PHOENIX — Together again, Jeff Moorad and Josh Byrnes are recreating the San Diego Padres as they did the Arizona Diamondbacks five years ago.
The transition may not have the immediate success it had in Arizona, when the D-backs won the NL West in Byrnes’ second season as general manager with a skimpy on-field payroll of $53 million, but the similarities are there.
The Padres have traded veteran stars to downsize the payroll, a San Diego fact of life, and are banking instead on the upside of a large, accumulated group of controllable prospects.
The 2012 Padres are not entirely comprised of highly regarded youngbloods — outfielder Carlos Quentin, closer Huston Street and starter Edinson Volquez were acquired in trades this winter — but the bottom line remains the same.
That is, the bottom line dictates the approach.
Small-market San Diego has always had to do it this way. General manager Kevin Towers manipulated his teams to NL West titles in 2005-06 by the shrewd, incremental acquisition of young talent. His title teams never cost more than $70 million, always among the lowest budgets in baseball.
More recently, Jed Hoyer — who came out of the same Theo Epstein/Boston pipeline that produced Byrnes — got the Padres to 90 victories in 2010 on a shoestring $38 million budget before leaving to become the Chicago Cubs’ general manager this winter.
“I think it’s important to have a lot of young talent on hand, particularly when your payroll is bottom third,” said Byrnes, who was replaced in Arizona (eventually by Towers) in mid-2010, when the D-backs hit the skids.
“Given that model, it is not very easy to win unless you get a lot of production from pre-arbitration guys. That has definitely been a point of emphasis. It is something we really emphasized in Arizona, and we are doing a lot of the same things here in San Diego.”
Hoyer started the process in 2010, trading All-Star cleanup hitter and San Diego native Adrian Gonzalez to Boston for a package that included right-hander Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielder Raymond Fuentes. Kelly was the must-have. The Padres also traded for center fielder Cameron Maybin, a perfect fit in spacious Petco Park who was available after a down season in Florida, and signed second baseman Orlando Hudson as a free agent.
One of their tenets is to be strong up the middle — in Arizona, Byrnes’ first two offseason trades brought Hudson from Toronto and center field prospect Chris Young from the White Sox. In 2007, Young became the first rookie in major-league history to hit 30 home runs and steal 25 bases.
At the 2011 trade deadline, the Padres acquired pitching prospects Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland from Texas for setup man Mike Adams.
Byrnes and CEO Moorad put it in high gear this offseason, working trades with Cincinnati and both Chicago teams to acquire more young talent. First baseman Yonder Alonso came from the Reds with Volquez, catching prospect Yasmini Grandal and back-of-the-bullpen right-hander Brad Boxberger for Mat Latos, who was closing in on arbitration years that would have bumped his salary dramatically. With Alonso in hand, the Padres acquired high-90s-throwing right-hander Andrew Cashner from the Cubs for Rizzo, who lit up the minors but struggled in the majors last year. “I love Boxberger,” one major-league scout said while watching him in the Arizona Fall League.
The Padres could not find a trade they liked for closer Heath Bell at last year’s trading deadline, so they held onto him. When Bell signed with Florida, the Padres received two compensatory draft picks. Street was acquired from Colorado two days later.
It helps — is necessary, in fact — to have management buy in, and Byrnes feels that support from Moorad.
“Certainly, you all want to be on the same page,” Byrnes said. “A lot of these decisions are hard decisions. Gonzalez and Adams and Bell were terrific performers, but at some point they get to free agency and you have to make decisions.”
When the smoke cleared this winter, the Padres were left with only two players who will make as much as $7 million this season (Street and Quentin) and a loaded farm system that’s especially deep in pitching. Kelly, whose father Pat was a long-time major leaguer, won 11 games at Class AA San Antonio. Erlin and Wieland were 4-1 with a combined ERA just over 2.00 in 12 appearances for the Missions, which won 100 games and the Texas League pennant. Starter Jorge Reyes and reliever Miles Mikolas also were on that staff.
Tim Stauffer, Clayton Richard, Dustin Moseley and Volquez are expected to man the rotation this season, but it might not be long until some of the young arms are ready.
On top of that, the Padres have added roster flexibility moving forward, as the contracts of Street and Quentin expire after this year, as do those of Hudson and shortstop Jason Bartlett. Not to say the Padres will not retain those players, but they will have the discretion to commit dollars where they deem necessary.
“It seems that the past 10 or 15 years, the teams that have been good with a lower payroll have had some really good young players — either some impact-type guys or a lot of depth or both. Teams fight really hard to acquire those players because it helps you manage your payroll, it helps you transition your roster from one year to the next,” Byrnes said.
As far as 2012, “we realize no one is going to pick us, but we think we are better, and we think when you get into it and you start playing well, you can build a lot of momentum quickly. With some of the moves we made, we don’t want to concede 2012 by any stretch. We want to give ourselves a chance,” Byrnes said.