In a recent article at Grantland, Jonah Keri profiled a number of potential breakout candidates for the 2014 season, highlighting Padres hurler Andrew Cashner. He also, in that same piece, mentioned fellow Padres Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso as potential breakout players.
For fans of most teams, this would be something to celebrate. For the angst-filled Padres fan, however, news of soon-to-be stars is only a warning sign of impending doom. After all, we can’t have nice things in San Diego, at least not for too long, and Cashner or Gyorko or Alonso establishing themselves as bona fide first-division players is the quickest way to price themselves out of Padres-land.
Maybe that’s a bit too pessimistic, as the Padres have at least attempted to lock up some young players in the recent past, like Cameron Maybin, Cory Luebke, and Nick Hundley. As we discussed last week though, Chase Headley is poised to leave after the 2014 season because the Padres, amidst a cluster of front office shakeups, never found time to extend their franchise third basemen. And other recent standouts like Jake Peavy and Adrian Gonzalez have been shipped out of town before hitting major-league pay dirt.
It’s easy, however, to watch contract snafus develop from the comfort of our computer screen and pen scathing pieces when everything finally falls apart. It’s easy now, for example, to say, “Sheesh Padres, if you would have signed Headley to a long-term deal four years ago — when he would have been relatively cheap — we wouldn’t be in this situation right now.” It’s also easy to forget that four years ago, Headley hardly looked like a prime extension candidate, coming off a season in which he barely cracked the .700 OPS barrier and had all the makings of a — at best — league-average third basemen.
Headley upped his offensive game in 2011, posting then-career highs in on-base percentage (.374) and OPS+ (120), while the Padres still failed to ante up. After his age-28 monster year in 2012, it was too late. The point being: Headley wasn’t always the most attractive player, and occasionally we lose touch of just how academic baseball decisions (or non-decisions) might seem because we fail to recognize our inherent benefit of hindsight.
Rather than wait, let’s discuss some of the most promising Padres right now. Would we, right now, sign them to long-term deals (and, if so, how much) if we were handed the keys to the Padres organization?
Jedd Gyorko’s best position is probably “hitter,” but he’s successfully transitioned from shortstop in college to third base in the minor leagues to second base in the majors. While defense will likely never be one of Gyorko’s trademarks, he rated anywhere from a couple of runs below to a couple of runs above average last year depending on your defensive metric of choice. Further, Gyorko’s ability to switch back over to third base might provide the Padres with some added flexibility down the road.
Let’s face it though, Gyorko’s value is tied up in his bat. He burst onto the scene with a 23 home run, 113 OPS+ rookie campaign in 2013. Gyorko doesn’t need to improve any to become a valuable player – he rated anywhere from 1.6 to 2.5 WAR last year, and most projection systems are calling for a slight uptick in production in 2014, thanks mostly to an increase in games played. Any significant upgrades in contact ability or patience from Gyorko would instantly vault him into the upper echelon of National League middle infielders, but even with natural progression he might reach that status soon enough.
The Contract: Seven years, $50 million
The justification: Like Andrelton Simmons’ recent deal, this hypothetical contract would buy out all of Gyorko’s remaining arbitration-eligible years along with his first two free agent years, locking up the second basemen through his age-31 season. It might sound like a lot of money to guarantee to a player with just one year of service time, but it’s also the in-vogue small-market method of keeping young stars around for longer than six years, and $7 million annually is bargain-basement level spending in today’s market. The Padres absorb some risk here, but there’s plenty of reward to be had.
Among first basemen with at least 600 plate appearances over the last two seasons, Yonder Alonso’s ISO of .108 ranks him 38th out of 41, ahead of only Carlos Lee, Jordan Pacheco, and Greg Dobbs. Alonso’s punch-and-judy offensive game isn’t an accident, either, as he’s posted the fifth-highest groundball-to-fly ball ratio among that same group of first basemen.
Alonso’s line drive swing isn’t likely to ever produce a surplus of home runs (though a fully healthy wrist/hand might help some), putting him squarely into the always small group of contact-oriented first basemen. The problem for the Alonsos of the world is that those power-first sluggers are often fully capable of getting on base at a high rate themselves, making it nearly impossible for the contact guys to cut significantly into the offensive gap.
The Contract: Pass
The justification: Without any redeemable defensive or base running value, Alonso just isn’t good enough with the bat to warrant a significant long-term pact. Sure, there’s a chance he could breakout next season, just like there’s a chance anybody could breakout next season. It’s safer to rely on Alonso’s major-league track record to project the future than attempt to wishcast him into a slugger or a .300 hitter.
Cashner’s oft-cited 94.5 mile-per-hour fastball velocity last year ranked him sixth among all qualified starters, according to FanGraphs. The top three – Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, and Jose Fernandez – all posted strikeout percentages near the top of the league while Cashner came in at a more pedestrian 17.8 percent, behind soft-tossers like Ryan Dempster and Kris Medlen. Fastball velocity doesn’t perfectly correlate with strikeout rates, of course, but there at least appears to be some upside here.
There’s also a lot of optimism about Cashner’s second half last year, in which he posted a 2.14 ERA in 11 starts and improved his peripherals. Still, it’s just 11 starts.
The Contract: Pass
The Justification: Cashner was really good in 2013, and he has a chance to be even better in 2014. He also has a chance to be injured, ineffective, or some combination of both, which is something that can be said about every pitcher ever. While Cashner was able to stay healthy last year, save for a well-timed offseason hunting accident, he still possesses an ugly injury track record – missing time in both 2011 and 2012 with shoulder issues — and overall durability concerns. And, as it turns out, “the biggest risk factor for injury is previous injury.”
Cashner will have two arbitration-eligible seasons remaining after this season, and if he’s able to build on last year’s workload and put the injuries further in the rearview mirror, there’s still time for an extension next offseason (albeit at a higher cost).
The Padres starting shortstop has had a roller coaster career – he was plucked from the division rival Colorado Rockies in the Rule 5 draft and made the unheard of leap from Single-A ball to the majors in 2009, fell out of favor after two injury-plagued/ineffective seasons, then reestablished himself as a potential stalwart at short over the past two years. And then last year, in the midst of his finest season to date, Cabrera was hit with a 50-game, Biogenesis-related, season-ending PED suspension in early August.
When he’s not injured or suspended, Cabrera’s provided enough flashes of brilliance in his relatively young career to make the early Rafael Furcal comparisons still reachable. Cabrera’s defense has steadily improved, as he made less errors over the past two seasons than he did in 2009 alone, and he’s moved his zone-based fielding ratings closer to league average. He’s a major threat on the base paths, too, swiping an average of 49 bags per 162 games played.
Whether Cabrera can approach the game’s truly elite shortstops will depend on his bat, and he made some positive strides in that department last year. He cut his strikeout percentage down from 24.5 percent to 15.9 percent, and per FanGraphs, increased his contact percentage from 79.9 to 86.5 percent from 2012 to 2013. (That 86.5 percent figure would have put Cabrera in a tie for 30th among qualified hitters last year, while his 79.9 percent mark in 2012 would have placed him 82nd overall).
That increase in contact helped Cabrera bump his batting average up nearly .40 points from 2012 to ’13, despite posting nearly identical BABIPs in both years. While he may never develop the 15-home-run/50 extra-base-hit-power of Furcal, if Cabrera continues to round out his exciting all-around skill-set he’ll provide plenty of value without the power.
The Contract: Five years, $45 million
The Justification: There are still some question marks surrounding all aspects of Cabrera’s game, from his health, to his performance, to the PED suspension. But he does enough positive things on the field to make this kind of commitment a fairly low-risk move, and the Padres have had difficulty finding productive shortstops since the Khalil Greene era. Further, like most organizations, the Padres aren’t loaded up on major-league ready shortstops in the farm system, though Jace Peterson could have something to say about that soon enough. This deal buys out Cabrera’s three remaining arb-eligible years (including 2014) plus his first two years of free agency.
The Padres don’t have to break the bank to continue the sound process of retaining their young core through a series of club-friendly contracts. They do, however, have to be careful to not be too patient in getting these deals inked. As we’ve seen with Chase Headley, waiting too long can often make once reasonable contract figures skyrocket as players get closer to the always lucrative free agent marketplace. While the Padres don’t quite have the talented core of the extension-happy Atlanta Braves, as Geoff Young mentioned yesterday on Effectively Wild, they still have plenty of worthy candidates to choose from right now along with a number of promising prospects — *cough*Austin Hedges*cough* — on the way. Extend away Padres, and if some of our proposed deals (or non-deals) don’t work out, we can share a helping of egg on face.