Giving away the farm for ill-fated runs

In a Saturday morning article, Time for the Padres to get bold, the U-T San Diego’s Matt Calkins advocated surrendering the farm system’s pitching depth for an impact bat. Calkins’ suggestions centered around the addition of either Giancarlo Stanton or Mark Trumbo, “the Angel with a lifetime OPS of .768 over four seasons.”

These players have been mentioned before during this off-season and rather than rehashing the pros and cons of adding their bats right now I would rather focus on Calkins’ idea about how the Padres should compete with today’s behemoths of the game:

The Padres aren’t anywhere close to a team like the Dodgers, Red Sox, or Yankees, who can bulldoze their way to the postseason with sheer force. They, however are one that can pirouette their way in with some good fortune and a critical extra piece.

Now’s the time to get that piece. Now’s the time for the index finger to stop wagging “no” and instead pull the trigger.

This is an interesting approach and it begs the question: When is the right time for a team like the Padres (i.e. limited resources and less margin for error) to push all in and go for it?

I wish Calkins’ article had included mention of the last time the Padres chose to deal a prospect for a missing piece of the puzzle. To do so would have been to turn the clock waaaaay back.

Turning the clock waaaaay back – Now!

On December 15th, 1997 the Padres sent prized prospect Derrek Lee (chosen 1:14 in the 1993 amateur draft) along with Steve Hoff, and Rafael Medina to the Florida Marlins for no-shit-number-one-ace Kevin Brown.

Kevin Brown had been an integral component of the 1997 championship in Florida and had accrued 15.0 WAR during his two seasons in south Florida. But the Marlins were dismantling their team and Brown made perfect sense to trade based on his around-the-corner status as a free agent.

Meanwhile in San Diego the Padres assessed themselves and determined that they were close to contending again – perhaps one player away.

The Padres had gone to the playoffs in 1996 but then sputtered to a 73-89 record in ’97. What made the Padres think that adding one pitcher could help push them over the hump in 1998?

Well, they had the defending batting champ (Tony Gwynn), the defending gold glove winner at 3rd base and 1996 MVP (Ken Caminiti) and a gold glover in center field (Steve Finley), not to mention a strong cast of contributors, a solid bullpen and a pitching staff whose top three hurlers (Andy Ashby, Joey Hamilton, and Sterling Hitchcock) were a collective 5.8 wins above replacement.

The Padres pulled the trigger on the deal and added Kevin Brown for what would likely only be a one season rental. For his part, Brown posted the best season (8.6 WAR) of his career in 1998. With the addition of Brown the Padres made it to the World Series and ultimately got a new ballpark out of the deal. Dealing a prospect like Derrek Lee turned out to be pretty wise.

Back to the future

It is no longer 1998. There is a massive gulf in payroll disparity in today’s MLB, which brings us back to the 2014 Padres: Are they that close to making a serious run that emptying the farm system of its pitching depth would be wise at this moment?

If we examine the Padres farm system we see serious pitching depth in the lower minors as well as a premier defensive catcher that industry experts cannot stop gushing about, in young Austin Hedges. To deal away the system’s depth in pitching would be to nullify one aspect of the defensive wizard’s skill-set – managing a staff of young pitchers – which he has done very well since he fell to the Padres in the 2nd round of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft.

If the Padres had the 2010 versions of Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson (as Calkins alludes to) I would say deal away – but the Padres cannot post such a claim about their current rotation. It is not 2010. Nor is it 1998 when it took just one prospect to pry away an expensive pitcher ($4.5M), on the verge of free-agency. A player like Mike Giancarlo Stanton is cheap ($537K) and under contract through 2017. To acquire such a bat it would take pitching prospects: plural.

It is true that the Padres face a huge challenge in competing with teams like the Dodgers and Giants. Those teams are in the enviable position of being able to throw money at problems but more importantly their pockets are so deep they can see their decisions fail miserably and still survive such maladies. The Padres do not have that luxury.

The Padres cannot pirouette past teams like the Dodgers but instead must build something strong from within so they can become bulldozers themselves (for a brief 5 year window if fans are lucky). Then with true all-around strength in the farm system they can pull the trigger on a deal if they are “a critical extra piece” away from making a run.

Unfortunately, the Padres are more than a critical piece away right now and to deal away the strength of the organization for an outside chance in 2014 would be the equivalent of plowing under the fields of your farm to build a baseball field because a mysterious voice told you to do so despite the fact that your ginger haired brother-in-law is in cahoots with the bank that holds the deed to said farm. Seriously . . . how well did that work out for Ray Kinsella.

***

I contribute to Padres Public on Thursday mornings and when I’m feeling particularly outraged by the location of statues around Petco Park. I can also be found on twitter at @AvengingJM. The dusty archives of AJM are located at avengingjm.blogspot.com

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  • Ochinko

    Astute analysis. Padre’s fans must learn to take pride in doing things differently from nearly everyone else. And that will mean logic and patience must be at the core of the ethos. Here’s a tip: 17 of 25 players on the St. Louis postseason roster were drafted by the team. San Diego’s investment in scouting has already paid dividends (Gyorko) and should continue as long as it remains a priority––something that Moores/Towers saw as superfluous. Hold firm, boys.

  • Sac Bunt Melvin

    I think of the Bay/Perez for Giles trade as the last Padres “big push” move from the Padres, which seems to be generally frowned on by Padres fans but really wasn’t that bad of a deal. Brian Giles was crazy underrated in San Diego, and his re-signing might have pushed the trade in the Padres’ favor. Giles put up 18.8 total WAR in blue and sand, while Bay had only 3 above average seasons *ever* and was worth 20.3 WAR in his entire career. Oliver Perez had a similar story, his great year in PIttsburgh following the trade overshadowed mediocrity the rest of his career, at least to Padres fans.

    Of course from a $/WAR perspective things learn back in favor of PIttsburgh, as the Padres could have played Jason Bay and spent GIles’ money somewhere else.

    • Fans were bent over that trade when Giles failed to hit with the same power he did in Pittsburgh – were they annoyed at the time of the trade though? My recollection is no.

      • Sac Bunt Melvin

        At the time of the trade I don’t remember either, but fans almost never object to prospect-for-star-player deals anyway. At least until way after the fact.

      • With so much more prospect information available to fans today coupled with the fact that it’s essential (cheaper) for smaller market teams to develop and retain homegrown players I think knowledgeable fans would pitch a fit over a shortsighted trade today.

  • Geoff Hancock

    This also works in reverse. When to NOT make a move because you are making a push. Most recently I can think of hanging onto Adrian Gonzalez to chase down the NL West, thus clearly devaluing what the Padres could get in return (as everyone knew full well he would be traded). I think that was the right call, despite the Padres missing the playoffs. But that decision was made in July when you have some sense of where your team is at.

    Are the Padres one player away? No, I don’t think so. Close-ish, perhaps. Right breaks etc etc and they could contend. But Stanton or Trumbo are unlikely to when the Padres the West this or any other year. A strong pitching rotation will though.

    • Right. And it’s November. If the 2014 Padres look strong in June then think of dealing from depth. As of right now Byrnes would be putting way too much faith in the Cashner/Johnson/Kennedy/Ross basket. There’s too much uncertainty surrounding that cast of characters right now.

      • Geoff Hancock

        Totally agree. If some stability emerges from the 2014 season however, then maybe think about trading from their strength. Or, as you said, reassess in June. If you are truly “1 piece away” then the team as assembled should be competitive for at least a few months.

  • ballybunion

    When the strength of the team is pitching, and the only way to compete with moneybags teams like LA is through pitching and defense, the time to trade young pitching is NEVER. Although I think the 2014 Padres are a lot closer to contention than the “experts” (76-86 with an imploded rotation in 2012 and with seven of the eight regulars missing major time with injury/suspension in 2013 is incredible), selling the future for the present is the old way of doing it, and has as many failures as successes. The successes are short term, but the failures can undo years of prudent moves.