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January 23, 2012

Western Front

Perpetually Rebuilding the Padres

by Geoff Young

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When Padres Vice Chairman & CEO Jeff Moorad recently tried to accelerate full transfer of ownership from John Moores to Moorad's group, the other MLB owners balked; Commissioner Bud Selig cited a need for “more clarity and technical information.” Moorad and his partners, who previously owned the Arizona Diamondbacks, purchased the Padres in February 2009. They were given “as long as five years to buy out the controlling interest” from Moores, who had owned the Padres since December 1994.

The two chief causes of this setback appear to be that:

  • Moorad intended to use money from a new (unfinished at this writing) television deal in completing the purchase, which Dodgers owner Frank McCourt tried last year with similarly poor results.
  • Moorad made a few enemies during his time as a player agent, chief among them White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, “one of baseball's most influential owners.” According to some sources, Reinsdorf may have made a suggestion or three to Selig.

The commissioner has denied the latter angle, saying, “This was about economics. This was not about personalities.”

Who knows what happens behind closed doors? What we do know is that Moorad's group still has two more years to complete its purchase of the Padres, and that turmoil and financial uncertainty are nothing new to the franchise.

* * *

Among the many delicious revelations in the forthcoming Baseball Prospectus 2012 is the fact that over the past six years, Todd Helton has provided roughly the same value for the Rockies as Maicer Izturis has for the Angels. Well, it's delicious for those of us not signing Helton's paycheck.

Last week in this space, we discussed Izturis' suspiciously similar teammate, Alberto Callaspo. That article was about the history of Angels third basemen, so Troy Glaus made an appearance. What you will also learn from BP 2012, if you didn't know it already, is that Glaus and Helton were drafted by the Padres out of high school but not signed due to a miserly ownership group. In 1994, Glaus was taken with the 37th pick overall out of nearby Carlsbad High School (alma mater of former big-leaguers Brady Anderson and Scott Karl, as well as skateboarder Tony Hawk and snowboarder Shaun White), but chose to attend UCLA. Two years earlier, Helton had been taken 55th overall (three slots ahead of current teammate Jason Giambi, seven slots ahead of current Padres executive A.J. Hinch), but opted for the University of Tennessee.

According to Buster Olney, then writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Padres offered Glaus $200,000 to $250,000, but received a counteroffer that then-GM Randy Smith called “substantially” higher. Interestingly, they gave first-round pick Dustin Hermanson (third overall) $960,000, a sharp increase from the $675,000 the Angels had doled out for the 1993 third overall pick, Brian Anderson. Scouting director Kevin Towers loved Glaus, whose mother had indicated that it could be tough to pry him away from a college scholarship, noting, “He would probably sign if he was drafted in the first round, possibly sign (if he was picked) in the second, probably not in the third.”

Helton arguably had more leverage than Glaus due to a strong desire to play college football. As Helton told the Union-Tribune's Barry Bloom shortly after the draft, “Right now, I'm still planning to play football until they at least make me an offer I can't refuse.” The Padres had forfeited their first-round pick to sign former Royals shortstop Kurt Stillwell (it sounds terrible until you realize that Kansas City blew that pick on Jim Pittsley. Actually, even then, it sounds terrible) and presumably could afford to pay a little more for Helton's services. But they reportedly offered $400,000, which wasn't enough to keep the young quarterback from leaving home in Knoxville.

Helton also expressed a desire to minimize his time in the minors (where his father, Jerry, had toiled for three years in the Twins organization), preferring to refine his skills in college. As he told the Knoxville News-Sentinel after being drafted, “I don't consider the minor leagues to be good. Your goal is not to stay in the minor leagues. It's to get to the majors as quickly as possible.”

Only three players drafted by the Padres in 1992 reached the big leagues: Helton, fourth-rounder Brett Laxton (who also didn't sign), and ninth-rounder Todd Erdos (who made 33 relief appearances for the club in 1997 and 2000). Yep, the entire draft netted them 43 1/3 innings of 6.23 ERA. Stillwell’s two-year, $3.5 million deal, combined with the failure to sign Helton, didn't earn GM Joe McIlvaine high marks. Although McIlvaine survived, he eventually grew weary of his budgetary constraints and resigned in June 1993. Randy Smith replaced him.

Two potential impact second-round picks had chosen college instead and became All-Stars (with Helton meriting eventual Hall of Fame discussion) for other teams. Tom Werner led the Padres’ ownership group at the time; he later became as much of a hero in Boston as he was a villain in San Diego, where he once conducted an infamous fire sale that led to the team being sued by its season ticket holders. The suit was dropped when the Padres offered refunds to those who desired them. Still, returning money to customers because you failed to deliver the promised product isn't a sustainable business strategy.

* * *

Before the fire sale, Werner did as much damage control as possible, but the words rang hollow when consistent actions did not follow. In spring training of 1993, he told the Union-Tribune:

We are not gutting the team. We have three superstars (Tony Gwynn, Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff) in our lineup that are comparable or stronger than any other lineup in the National League. You have to build around that.

Yet a few months later, Sheffield and McGriff were gone, replaced by Andres Berumen, Donnie Elliott, Jose Martinez, Vince Moore, Melvin Nieves, and young shortstop-turned-reliever Trevor Hoffman. Fortunately for Randy Smith and Padres fans, that last fellow turned out to be worth more than any baseball player has been in San Diego save Tony Gwynn.

Prior to the season opener in Pittsburgh, after McGriff publicly expressed concerns about the team's direction, Werner met with him, Gwynn, Andy Benes, and Bruce Hurst (another Fire Sale victim—though, as we will see in a moment, this one is still paying dividends) in an attempt to “clear the air.” Meanwhile, as Werner and his cohorts were dismantling the Padres, Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig sang his praises:

I think Tom Werner is being unfairly criticized in San Diego. In my 24 years in baseball, he's one of the two or three brightest and best young owners to come into the game. I think the people in San Diego owe him an enormous debt of gratitude because he's trying to save baseball for that city.

As we have come to learn in the years since, Selig is nothing if not appreciative of fiscal responsibility.

A day before the home opener, Werner himself ran a 1,200-word article in the Union-Tribune that managed to be both self-congratulatory and delusional in its praise of young “talent” such as Scott Sanders, Tim Worrell, Joey Hamilton, Luis Lopez, Ray McDavid, and Ricky Gutierrez. It also reinforced his earlier message of hope, which seems laughable now:

As we approach Opening Day at the stadium tomorrow, we've all read and heard the negative comments being made in the media about the Padres. It has been suggested that ownership is pursuing an outrageously perilous approach that will strip the Padres of every star player, and that we are more concerned about making a profit than building a contending franchise. As chairman of our club, I want you to know that those charges are simply ridiculous.

Ridiculous? Possibly. True? Absolutely. Bonus points for shooting the messenger.

In that same article, Werner noted that the Padres would keep ticket prices low, although evidently not low enough to coax as many as 17,000 folks to the ballpark each night, down 20 percent from 1992. For the first time since 1981, the Padres finished dead last in the National League in attendance, a position they would maintain in 1994 and yield to Pittsburgh a year later despite losing an additional 2,200 fans per game.

After drawing 46,192 at home on Opening Day (versus 51,280 a year earlier), the Padres drew a mere 11,493 in game two, down from 23,971 in their second home game of 1992. Granted, some of this is due to the fact that more people will drive down from Los Angeles to watch their Dodgers play than Pittsburghers will fly out to watch their Pirates, but it set an ominous tone for what was only going to get worse.

The Padres never topped their Opening Day crowd in 1993. The season before, they had exceeded that mark on four different occasions. At the other end, 12 times they drew fewer than 10,000, double their total in 1992. A week into the season, the Union-Tribune's Wayne Lockwood compared the “crowds” to those witnessed in 1971, when the likes of Enzo Hernandez and Don Mason adorned the lineup.

Lockwood also reminded readers of Werner's fateful words: “We are confident that the San Diego Padres will be competitive in 1993.” The team was 10 games out of first place by May 18, 20 ½ out five weeks later, 30 at the end of July, and 40 with a week and a half remaining, en route to a 61-101 campaign that saw them finish 43 games back of first place Atlanta and six games behind the expansion Rockies. Only the Mets, at 59-103, had a worse record.

Competitive? With what, their own past futility? Only four teams in Padres history have finished with a worse record than the 1993 squad, and one of those was the inaugural 1969 version that would have struggled against Triple-A teams. When Phil Clark and Wally Whitehurst rank among statistical leaders, that is a problem.

* * *

We cannot pin all of the franchise's issues on Werner and his group. The Padres were in trouble before they arrived, and have led a tenuous existence since their inception. After the 1973 season, everyone (including Topps Baseball Card company, which famously printed a set of cards that identified Padres players as playing for Washington “Nat'l League”) believed that owner C. Arnholt Smith's financial troubles would force him to sell the club to a group that intended to move it to the nation's capital and rename it the Stars.

This is the most famous example, but there have been other dark moments in Padres history as well. One such period occurred during the winter of 1986-1987, when the team—as I've chronicled in detail elsewhere—gave the appearance of actively pursuing free agent Tim Raines during the collusion era.

When owners later were found guilty of colluding against free agents, the Padres were singled out for their actions:

Raines tried to undersell his services to the Padres, who cut off talks after protracted negotiations. Raines sat out the spring and, when he realized he would be frozen out of the market, re-signed with Montreal and joined the club on May 1.

Raines himself lamented, in remarkably diplomatic fashion, the course of events that denied him the opportunity to play alongside Tony Gwynn:

I've known Tony now for three or four years and we've had a pretty good friendship. Just the chance for us to play together -- two up-and-coming players both on the same side -- would've have been attractive for both of us. It just happens that things didn't work out for me or him.

Raines proceeded to enjoy arguably his best season in the big leagues, while the Padres gave 949 plate appearances to outfielders Stan Jefferson, Shane Mack, and Marvell Wynne. That triumvirate provided slightly less value:

 

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

SB

WARP

Raines

627

.330

.429

.526

18

50

6.4

JMW

949

.237

.302

.347

14

49

-1.0

Not that Raines was likely to turn the Padres into contenders. They went 65-97 in 1987, and finished 25 games out of first place. Then again, as we have seen, things would get worse thanks to Werner.

* * *

Perversely enough, Werner, who now owns the Boston Red Sox, employs a first baseman named Adrian Gonzalez in no small part due to the talent purge in San Diego some 17 years earlier. A year after collusion and the Raines debacle, the Padres signed left-hander Bruce Hurst, who had been with the Red Sox. Hurst enjoyed five seasons in San Diego (he ranks among the top 10 in franchise history in pretty much every pitching category) before being traded to Colorado in 1993. The Hurst trade was the first in a series of moves that resulted in Gonzalez going to Boston and Andrew Cashner coming to the Padres (T-shirt idea: My First Baseman Went to Boston, and All I Got Was Some Guy Named Cashner):

Inspired by the good folks at MLB Trade Trees, here is a graphical representation of that progression:

Aside from the fact that Rizzo seems to be following Jed Hoyer to the ends of the earth, what stands out here is that at least two of these trades were financially motivated. The initial deal that set the pendulum in motion was clearly a salary dump, and on a pure talent level, the Padres gave up much more than they received in shipping Gonzalez back east. The trade that sent Ashby to Philadelphia also had financial ramifications, although the exchange of talent was less lopsided.

* * *

When Padres fans bemoan the club's failure to sign first-round pick Karsten Whitson in 2011, they do so not only because Whitson is a terrific young pitcher who would have benefited an organization in desperate need of controllable star-level talent, but also because of earlier wounds such as those inflicted by failures to sign Helton and Glaus. When San Diegans grouse about the losses of Jake Peavy, Adrian Gonzalez, Heath Bell, and Mat Latos, the fact that they are reminded of promises broken by previous regimes doesn't help.

Even though letting go is often the sensible course of action—particularly in the cases of Peavy and Bell—the memories of McGriff, Sheffield, and others being discarded nearly two decades earlier return. People who lived through those eras of deceit (no great tragedy in terms of actual well-being, mind you, but distressing to folks who love and want to take pride in their team) are understandably skeptical or even cynical, thinking, “Oh boy, here we go again.”

And so there we go again, each time spiraling downward until eventually returning to a better place, only to have it broken down later by other people for other reasons. The current regime, led by Moorad, President & COO Tom Garfinkel, and EVP/GM Josh Byrnes—who has been as aggressive in his brief tenure with the Padres as he was while working in that capacity for the Diamondbacks—faces the same challenges as its predecessors: Earn customer trust through consistent words and actions, build a product that people will buy, and give the citizens of San Diego a reason to be proud of its team.

For a franchise that has seen its share of missteps and is currently embroiled in financial intrigue (which may or may not be serious, but appearance is everything in the entertainment industry), earning customer trust is easier said than done. But hey, as Orlando Hudson once noted, if it were easy, you'd be doing it.

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