, ‘Don’t worry about us. Time will tell if we made the right strategic decision. And time will tell whether A.J. and his guys made the right picks among the individual players. But rest assured, we’re not going to deviate from this strategy.’
“We’re not going to get frustrated and start going hog wild on trades. We’re going to be measured in the trades we make moving forward and we’re going to be completely committed to a strategy of building from within.”
Seidler, however, added that the Padres would not be “intentionally bad,” stripping down the way other teams have in recent seasons.
“When you intentionally dive for the bottom to get a (top) pick, it’s not like basketball where you’re going to draft Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” Seidler said.
“If you’re going to really be intentionally bad – unless you’re the Cubs who can layer in a lot of free-agent spending, like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward and others – you’re going to drive down your revenue by probably well north of $10 million.
“We’re still going to try some way, somehow to be competitive for the next couple of years before we feel like the first wave of these minor leaguers get up here.”