LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida—The Padres have run the white flag up the pole at various points in their history, trading away a top player for prospects as a means to cut the payroll and restock the farm system. In fact, it has been nearly as much a tradition in San Diego as Jerry Coleman malapropos and Tony Gwynn grounding singles into the 5.5 hole.
However, this time seemingly should hurt more than the others. The Padres are coming off a season where they were one baseball's biggest surprises, winning 90 games before being eliminated from the National League West and wild-card races with a loss to the Giants at San Francisco on the last day of the regular season.
Yet on the brink of seemingly breaking through in 2011 and getting to the postseason for the first time since 2006, the Padres officially went into retrench mode Monday when their trade of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox for four prospects (right-hander Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, center fielder Reymond Fuentes, and a PTBNL) became official at the first day of the Winter Meetings at the Dolphin Hotel in Walt Disney World, where the prices are very high.
Gonzalez was seemingly the perfect Padre: a local guy, friendly, accessible, and bilingual. He was also about as valuable to his lineup as any hitter could be, as his team-leading 59.3 VORP was more than three times greater than any of his teammates; Chase Headley was second at 17.4.
However, A-Gonz is now A-Gone. The Padres did not want to risk losing him as a free agent at the end of next season, and suddenly the story of the little team that could seems much further in the rearview mirror than objects would normally appear. Catcher Yorvit Torrealba and shortstop Miguel Tejada have left as free agents, second baseman David Eckstein is a free agent and unlikely to return, and outfielders Scott Hairston and TonyGwynn Jr. were non-tendered last week.
Yet general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Bud Black were surprisingly upbeat for a pair of guys who had just sent away their superstar. Part of that comes from being professionals, but part of it also comes from them believing that they have a strong organization. Hoyer, after just one season on the job, understands he has to take the longer-term view while running a franchise playing in one of the major league's smaller markets.
"We obviously had a great season last year, and I think that the word last year was improbable," Hoyer said. "Our thoughts going forward is what I want to do really is build a team that has a probable chance every year of being very good. I think the way to do that in a lower-payroll environment is to have a wave of young players coming up through the system. Our farm system has a lot of very good talent at the lower levels, but at the upper levels we're fairly thin right now. We need to create a wave of young talent coming up so that we can be a probable favorite to go to the postseason as opposed to making probable runs at it."
The general feeling around baseball at the end of 2010 was that the Padres would hold on to Gonzalez and make one more run at the postseason next year. However, when Hoyer talked with Gonzalez's agent, JohnBoggs, at the beginning of the offseason, he knew the Padres had no chance of keeping Gonzalez beyond 2011 and decided to put him on the trade market.
"I think we're going to be able to go out this offseason now that we've made this decision early, and we'll be able to sign some free agents and make some moves," Hoyer said. "By no means are we giving up on 2011. We're going to find a good first baseman. We'll fill some other holes, but we felt like this is the right move for the long-term health of the franchise."
Black was left with little time to bask in winning the NL Manager of the Year award. However, he has decided to look at what the Padres have instead of what they've lost, pointing to the trade with the Marlins for center fielder Cameron Maybin and Monday's signing of right-hander Aaron Harang as a free agent to add a veteran to the starting rotation.
"Every club has unique challenges and decisions are based on those challenges," Black said. "My responsibility is to do the best we can to win games and prepare those players to play. Trades happen in this game. Players move. New faces come in. We feel as though we are going to again have some talent in our group. We are going to come to play. We'll be all right. I suspect we'll have 25 guys ready to play on Opening Day."
Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail is an old-school baseball man at heart as a third-generation executive. So while MacPhail might not be totally on board with the idea that strikeout-prone hitters don't necessarily kill an offense, he does realize that Ks are more a part of the game than ever before.
Thus, MacPhail did not shy away from acquiring third baseman Mark Reynolds, the veritable wizard of whiffs, on Monday in a trade for right-handers David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio. Reynolds has led the NL in strikeouts in each of the last three seasons, averaging 213 a year and setting the major-league record with 223 in 2009. Reynolds has also averaged 35 homers in that span and posted True Averages of .265, .294, and .267.
"If you look at the richest contracts signed this season by free agents, there are still by players over 150 strikeouts, so they are part of the game," MacPhail said. "Sometimes that's the trade-off you make for other aspects of the game. We understand the player we are getting. We don't magically think that the strikeouts are fog to be halved because he puts on the black and orange, but clearly the productivity that he brings to you is, in our view, worth a lot.
The Orioles' biggest priority coming into the offseason was to boost the offense, as they were 13th in the American League and 27th in the majors last season with an average of 3.78 runs per game. The Orioles will keep looking for another bat and are supposedly making a big push to sign free-agent first baseman Carlos Pena.
"This trade obviously decreases the need for offense but we don't have a corner on the offense for the American League East," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "There is evidence where (Reynolds) would have ranked for us offensively (last season). I don't know if that is a reflection on him or a reflection on what we have had. We'll find out. We will see what the rest of the offseason brings for us."
The Brewers have had back-to-back losing seasons since winning the NL wild card in 2008 and making their first post-season appearance in 26 years.
Yet while the Brewers would seem to be trending downward, especially with slugging first baseman Prince Fielder due to become a free agent at the end of next season, general manager Doug Melvin says he is not ready to go into rebuilding mode. Melvin backed it up Monday by completing a trade with the Blue Jays in which he acquired right-hander Shaun Marcum for second-base prospect Brett Lawrie, their first-round draft pick in 2008.
"It's always hard to trade your top draft picks," Melvin said. "But we want to stay competitive and we owe it to our fans, the 2.8 million-3 million who have come to Miller Park every season for the last few years, to try to be competitive and get back to the postseason."
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays haven't been to the postseason since 1993 and play in the AL East with financial heavyweights in the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, who have won the division title two of the last three seasons. The Blue Jays went a surprising 85-77 last season, but GM Alex Anthopoulos says he still must take a long-term view when making trade, which is why he gave up an established starter for a prospect.
"For us, it's not about one yea; it's about building a sustainable winner and truly that's because of the upside of our marketing across Canada and our ownership," Anthopoulos said. "The upside of the ceiling, if we build it correctly, is we should be able to build a sustainable winner for the long term. It will take a patient approach and it will take some gambling a little bit on prospects and players like Brett Lawrie who have high ceilings but haven't done it yet."
It was a bit of an upset that former Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners, and Phillies general manager Pat Gillick was the one person elected to the Hall of Fame on the Expansion Era ballot. Former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was viewed as a shoo-in by some observers, and there was a feeling original Major League Baseball Player Association executive director Marvin Miller might finally gain election.
Gillick was extremely gracious throughout his press conference, as he continually gave credit to others in the organizations in which he worked. He also admitted that he was overwhelmed to come out as the lone electee in such illustrious company.
"I'm a very emotional guy, but I was just very honored, very excited," Gillick said. "It really recognizes a lot of people that don't get recognized all the time. The guys in scouting, the player development people are very important, and I just feel like that I represent them, and that's the way I feel about it. So I'm thrilled for them, too. Because for overall, there's great guys that love the game and put their heart and soul into this game."