So, the Padres came up short, if only just, and the legacy of their big finish in 2009 just heralded a nice surprise and second-place irrelevance in 2010. That's the heartbreak of transient happiness for you, but with a roster stocked with plenty of passing fancies and the clock ticking on most of the club's big-name ballplayers, there are few one-day fixer-uppers more challenging than trying to sort out what to do with the Padres.

Making matters worse, not only is the club stuck in a division with three bigger spenders, it's apparently handicapped by a shallow-pocketed new ownership group. So, while any one of us can dream of the possibilities, there's the grim reality of a credit limit to confront, and a responsibility to the future to consider. And then there's that snaggy-nasty matter of needing to go out and get help at all four up-the-middle positions and find at least one more starting pitcher to shore up the rotation. Fix all that in a day? When the penalty of a mistake, at least for the purposes of the Hoyer Administration, is effectively forever? Well, ouch. Irresponsibility's so much easier.

The budget's especially rough if we start with the proposition that it is limited to something like $40 million, even if there aren't a ton of commitments for 2011, let alone beyond. We've got Adrian Gonzalez locked in for just one more year at $5.5 million, but then there are also the arbitration cases of Heath Bell (going up from $4 million), Ryan Ludwick (going up from $5.4 million), and additional cases with Mike Adams (already at $1 million), Scott Hairston ($2.45 million), and the first-ever spins for Tim Stauffer, Ed Mujica, Chase Headley (as a super-two), and Tony Gwynn Jr.

As far as the rotation's concerned, I suppose we can count our blessings that Jon Garland opted out and just saved us—Pad people du jour and more permanently—at least $300,000, and possibly more. The market is well aware that Garland is a guy who profited plenty from Petco Park, and with a SIERA that's almost a full run higher than his actual ERA (4.45 to 3.47), he may find the market isn't replete with teams falling over themselves to offer him $6.75 million for 2011, which is what he just turned down. Maybe he wants multi-year security for less per annum, but he's no longer our problem, any more than Kevin Correia is. The asset that helped make them briefly appear better than back-end rotation material is still here, though, so let's consider Petco the gift that keeps giving. With a strikeout-generating bullpen that limits opportunities to do damage all that much more, we have a second thing going for us to boot.

So let's start by knowing our non-tenders. Break out a razor and go entirely Hairston-less, saving $4.5 million from the 2010 team since you're skipping on Jerry Hairston Jr. too. Then tell Li'l Gwynn he can stick around if he re-signs now for a notch above the minimum, and worry more about how you break the news to his old man. (Wait, I'm only here for the day? Perfect, drop that bit of hand-holding into the “somebody else's problem” file.)

This still doesn't give us a lot to play with, though, even if we've got anywhere from 10 to 15 guys making around the minimum. We're still closer to having just $10 million to play with than $15 million, and $10 million is effectively nothing beyond three or four Garland-like lotto tickets. That's not much to work with, especially to afford a final spin at contention with the best of this lot. This makes it time to confront some hard truths, and accept that we have one year apiece on Bell and Ludwick, and just one more year to go with A-Gonz as well.

Which to me means that it's time to say “fun while it lasted” and throw in the towel as far as talking about an A-Gonz-driven team as a platform for future relevance. So the task I'm setting for myself is to see if I can still leverage these last individual player seasons into something better than Tom Werner's disgraceful teardown in the '90s. Let's treat this as the start of something, and a worthwhile investment for folks in San Diego, branding ourselves plucky, instead of plucked.

So, on to the tough choices. Rather than really play make-believe and waste John Boggs' time and offer his client, Mr. Gonzalez, something like Ryan Howard's initial three-year, $54 million extension, it's safe to assume he'll say no. Unfortunately, as a result of a shoulder surgery that figures to hamper Gonzalez into spring training, shopping him now probably isn't as likely to deliver the best possible result as I'd like. Even so, it's important not to deal for dealing's sake, and exploit the possession of Gonzalez for the best possible package. So let's ring up the Red Sox to see if Theo Epstein wants to talk. If Gonzalez is willing to agree to a multi-year deal with the Red Sox if a trade were to happen, let's leverage that unique negotiating opportunity and see if we can get Jacoby Ellsbury, Yamaico Navarro, one of Josh Reddick or Ryan Kalish, and one of Michael Bowden or Felix Doubront for our trouble.

If the Sox reject this sort of swap, then we're still a Pads club that needs a center fielder. So if I still have Gonzalez after talking to Theo, I'll turn around and ring Billy Beane in the East Bay, and see if he'll go for Ryan Ludwick for Rajai Davis straight up. It's just the one year of Ludwick (and the draft pick he'll probably turn into in 2012) in exchange for three seasons with the arb-eligible Davis, but in the meantime I will have added a decent filler for the team's needs in center field as well as leadoff man. On the other hand, if I don't have Gonzalez but do have Ellsbury and Kalish instead, then perhaps I'm shopping that one year of Ludwick for a first-base fix, especially if Kyle Blanks is slow to mend. So, let's see if Texas will part with Chris Davis and an arm, or the Reds will talk about Yonder Alonso and an arm, or the Royals about Kila Ka'aihue and… well, you get the point. In any of these kinds of exchanges I'd hope to get some Grade-C arm thrown in, but let's not get too strung out over which one. The organization needs depth as well as time and money.

Now sure, I'd rather have the Boston deal to start off with, but in that scenario I'm counting on the agreeability of two other parties beyond myself, and if it flops, I still have to make this day work. So, after dealing Ludwick, I'd still need to find a left fielder in the “no Boston deal” scenario, but at least there are better free-agent possibilities to pursue on that front. Heck, we could always bump Blanks back out to the pasture once he's healthy.

Next up, whether we got both the Gonzalez-to-Boston and any of the possible Ludwick deals done, or had to settle for just the latter, let's go crazy and shop Bell as well. As priorities go, though, dealing him is less necessary than leveraging A-Gonz's value for the biggest bounty possible, not least because there's a better market for free-agent relievers than premium power bats, so we may not get real value. And at this rate, Jed Hoyer could use some extra-pick joy in June 2012 once I've been told to empty my desk. Even so, let's see about doing our bit to prop up the balance of power in the AL East by ringing the Rays, because getting a starting pitcher is also on today's “to get” list, and they've got the kind we want: talented, and relatively inexpensive.

So call Andrew Friedman, and offer Bell for either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann. We probably won't get either, but if we get Niemann, pop some champagne at the late lunch you're treating the interns to. However, if Friedman comes back with a counter offer of James Shields, I won't reject what might seem like a repulsive counter offer outright—instead, I'll ask for Reid Brignac as the cost of doing that bit of business. Keep in mind, acquiring Shields won't save us any money, but because we're now under budget, we can afford to absorb cash (and risk) to acquire talent. And we do get some flexibility in this, because of Shields' waves of option seasons beyond 2011. He will cost $6.25 million to keep for one year, or $12.75 million if you hold onto him through 2012, or $21.25 million if he's retained through 2013. So we're talking about a $6-7 million starter with homer-happy tendencies, but hey, we play in Petco, and if he turns out adapting well to life away from the AL East in our big barn, maybe he'll live up to the “Big Game James” name. In such a scenario, putting Shields into a rotation that already has Mat Latos, Clay Richard, and two choices from among Wade LeBlanc, Cory Luebke, and Stauffer doesn't sound so terrible.

The key to the “Shields raised” variant, though, is the throw-in, which we're getting for giving Friedman some roster and payroll flexibility to do whatever he wants. If we're adding Brignac on top of getting Navarro in the Boston swap, then we have our double-play combo of the near future. If there's no Boston deal, no problem, we just got Brignac, and we're still holding onto Everth Cabrera. (Either way, let's also go get some middle-infield insurance by offering Felipe Lopez a guaranteed one-year contract and a shot at becoming our starting second baseman, in which case we'll probably have Brignac manning short and Cabrera and Navarro playing in Tucson.)

Which still leaves catching to be addressed to give us a full spread of up-the-middle help. For this, let's just add a little bit more of that Boston flavor and make Jason Varitek a two-year offer to be something of a player-coach, mentoring Nick Hundley while also coaching the youngsters on the pitching staff.

Where does this leave us? Well, there were a lot of balls in the air, so let's recap everything in terms of two major splits: deal Gonzalez to Boston, or not, and see what we've got.

Keep Gonzo
C Hundley Hundley
  Varitek Varitek
1B Gonzalez Alonso/Blanks
2B F-Lop F-Lop
3B Headley Headley
SS Brignac Brignac
CF Davis Kalish


Venable Venable
LF Blanks Ellsbury
MI Cabrera Navarro or Cabrera
OF Cunningham Cunningham/Blanks
S1 Latos Latos
S2 Shields Shields
S3 Richard Richard
S4 LeBlanc LeBlanc
S5 Luebke Luebke/Doubront
R1 Gregerson Gregerson
R2 Adams Adams
R3 Mujica Mujica
SW Stauffer Stauffer