To this point in the 2015 season the Padres offseason extreme makeover has been a bit of an unmitigated disaster. It seems like every trade has blown up in the Padres, and more specifically, AJ Preller’s face. Not only has nearly every acquisition from the offseason underperformed or struggled through injuries, it seems like nearly every prospect and player given up in these offseason moves is now performing at a high level with their new ball clubs.
What this season has clearly shown is that it is nearly impossible to turn a team from almost completely mediocre to legitimate contender over one offseason. Preller is still less than one year into his tenure as the General Manager of the San Diego Padres and still deserves a shot at making that happen. Despite the disaster that has been the Padres 2015 season, AJ Preller can still save some face over the next few weeks. The trade deadline is growing near and AJ Preller can quickly transition from offseason buyer to midseason seller in order to set the Padres up for both offseason buying following this season and, more importantly, set the Padres up for better long-term success going forward. The Padres have talent to give and can attempt another quick rebuild to fix the flaws from the first try.
During the offseason, AJ Preller took a lot of risks to improve a historically awful Padres offense that consistently let down the Padres top of the line pitching staff and above average defense. Not many of these risks have paid off to this point and some have even had other unintended consequences. As a whole Preller’s high risk, high reward strategy has been met with little real reward.
First and foremost, Preller set off into the 2014-2015 offseason with his eyes firmly set on completely making over the terrible Padres outfield from 2014. The team had above average defense in the outfield but minimal offensive production. While Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Matt Kemp were all eyed for their offensive potential, there was some blatant disregard for their production, or really lack thereof, on the other side of the ball. While many outside of the organization knew the defensive qualifications of these three guys was questionable at best, especially with Myers slated as the center fielder for 2015, AJ Preller went ahead with this offense-centered overhaul anyway.
At the expense of defense the Padres were trying to build offense in not only their outfield, but all across the diamond as well. What they have gotten as a result of this miscalculation is a historically bad defense (UZR scores of -3.1 for Upton, -4.3 for Kemp, and a dismal -10 for Myers prior to his injury and subsequent surgery). On top of these expected defensive woes, the Padres have actually gotten poor production out of Matt Kemp (a .240 average for the season with only five home runs and a wRC+ of only 75 which is nearly 40 points off his career mark) as well as injury problems for Wil Myers who has missed 41 out of 76 games for the Padres. Justin Upton has pretty much played like he was expected to play but given his impending free agency he seems not long for a San Diego Padres uniform.
On top of the overall disaster in the outfield, Preller made some other questionable decisions across the diamond that have backfired to an extent. While Will Middlebrooks was acquired for nearly nothing (a perennial backup catcher in Ryan Hanigan) and has near the league minimum salary, he has somewhat proven that his performance over the last few years in Boston was no fluke and he may be no better than a bench bat or an occasional starter against left-handed pitching long-term. On top of that, aside from the career year so far for Yonder Alonso, the Padres have struggled to find consistency in the middle infield with Alexi Amarista and Clint Barmes splitting time at short and Cory Spangenberg and Jedd Gyorko splitting time at second with Yangervis Solarte getting periodic starts at third, second, and even first. The common theme for all these players has been performing at a near league average level all around.
Finally Preller traded away top of the line defensive catchers in Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera in order to acquire talent (mainly offensive upgrades in the outfield in Kemp and Myers) and eventually make room for an offensive upgrade at catcher in Derek Norris. Grandal was the main piece of the Kemp trade (and he has actually performed better offensively than Kemp by a long shot and has also been a little bit better than Norris) and Rivera was one of the many moving parts to the Wil Myers trade. What the Padres gave away in defense, such as pitch framing, stopping the running game, and overall defense, they did acquire in offense from Norris, although the catcher switch has seemed to adversely affect the pitching staff. Last year as a staff, with Grandal and Rivera as the main backstops and nearly the same pitching staff save the addition of James Shields, the Padres pitching staff had a team FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching- A stat that takes the fielding out of pitcher’s ERA) of 3.46 which was good for 3rd best in all of baseball. In comparison this year, with a similar pitching staff (arguably better with Shields) and Norris as the main backstop, the Padres pitching staff has a team FIP of 3.95 which is 16th, a number that has actually been much improved from earlier in the season.
The one trade that has worked out nearly perfectly is the acquisition of Brandon Maurer for an expendable fourth, or even fifth, outfielder in Seth Smith. Brandon Maurer has been the Padres best bullpen arm and has arguably been the most important pitcher of the whole staff. At only 24 years old Maurer has an ERA under 2.00, is 5-0, and has left nearly 80% of base runners on base. Of all the trades this is the one that has been a true home run for AJ Preller.
The common theme of all these trades, and really the common theme of the performance of the 2014 roster holdovers as well, is mediocrity. Rather than improving the product on the field many of these trades have actually eliminated one problem (mainly offense) at the expense of both defensive efficiency and consistency all around the diamond. By wRC+ the Padres are only slightly better offensively than last year’s end result (89 this year vs. 82 last year), by FIP the Padres staff has actually taken a bit of a step backwards (3.95 this year vs. 3.46 last year), and by UZR the Padres defense has completely fallen apart (-26.6 this year vs. 8.9 last year). Instead of actually improving the Padres as a team, many of the offseason acquisitions were merely band aids to cover up problems, while other acquisitions actually exacerbated previous problems and created new ones on top of that.
AJ Preller got his slightly improved offense, seemingly at the expense of both pitching and defense. This is clearly not a winning formula and it is well past time for both Preller and Padres ownership to recognize these mistakes and make a real attempt to fix them. As has been demonstrated by both anecdotal and concrete evidence, pitching and defense are a key in a championship team, and this failed experiment has nearly run its course. What Preller needs to do now is change direction and put the Padres in position to be a trade deadline seller in order to remedy some of these mistakes and by doing so improve both the defense (and hopefully by association the pitching) specifically and the overall team chemistry, cohesion, and consistency more broadly.
This process all starts with Preller and company accepting the team’s current position and admitting to themselves that given that position, selling is now the best option. The second rebuild in less than a year begins with trading Justin Upton. It is clear that Upton will be a highly coveted free agent come this offseason. It is even more clear that, realistically, the Padres really have no chance of affording this possibly exorbitant contract given the contracts of Melvin Upton, Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel, and James Shields.
Independent of the Padres not being able to afford a Justin Upton extension either now or in the offseason it makes sense for the Padres to get value out of Upton now given the decreasing likelihood of the team really making a deep playoff run (or really any playoff run) this season. In a season when parity is at an all time high, and definite sellers at quite a low, the Padres could get back much of the value back that they lost when they originally traded for Upton. If Upton is dealt the Padres should have no trouble either restocking their farm system with two or three impact talents at the minor league level or even possibly acquiring some major league or near major league ready talent to assist in a more immediate rebuild. There are plenty of teams in need of short-term offseason help with talent the Padres need for a quick rebuild.
Past the obvious trade option that is Justin Upton, the Padres have a few other interesting, and likely, trade options in impending free agents Joaquin Benoit and Ian Kennedy, and past that a few more interesting assets if they go into full rebuild mode. Benoit has been consistently good for the Padres this season and strong bullpen arms are seemingly always in high demand. Given this fact it could be a safe bet to trade Benoit for a prospect or two to help rebuild that depleted farm system. Along the same lines Ian Kennedy is also an obviously tradable piece, with starting pitching in need for several playoff contenders around the league. Kennedy’s performance has been down this year but he still should fetch a few decent prospects which would also help rebuild the farm. Another option is packaging one or more of these talents together to achieve a larger return.
Past these three most tradable assets, the Padres have quite a few other interesting options should they choose to go into full rebuild mode. Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Craig Kimbrel are all established players who are still young talents and could fetch quite a decent return. Past them the Padres could go even further into selling and attempt to sell large contracts such as a few of those players acquired in the offseason like Matt Kemp, Melvin Upton, and even James Shields. If the Padres get to this point at the trade deadline it would be obvious to all parties involved that Preller and the Padres have accepted their offseason failures and have gone into full rebuild mode going forward.
Ross, Shields, and Kimbrel could return quite a few strong prospects or major league talent, while Cashner, Upton, and Kemp are all at a bit of a low point in terms of their trade value, with large contracts holding down the value of both Upton and Kemp on top of that. Out of all these players considered under a full rebuild, Kimbrel is the most interesting option that could be flipped for more young talent. He has a large contract, is signed through the next few seasons, and is of no use to the Padres if they enter a rebuilding phase (especially given his at times shaky performance up to this point on the season). It would obviously be more difficult to trade the large contracts of Upton/Kemp given their declining performances and rising ages. With that being said the Padres could consider a similar package deal to the one they got when they first acquired Kimbrel. Attaching Kimbrel with a player like Melvin Upton or Matt Kemp would diminish his value but could save the Padres a good amount of money going forward.
At this point it seems that AJ Preller and the Padres front office can still save some face if they choose to not only shop their most tradable assets in impending free agents Upton, Benoit, and Kennedy but also shop some more unlikely options such as Ross, Cashner, Kimbrel, Upton, Kemp, and even Shields. If Preller and the Padres can pull off a trade deadline fire sale they can put themselves in a good position to be a offseason buyers and once again place themselves right back into a contending position next season.
The Padres have built themselves a strong, young core of players in Derek Norris, Wil Myers, Yonder Alonso, Tyson Ross, Brandon Maurer, Austin Hedges, and other strong prospects such as Hunter Renfroe, Rymer Liriano, Travis Janikowski, Colin Rea, among other talents who are nearly ready for the Major Leagues. With this talent the Padres can put themselves in position to compete again sooner rather than later with another quick rebuild. It is clear that the Padres offseason experiment has failed. Despite this, it somehow seems unlikely that Preller and the new Padres ownership will admit failure so soon and put the Padres fan base through another fire sale. With that being said, the sooner AJ Preller and company realize this failure, accept it, and move on, the sooner they can put the team in a position to win not only next year but going forward into the next three or four years.