When the Padres signed James Shields toward the end of A.J. Preller’s “rockstar GM” phase, I noted that they were putting the future on hold. The Shields acquisition, at the time, represented yet another bet on that team, on the present, on winning. That team’s still together, somewhat, but they’re still mostly failing and they’re starting to come unglued.
Shields is in Chicago now, sent away with money in a deal that returned Erik Johnson, a fringy 26-year-old right hander, and Fernando Tatis Jr., a Dominican shortstop who was not yet four months old when this happened. The timing for the deal is somewhat odd—it came just four days after Shields surrendered 10 runs in Seattle, bumping his ERA up over a full run, and three days after Ron Fowler’s radio rant, in which he specifically called Shields “embarrassing.” So much for dealing players at peak value.
Ignoring some potential trade value lost from one really bad start and a public tear-down by the team’s executive chairman—and the too-obvious irony of Fowler calling somebody else embarrassing—and maybe this was just what the Padres needed to kickstart a rebuilding process that seems plainly obvious from the outside. The Plan didn’t work, in part because it probably wasn’t a very good plan and in part because baseball’s baseball. We all kind of stink at predicting it, even the executives and general managers and scouts and analysts who are paid real money—sometimes real good money—to chronically obsess over it, study it, and put their jobs on the line for it. Players get hurt and players under-perform and other teams do smart things and randomness is always sitting in the corner, ominously waiting to pounce when things are finally going well. Oh, yeah, and sometimes non-baseball ops people get involved in baseball decisions.
This isn’t an excuse for the Padres, of course, a team that sometimes makes sooooo many bad decisions, both on and away from the field, that we’re left wondering whether they’re in cahoots with Netflix on some type of Major League reality TV reboot. Ultimately, though, we’ve got to put that behind us and try to evaluate the situation presented to us. And for the first time since Preller’s been on board the Padres took a step back, self-evaluated, and admitted that what they’re putting on the field ain’t working. This is a good thing, and it’ll be even better if the Padres truly buy into a rebuild, publicly admit it, and then execute it.
Ohh, the trade.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about this deal is the money involved. The Padres are picking up $31 million of what’s left on Shields’ contract, although there’s a good chance Shields opts out of his deal after this season, cutting that figure down significantly. Of course, by sending $22 million to Chicago for 2017 and 2018, the Padres have created a situation where the White Sox, barring an injury or further decline in performance, desperately want Shields to forego his opt-out. As David Marver notes at Gwynntelligence, there’s a possibility that the White Sox tack on an extension in an effort to entice Shields to stick around, in which case the Padres—the Padres—would be paying $11 million a year for Shields to pitch for a team that’s 2,000 miles away.
If Shields does opt out, though, then this is really about Johnson and Tatis Jr. vs. an extra draft pick in 2017. There’s a whole analysis that can be written there—read Marver for more—but let’s just focus on one aspect . . . a positive one. By dealing Shields now, the Padres get Tatis Jr. (and Johnson, but Tatis is the focus here) into their organization a year earlier than the 2017 draft pick would arrive. Tatis, who still hasn’t played a game professionally, will have a good eight months of game-playing in the Padres organization before next year’s draft even starts. That’s a major plus for this trade, particularly if we trust Preller’s international chops and the new regime’s player development program. And let’s face it, if we don’t trust those two things, we’re screwed.
And while Tatis wasn’t rated particularly highly, either in the White Sox’s system or in last year’s international class, the dude’s 17 and still hasn’t played a professional game. Plus, the most recent reports are positive, most notably this one from FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, which notes that Tatis has made significant physical progress, is making better contact at the plate, and now has a chance to stick at short. That’s the thing with super young baseball players—they improve and decline and change in a hurry, so evaluations from a year or even six months ago are quickly rendered obsolete.
Good deal or bad deal? Who knows. Hopefully, sparked by Shields’ Vedder Cup massacre and Fowler’s equally appalling encore, the Padres are ready to embrace the future again. It’s an all-too-familiar position, waiting for something down the road, but if the Padres get it right (for a change) there’s still enough time to put together a winner before the end of the decade.