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June 23, 2014

Overthinking It

Josh Byrnes Breaks Streak; Padres Face Uncertain Future

by Ben Lindbergh


In March, I wrote about the unprecedented job security major-league general managers have enjoyed over the previous two-plus years. Led by the long-tenured Brian Sabean, Billy Beane, Brian Cashman, and Dan O’Dowd (who was forced to share the throne but hasn’t been relieved of his duties), GMs have seen their occupation, historically a high-turnover one in which on-field success was the only sure route to remaining employed, morph into one that comes standard with the owner’s commitment to stay the course, even if it means suffering through some lean times. Accordingly, I dubbed the new strain of nearly unemployment-proof GMs the “Duracell GM Generation”—a cohort of front-office head honchos who last.

On Sunday, Josh Byrnes’ battery died. Byrnes, the Padres’ GM since October 26, 2011, became the first GM fired since the Astros axed Ed Wade on November 27, 2011. That’s a streak of 938 firing-free days—by far the longest such streak over at least the last four decades, even though baseball’s expansion to 30 teams has created more opportunities for a change to take place.

So what did Byrnes do to spoil the perfect game GMs had going? He didn’t stick his foot in his mouth in front of fans or the media, like former Dodgers GM Kevin Malone. Nor did he make an obviously ill-advised trade or signing that was widely first-guessed, like the Vernon Wells’-expensive-remains-for-Mike-Napoli move that did in Angels GM Tony Reagins. He had his fair share of successes, stealing Tyson Ross from the A’s and Huston Street from the Rockies, buying low on Ian Kennedy, and (thus far) dealing his predecessor, Jed Hoyer, to a standstill in an Andrew Cashner-for-Anthony Rizzo swap that still inspires debate. (I’ve reserved a spot on Team Rizzo.)

Like any GM, of course, Byrnes made moves that backfired. The Padres’ attempts to get into the extension game, which seemed sensible in the moment, have almost universally fizzled, as Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin, Cory Luebke, the now-departed Nick Hundley and, most recently, Jedd Gyorko, have struggled to stay healthy and/or underperformed after agreeing to stay in San Diego. (Byrnes may have dodged a bullet by avoiding a Chase Headley extension, though he likely has Headley’s reluctance to forgo free agency to thank for that.) Teams usually spend more efficiently when they lock up their own players to long-term deals, so the Padres’ failure to capitalize on the kind of contract that has been a boon to most teams has hit them hard.

The Padres’ return in the Mat Latos trade has been similarly disappointing, although it could still be salvaged depending on how Yasmani Grandal, already a fine defensive catcher, develops at the plate. Neither of the minor leaguers Byrnes traded to the White Sox for Carlos Quentin has amounted to much, but Quentin, while largely productive when in the lineup, has been too often out of it for a player who’s absorbed a high percentage of the Padres’ payroll. Offseason signee Josh Johnson got hurt before he could contribute, which, upside notwithstanding, was a bit too predictable to give the Padres a pass.

Those few paragraphs are all we need to recount Byrnes’ big transactions. Even with the benefit of hindsight (which at this point is still somewhat blurry), he has a mixed record—and an inconclusive record, really, given that he was allowed relatively little time in which to work magic. When Hoyer and assistant GM Jason McLeod left San Diego to join Theo Epstein in Chicago, Byrnes inherited a team that had underperformed both its Pythagorean record and industry expectations in 2011, winning only 71 games after a surprising surge to 90 in 2010. The Padres won 76 games in each of Byrnes’ first two seasons at the helm—bad enough that they were never a threat to contend, but good enough that they didn’t pick higher than seventh in the amateur draft. PECOTA projected the Padres to be an 82-win team in 2014, but they had slipped to a 69-win pace before Sunday, when Byrnes was dismissed.

The primary culprit has been San Diego’s historically awful offense. Through their 75 games under Byrnes this season, the Padres’ park- and league-adjusted offense ranked among the worst since 1950:

Year

Team

TAv

1981

Blue Jays

.230

1963

Mets

.231

1954

Athletics

.231

1972

Rangers

.232

1965

Mets

.232

2014

Padres

.235

1955

Pirates

.235

R.J. Anderson examined San Diego’s offensive woes on an individual level in May, and not much has changed in the six weeks since. Entering play on Sunday, 11 Padres had accumulated 100 plate appearances or more. Here’s how their True Averages (league average=.260) compared to their preseason PECOTA forecasts:

Player

TAv

Closest PECOTA Percentile

Seth Smith

.354

90th: .303

Cameron Maybin

.268

60th: .267

Yasmani Grandal

.256

30th: .260

Rene Rivera

.254

70th: .250

Chase Headley

.233

10th: .251

Chris Denorfia

.231

10th: .233

Everth Cabrera

.221

10th: .220

Alexi Amarista

.219

30th: .217

Yonder Alonso

.218

10th: .236

Will Venable

.213

10th: .235

Jedd Gyorko

.192

10th: .244

Only Smith (whom Byrnes acquired over the winter in exchange for Luke Gregerson) has significantly surpassed his projection. Maybin and Rivera have exceeded theirs slightly. Other than that, it's all underperformance, with six of the 11 coming in at or well under their 10th-percentile projections.

It’s hard to hold Byrnes responsible for the fact that so many players have missed their marks by so much, but the team’s inability to stay healthy has compounded their problems:

Padres Injury Totals and MLB Ranks, 2014

WARP Lost

Days Lost

Salary Lost

% Payroll Lost

4.9 (2)

484 (4)

$10.8 (T-5)

12% (T-1)

The Padres ranked first in days lost to injury in 2012 and sixth in that category last season, so it’s nothing new for them to be bitten by the injury bug. Here’s how San Diego’s casualty list compared to other teams’ in Byrnes’ two-plus seasons (2012–14):

Padres Injury Totals and MLB Ranks, 2012–14

WARP Lost

Days Lost

Salary Lost

% Payroll Lost

13.6 (19)

3514 (1)

$45.9 (13)

21.4% (3)

The Padres lost more games to injury than any other team during their two-plus seasons with Byrnes as GM, and the third-highest percentage of their payroll (though not nearly the most WARP, since their injured players weren't all great to begin with). Is that bad luck? Is it a subpar training staff? Or is it the inevitable result of assembling a roster of injury-prone players such as Quentin and Johnson? How you answer that question determines, in part, how you feel about Byrnes.

We can’t dispute President and CEO Mike Dee’s statement that “the results on the field have been mixed at best and clearly have not lived up to expectations.” And if Byrnes’ mandate was to build up the farm system and turn the Padres into a drafting-and-development machine, it’s hard to argue that he fulfilled that goal. Byrnes inherited a strong system: The Padres earned the top spot in Kevin Goldstein’s 2012 organizational rankings, 4 ½ months after Byrnes became GM. Jason Parks kept them third in 2013, but they fell to 11th earlier this year, as injuries (surprise, surprise) took a toll. They've sunk even lower thus far this season, Jason says, citing an iffy draft, injured and/or underperforming prospects, and "big questions" about their approach to player development.

Byrnes’ successors will profit from some of the talent he acquired, much as the Astros are now benefiting from the arrival and flourishing of Wade-era acquisitions such as Jose Altuve, George Springer, Jon Singleton, and Dallas Keuchel. However, he hasn’t left them with a clear path to success. The Padres have a core that can’t win now and, as a glance at their 2014–19 payroll commitments confirms, plenty of holes to fill before a future Padres team can hope to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. With five weeks to go before the trade deadline, the franchise’s interim, three-headed GM (Omar Minaya, A.J. Hinch, and Fred Uhlman, Jr.) will have to decide whether capitalizing on a seller’s market by going full firesale and pursuing an Astros-style rebuild is the best way to turn the organization’s many question marks into answers ending in exclamation points. And if that’s the course they choose, they’ll have to hold out for the most that the roster’s devalued veteran assets can bring back.

While the Padres raised payroll this year, which has made their inability to score even more disappointing than it would’ve been otherwise, their payroll still puts them in the bottom third in baseball:

Padres Payrolls and MLB Ranks, 2010–14

2010: $37.8 (30)
2011: $45.9 (27)
2012: $55.6 (28)
2013: $68.3 (25)
2014: $91.1 (22)

The Padres asked Byrnes to win without the payroll room to make mistakes. He wasn’t up to that difficult task. Whether because of bad luck or flawed player evaluation, the Padres couldn’t win without a margin for error, which serves as our latest reminder that it’s really, really hard to be the A’s or the Rays. (It’s even hard for the Rays to be the Rays, these days.)

Byrnes still might have survived if John Moores, who owned the Padres when he was hired, hadn’t sold the team to Ron Fowler instead of Jeff Moorad (who hired Byrnes) in 2012. As I wrote in March, increased collaboration and improved rapport between GMs and owners (who take greater care than ever when picking a person to run their TV-fattened cash cows) has been partly responsible for the slow hooks we’ve seen over the past few years. Owners are often reluctant to ditch the GM they chose to oversee their investment, especially if they’ve become close. However, Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler, who took over the team from Moores, inherited Byrnes, who wasn’t “his guy.” It’s not surprising, then, that the relationship between the two “deteriorated” under the strain of a losing season, or that Fowler would have fewer qualms about going in a different direction. Maybe Byrnes was lucky that Fowler didn’t try to put his stamp on the team even sooner.

Earlier this month, Slate executive editor Josh Levin determined that the Padres had been the least-discussed team (excluding the NHL) in the history of Hang Up and Listen, Slate’s sports podcast. The week after that, Deadspin’s Drew Magary dubbed the Padres the least-hated team in baseball. That’s not as positive a distinction as it sounds. “You need a resume to be hated,” Magary wrote. “You need to have won things that my team hasn’t won.” We learned last week that Tony Gwynn inspires strong feelings, but his long-time team won’t until it wins its first World Series.

Whoever fills Byrnes’ shoes will do his or her best to make the Padres a team that we all want to talk about—and, if all goes well, a team that some fans can’t help but hate. But like the song said, it’s gonna take patience and time, and (like the other song said) a little luck—which is more than the Padres have had lately.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  San Diego Padres,  Josh Byrnes,  General Managers,  GMs

18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

leez34

When you dubbed it the "Duracell GM generation," did anyone point out that "They keep going and going" was actually Energizer's slogan?

Jun 23, 2014 08:22 AM
rating: 4
 
Richie

Byrnes got fired because Fowler wanted his own man in. Otherwise you get more than 2 1/2 years.

No real beef with it myself, lots of people deserve trials, which only get generated through frequent turnover. But Byrnes was dead meat however soon Fowler could conceivably dump him.

Jun 23, 2014 09:15 AM
rating: 1
 
terencem

That makes some sense. Byrners was very well liked by the previous controlling owner, John Moores. I wonder if this goes back to strife when Moores was still at the helm.

Jun 23, 2014 09:41 AM
rating: 0
 
Geoff Young

Jeff Moorad, who bought the team from Moores, hired Byrnes. When MLB changed its mind about Moorad's status as owner of the Padres, the situation changed.

I wrote about this in October 2012: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=18561

Jun 23, 2014 09:52 AM
rating: 2
 
terencem

I guess the reason is: if you could just rely on projections to be a GM, anyone could do it?

Jun 23, 2014 09:39 AM
rating: 0
 
Johnston

The projections for the Padres this season were mediocre. Nobody in the Padres front office seemed to notice.

Jun 23, 2014 16:49 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Mediocre would be a big improvement.

Jun 23, 2014 16:52 PM
 
Johnston

ZIPS had them at .469 for the season and they are .048 below that at this moment. This is hardly a shocking development.

Jun 23, 2014 17:26 PM
rating: 0
 
alangreene

Eh, as a Padres fan, I'm more than okay with the firing. I never understood the machinations that went on with the Byrnes hiring -- why anyone would want a GM with such a middling track record.

While some of the extension failures seemed like good ideas at the time, there's a been a series of questionable decisions around resource allocation and player development/drafting.

I will reserve judgement until I see the replacement, but Byrnes' track record is more eh than something to be worried about losing.

He's one of those guys where if you frame it as "does he deserve to be fired" then maybe not, but if you frame the choice as "are you likely to get a better option" then yes, I think there are quite a few better choices out there.

Jun 23, 2014 10:55 AM
rating: 4
 
jayman4

He and the Padres got very unlucky, as far as I can tell. A few starters materially missing projections happens, but an entire infield?

That said, as the author points out, it is very hard to be the A's or Rays. Changing that slightly, it is very hard to build a sustained playoff contender in a small market. Going a bit further, it is very hard to be a sustained fan of most small market team, a fact that MLB and most of sabermetric sites I read continue to ignore.

Jun 23, 2014 12:15 PM
rating: 0
 
NightmareRec0n

I feel like this is just a result of injuries and under-performance.

Yonder Alonso was injured most of 2013 and is now injured again.
Jedd Gyorko is injured.
Headley has been injured
Cameron Maybin is always injured.
Cashner,JJ,Erlin,Smith, and Casey Kelly are all always injured.

I thought the Padres had a real shot for a wild card coming into the season. They built a decent team. They built an excellent farm system and drafted well. But the perfect storm of injuries and under performance cost a good GM his job.

Jun 23, 2014 12:38 PM
rating: 0
 
rweiler

Every team has injuries, the Padres have a lower margin for error in than the other teams due to payroll, but even given that they have under performed. They were a long shot to make the playoffs even if everybody was healthy. If they are to have any chance at competing, they are going to have to go full Astros mode and stockpile enough talent that they can replace key injuries from within. Fortunately, they do have a lot more bargaining chips than the Astros started out with. Smith, Cashner, Ross, and Kennedy should all bring back something in return, and even somebody like Stauffer or Thayer has some value. They aren't particularly young, and the Padres can finish out of they money without them.

Jun 23, 2014 13:13 PM
rating: 0
 
jfranco77

Are we sure that injuries are a thing that "just happens" to the Padres? Does their training staff deserve some blame? Their player development plans? It could all just be random chance but you're probably talking 2 or 3 standard deviations from the norm.

Jun 23, 2014 13:36 PM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

Thank God the talent pipeline back to Boston and Chicago has been cut off at the head.

Omar Minaya and AJ Hinch ? Are there two less deserving men to still have a job ?

Jun 23, 2014 16:33 PM
rating: 0
 
Johnston

Amaro and Towers.

Jun 23, 2014 17:29 PM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

Ben - when I first heard that Byrnes got the boot, I thought of you.

Jun 23, 2014 16:42 PM
rating: 0
 
randolph3030

I believe the song also says that it's going to take money, a whole lot of spending money, to do it right. It does not seem that the Padres have that kind of dough.

Jun 23, 2014 17:59 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Good point!

Jun 23, 2014 18:01 PM
 
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