June 23, 2014
Josh Byrnes Breaks Streak; Padres Face Uncertain Future
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:
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:
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
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
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)
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.