Trading James Shields turns an unfortunate page for the Padres

James Shields

Ted S. Warren/AP

Here is my question about the James Shields trade: How exactly did the Padres make the White Sox hurt?

With the Pads, it seems, there always is a disturbing question. And while their overall outlook will improve dramatically once they stock up on amateurs in this week’s draft and in the July 2 international signing period, there will remain a lingering sense of what might have been.

The Pads did not acquire high-end talent for Shields – right-hander Erik Johnson, 26, looks like a back-end starter at best, and infielder Fernando Tatis Jr., 17, was not one of the top 30 prospects in the White Sox’s low-rated farm system, according to Baseball America.

Nor did the Pads shed the majority of Shields’ contract – they will cover about $31 million of the $58 million that is owed the veteran right-hander, according to major-league sources.

The White Sox, then, got off easy.

Not only did they retain their top prospects, but they also acquired Shields at an affordable rate – $5 million for the rest of 2016, $10 million in ‘17 and $10 million in ’18, plus a $2 million buyout assuming he does not opt out at the end of this season.

Yes, Shields is 34. Yes, he allowed 10 runs in his most recent start, perhaps spooking the Pads, who already have waited too long to trade right-handers Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. And yes, the Pads could use their the $5 million savings this season on amateurs and further benefit from the $22 million they would have saved over the next two years if Shields declined to opt out.

Shields (left) was at Petco Park Saturday when he got the news he had been traded to the White Sox.

Fair enough. And, as one rival executive notes, the Pads’ overall outlook will look much better two months now, after the draft, after the first wave of international signings and maybe after the July 31 non-waiver deadline, too.

The Pads hold six of the top 85 picks in the draft. They are expected to make a major splash in the international market. And, at the very least, they can add value for potential free agents such as closer Fernando Rodney and outfielder Jon Jay and maybe trade Ross (if he gets healthy) and catcher Derek Norris as well. Cashner will not bring much at this point. Outfielder Matt Kemp will be little more than a salary dump, if the Pads can even find a taker.

All that would be a start. Problem is, the Pads are playing from behind – and that’s not even counting the $48 million they paid for Shields’ 44 starts, plus the first-round pick they sacrificed a year ago to sign him, No. 13 overall.

The Pads’ farm system, ranked No. 25 entering the season quite by Baseball America, would have remained deep if the team simply had done nothing during the 2014-15 offseason, its first under general manager A.J. Preller.

A.J. Preller

I applauded Preller’s stunning flurry of moves while questioning whether he actually had built a viable contender. As it turned out, the whole thing proved to be little more than a sugar rush. And the regrets, well, the Pads have a few.

Right-hander Joe Ross and shortstop Trea Turner, sacrificed for first baseman Wil Myers, are with the Nationals. Right-hander Matt Wisler, sacrificed for Craig Kimbrel, is with the Braves, as is outfielder Mallex Smith, who was sacrificed for outfielder Justin Upton.

The list goes on – right-hander Jesse Hahn (Athletics), right-hander Zach Eflin (Phillies Triple A), first baseman Jake Bauers (Rays Double A), etc. Not all of the players lost will develop into regulars, much less stars. And the Pads, as they untangle the mess they created, are acquiring others.

Preller already has done well to recoup value for Kimbrel in a trade with the Red Sox. And while the GM declined to trade Upton and right-hander Ian Kennedy last July, the Pads landed the Nos. 24 and 25 picks in the draft when the two rejected qualifying offers.

Of course, there was a financial price to all this, too. To get Kimbrel, the Pads had to absorb the contract of outfielder Melvin Upton Jr. They also took on the money of Kemp, Upton and Shields. Couple payroll flexibility with outstanding young talent, and what do you have? Gulp, the makings of a contender.

We’ve said that before. We’ll likely say it again. All the Pads can do now is bank on Preller to do what he does best – identify young talent. Logan White, a Padres exec who was instrumental in delivering Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias to the Dodgers, also could play a pivotal role.

The Pads only can look forward. They sure as heck do not want to look back.