May 20, 2008
Looking Way Ahead
"You were one strike away from the postseason and never got there. Your biggest acquisition of the winter has already been released. You have the worst record in baseball, no one comes to your games and the face of your franchise just went on the DL. Go!"
Yes, it's a bad time to be Kevin Towers, the dean of MLB general managers. The Padres, who were two wins from their third straight division title on the afternoon of September 29, 2008, lost their last two scheduled games, two of which they led with three outs to go. Now, nearly eight months removed from those three disastrous days, they are 16-30, with one of the worst offenses in the game-even accounting for their run-killing park-and a dearth of reasons to think they can turn it around.
The loss of Jake Peavy to the DL with a sore elbow might actually be a blessing. Whatever hope the Padres had of turning their season around rested on Peavy giving them another Cy Young-caliber performance. With the righthander gone for at least a few weeks, it should be easier to turn to the task of punting 2008 and looking ahead to 2009 or even 2010. There's no sin in that-the Padres are clearly not close to the Diamondbacks or Dodgers right now, the two teams that have raised the bar in the NL West. It's better to act upon these facts with an eye towards building a great team, and avoid the treadmill that so many teams have become trapped on in recent years. Eventually, the products of strong 2006 and 2007 drafts-such as shortstop Drew Cumberland, catcher Mitch Canham and righthander Matt Latos-will be part of a contender in San Diego.
For now, after winning a weak division twice, the Padres are seeing the effects of a series of poor drafts in the early part of the decade. Their system features a sprinkling of true prospects, and very little of the athleticism or up-the-middle talent they need right now. They jumped from 29 to 12 in Kevin Goldstein's organizational rankings this year, but the players responsible for that move won't be eating fish tacos for a few years. The lack of internal solutions created by the bad drafts led to the acquisition of players such as Jim Edmonds, Greg Maddux and Tadahito Iguchi, serviceable complementary talents to what is simply not a sufficient core, one that needs to be rebuilt.
What does that mean, specifically? It's easy to talk about trading Maddux or Iguchi or Brian Giles; these veterans have little future with the team, and could all help contenders-all 20 of them-reach the postseason. However, none would bring back high-upside talent. It's going to be a good time to be a seller, and Towers can take advantage of the game's parity to infuse his farm system with depth. Prospects Chase Headley and Matt Antonelli could be in the lineup together by the All-Star break; both are being stretched defensively-Headley in left field, Antonelli at second base-and a half-season trial in San Diego could go a long way towards determining whether they can play those positions. These moves will help make 2008 a successful year, even if the team's record doesn't reflect it.
It's the next level of moves that takes a bit more daring. The Padres have some established veterans whose actual value may not quite measure up to their perceived value, and who have the kinds of contracts that make them tradeable. Highest on this list is Chris Young. The big righthander led the NL in ERA for much of 2007 before succumbing to back problems. He's never been able to throw 180 innings, much less 200, and it's clear that some of his good statistics are the product of Petco Park. With his peripherals working their way backwards, it may be time to move him before he loses his ability to bring back much in trade.
Kevin Kouzmanoff is another player whose future should be somewhere else. Not only is he blocking a better player in Headley-in fact, forcing Headley to the outfield, where his bat and glove have much less value-but he's always been a poor fit for San Diego's park, and he has spent six weeks showing that his 2007 performance was at or near the top of his range. With four walks and 35 strikeouts in 199 PA, he's basically 80% of Russell Branyan. Kouzmanoff's raw power and ability to almost play third base could entice a team, especially if the Padres convince trading partners that his power will play better outside of Petco. Dealing him for a nearly-ready outfielder blocked in another system-Matt LaPorta, maybe?-would make the Pads better at two positions almost immediately.
Khalil Greene is 28 years old and appears to be a harder-to-spell version of Kevin Elster. That's someone you replace, not someone you build around. I'm the world's biggest Heath Bell fan, but even I recognize that he comes from a long line of relievers who dominate for 170 innings and then fade slowly away. These players are going to be past their peak in 2010, and therefore have more value as trade chits than anything else.
It's not easy to trade popular players. This is where Towers can turn a negative-San Diego's lack of support for the team-into a positive. The Pads' attendance has been in the middle of the pack in the NL, and while I acknowledge that they're averaging about 34,000 tickets sold a game over the past few years, the team's no-show rate, just eyeballing the games, looks very high. People aren't going to the games. With no rabid fan base to alienate, he can make moves that will likely be unpopular with the media and be perceived as "dumping," knowing there's not much at risk and much to be gained. The history of the Padres is that the city will come out to the park when the team is very good, and be perfectly content to ignore them when they're not. So building to a championship-caliber team has a direct effect on revenues.
And what about that starting pitcher, the face of the franchise? The Padres have $60 million invested in Jake Peavy's right arm beyond this season, a commitment that runs through 2012. Even if he's able to pitch, physically, the Padres have to weigh the value of him doing so for a team going nowhere versus the potential effect on his availability for those teams down the road. If there's even the smallest chance that innings in 2008 will cost innings in 2010 or 2011, it's worth it to shut Peavy down and let him either rest or have whatever surgery will bring him back to 100 percent. The 71st and 72nd wins this year won't mean a thing. The 91st and 92nd ones in 2010 will.