Making Sense of the Madness

If there’s one thing that’s clear after the latest flurry of Padres moves, it’s that my dream scenario of Nori Aoki patrolling right field in 2015 isn’t going to happen. The consolation prize — a likely outfield of Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton — is probably one we can live with.

We’ve already covered the Kemp and Myers trades (here and here), so, before we conclude with some thoughts on what might come next, let’s jump right in to a bevy of missed transactions.

Padres acquire OF Justin Upton and RHP Aaron Northcraft from Atlanta Braves for LHP Max Fried, 2B/SS Jace Peterson, 3B Dustin Peterson, and OF Mallex Smith

Out of the three blockbuster trades pulled off by AJ Preller over the past week or so, this is the one that really screams win-now. Both Kemp and Myers will be around for five years — or at least until they’re dealt — but Upton’s contract expires after the 2015 season, where he’ll make $14.5 million. Though the Padres will have a lengthy, exclusive period to work on a potential extension with the 27-year-old outfielder, it’s likely that he’ll test the free agent market after the season. Even as a one year rental, there are reasons to like the move:

  • He’s good — We’re covering too many moves to go deep into the stats on every player, but Upton’s obviously a very solid get. Maybe there’s a little more name value here than actual value, but he’s posted a wRC+ of 128-plus in three out of the last four years, he hasn’t touched the disabled list since 2009, and he possesses the always coveted Right-Handed Power tool.
  • He’s entering his age-27 season in a contract year — Neither of those factors mean that Upton is poised for a huge breakout, but there’s arguably no better time to acquire a player for one year than during his prime a year prior to hitting free agency. Without getting into batted ball profiles or swing tendencies, Upton seems like as good a bet as any to outperform his baseline projections next year.
  • The draft pick — If the Padres fail to extend Upton, they will be able to offer him a qualifying offer (a figure north of $15 million) next offseason, netting them a compensation draft pick. Picking up one year of Upton and an early-ish 2016 draft pick is one way to hedge against putting too many eggs in the 2015 basket, giving both an additional pick and added financial flexibility in the 2016 draft for Preller and company to rebuild a (somewhat) depleted farm system.

Upton’s a solid defender, by UZR, DRS and Baseball Prospectus‘ fielding metric, although all three suggest that he’s been slowly trending toward league average or a notch below in recent years (the Fans Scouting Report agrees). Further, his arm has rated below average by both UZR’s ad DRS’ arm ratings in every year since 2009.

Upton alone isn’t cause for defensive concern in the outfield, but surrounding him with Kemp and a stretched-in-center Myers brings into focus how much (or how little) the current front office values outfield defense, especially as they’ve also traded two speedy, defense-minded center field prospects in Reymond Fuentes and Mallex Smith as part of the roster overhaul. It’s more likely that the front office is simply sacrificing outfield defense to improve a woeful offense, perhaps hoping the mysterious run-depressing ways of Petco Park will help mask the defensive deficiencies. And don’t forget that Cameron Maybin‘s still on the roster (as of this writing). Despite what was said during the Kemp presser, there’s always a shot that Kemp or Myers shift to the infield, reopening center field for Maybin until he inevitably hits the DL.

If there’s another trend this trade highlights, it’s that Preller isn’t afraid to deal inherited prospects, and there’s something to be said for that. At times, front offices become overly attached to their own farm system, perhaps out of emotional sentiment or stubbornness to see their guys succeed. All too often those prospects end up flaming out in the upper levels of the minors or in the big leagues (we’ve seen it in San Diego a time or two), leaving their major league organizations with little value both on the field or in the trade market.

On the other hand, dealing a bunch of prospects is always a risky proposition, especially for a team that isn’t necessarily a sure-thing to seriously contend in 2015. Here are the Padres prospects dealt of late, with their MLB.com top 20 ranking in the Padres system in parenthesis: Max Fried (3), Trea Turner (5), Joe Ross (8), Zach Eflin (9), Dustin Peterson (12), Jake Bauers (14), Burch Smith (16), Joe Wieland (17), RJ Alvarez (20), and Mallex Smith (20), and that doesn’t include Jesse Hahn and Jace Peterson, who both recently shed their respective prospect status, and personal favorite Reymond Fuentes.

While the Padres have managed to hang on to top prospects like Austin Hedges, Matt Wisler, and Hunter Renfroe, they’ve dealt a good deal of middle tier prospects for short(er)-term gains. It’s a risky strategy that further incentives the Padres to turn into contenders in short order, although Preller and Co. probably have plenty of ideas about how to replenish the system with their own players.

Padres acquire C Derek Norris, RHP Seth Streich, and international bonus slot 117 ($144,100) from the Oakland A’s for RHP Jesse Hahn and RHP RJ Alvarez
Padres acquire 3B Will Middlebrooks for C Ryan Hanigan

Ahh, the catching situation. Over the past week the Padres have traded three excellent pitch framers: Yasmani Grandal (15.5 career framing runs above average per 7000 chances, per BP), Rene Rivera (14.8), and Ryan Hanigan (16.3).

Derek Norris, on the other hand, is merely a (slightly above) average framer. He’s also a below average pitch blocker and, despite career and minor league numbers that offer hope for improvement, he threw out just 17 percent of would-be base stealers last year. After replacing Geovany Soto early in the A’s 9-8 loss to the Royals in the 2014 American League wildcard game, Norris allowed six stolen bases in as many attempts.

Norris might prove to be a defensive liability, but there’s still plenty to like about his game. Last year, his 122 wRC+ ranked seventh among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, ahead of both Rivera and Grandal. Going back to 2013, among catchers with at least 600 plate appearances, Norris is tied for seventh with a 119 wRC+ (and two of the guys ahead of him have since moved to first base). He brings further punch to a lineup that was, at least a few weeks ago, severely lacking in punch, and he’s under contract through 2018.

A sixth-round pick out of Ohio in 2012, right-handed starter Seth Streich isn’t a total throw-in. In 2014 in the hitter-friendly Cal League, Streich posted a 3.16 ERA and a 5.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s 23, sits in the low-to-mid 90s, and doesn’t yet own a plus secondary offering, so maybe the ceiling isn’t so high. But he’s someone to keep an eye on.

Jesse Hahn showed signs of fatigue late in 2014, failing to reach six innings in three August starts before being shut down in early September. He did, however, make a seamless jump from Double-A to the majors, throwing 73 and 1/3 innings with the Padres while putting up a 3.07 ERA and a 22.9 percent strikeout rate. A 25-year-old sinker/curve ball specialist under control through 2020, losing Hahn hurts a Padres rotation that isn’t as deep as you might imagine.

RJ Alvarez, who was acquired in the Huston Street trade just prior to last season’s trade deadline, also heads to Oakland in the deal. He’s a 23-year-old power reliever with a solid minor league track record, expendable only because the Padres — and much of baseball — have an assembly line in the minor leagues that churns out that type of pitcher.

The real puzzler here is the Hanigan-for-Middlebrooks swap. I’ve toyed with the idea of Middlebrooks as a change-of-scenery candidate before, but Hanigan, a defensive specialist with an interesting offensive profile, seems like too much to surrender for a three-quarters played scratch-off. Further, the Red Sox, suddenly with a high-powered offense and Pablo Sandoval entrenched at third base, have no use for the 26-year-old third basemen. There’s a chance he can regain some of what made him a top 100 prospect prior to the 2012 season, but a lot has to go right.

In the majors, outside of his 286 plate appearance rookie season in which he still struck out 70 times while walking just 13, Middlebrooks has been completely overmatched. Last year, in 234 plate appearances, he struck out 70 times while walking 15 times, this time hitting just .191 with two home runs. Middlebrooks possesses Right-Handed Power, but his approach at the plate makes batting practice the only place where he can show it off. In 894 major league plate appearances, he’s walked 5.4 percent while striking out 26.6 percent of the time, resulting in a .237/.284/.411 slash line. Not to mention, Petco Park wasn’t built for reclamation projects with power as a trademark skill.

It’s not clear that Middlebrooks is any better than Yangervis Solarte as the current No. 1 option at third base — in fact, the projections say Solarte is the better option. Middlebrooks is, however, a decent gamble with enough skills to perhaps turn things around outside of Boston. The thing is, with his trade value cratering after every whiff and the Red Sox with no place to attempt a final rehab (besides Triple-A Pawtucket), it’s hard to believe Boston was able to extract Hanigan away from the Padres in the trade.

Look, Hanigan’s a 34-year-old catcher with a .605 OPS over the last two seasons, but, as we discussed last week, he’s essentially a Rene Rivera clone behind the dish — an excellent framer, thrower, and all-around defense-first backstop that would’ve made for an interesting offense-defense platoon with Norris, and he’s only due $8 million over the next two seasons (with a reasonable $3.75 million option for 2017, potentially rendered obsolete by Austin Hedges).

Norris’ addition behind the plate combined with the departures of Rivera, Grandal, and now Hanigan again brings into question how much the Padres value defense. More specifically, what’s the deal with trading three pitch framing specialists in a week? It’s possible that the Padres don’t value pitch framing, at least not as highly as a number of other teams. Like outfield defense, however, it’s probably more likely that the Padres are again choosing to sacrifice defense for offense, this time at catcher.

Padres sign RHP Brandon Morrow to a one-year, $2.5 million deal (with incentives)
Padres (reportedly) sign RHP Josh Johnson to a one-year, ~$1 million deal (with incentives)

Both moves, bringing in Morrow and Johnson on incentive-laden deals, are the kind the Padres — or any team in need of rotation help — should gladly hand out, even though both pitchers are hard to rely on.

Brandon Morrow hasn’t throw more than 180 innings in a single season in his career, and he’s only cracked the 150 inning mark once. Further, he’s hit the 60-day disabled list three times in the past three years and he has a four year streak of hitting the DL at least once. (On the plus side, his major injuries haven’t been elbow or shoulder related.) In short, if the Padres plan on penciling Morrow into the starting rotation, they better have an eraser handy.

Despite the obvious red flags, the move remains a good one because the commitment — one year and $2.5 million — is light while the upside — 100-plus league average innings — is appealing. Since 2013, even when healthy, Morrow hasn’t been good. He’s pitched 87 and 2/3s innings with a 5.65 ERA and 14 home runs allowed. But if you chalk the past two seasons up to an injury-plagued mess and look back to 2010-2012, there’s enough there to see why the Padres took a flyer on Morrow. The stuff’s always been good, he ranked third in the majors in strikeout percentage (behind only Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw) among qualified starters in 2011, and he comes over from a hitter’s park in the American League East.

The storyline, save for the details, is pretty much the same for Josh Johnson. The biggest difference between the two is that Johnson is probably even less likely to throw a significant amount of innings than Morrow next year. He’s coming off his second Tommy John surgery in April of 2014, making him unlikely to be ready to pitch until at least May or possibly well into the summer. And unlike Morrow, Johnson’s injury log almost exclusively consists of arm/elbow/shoulder injuries.

Despite these two buy-low moves, the Padres rotation stealthily remains a potential weakness. The big three — Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Ian Kennedy — each come with their own set of questions marks. Cashner, like Morrow and Johnson, has battled injuries year in, year out. He’s had four serious injuries since 2011 and last year alone he hit the disabled list twice while missing 76 games. When on the mound, there are flashes of ace-like stuff (and performance), but the injuries are a major concern going forward.

Ross projects as a solid No. 2 starter, especially considering he’s just 27 and appears to be getting better with age, but he’s also hit the DL in two straight years and his heavy usage of the slider has many concerned about his long-term health. Among qualified starters in 2014, Ross paced the majors with a 41.2 percent slider rate, well ahead of Madison Bumgarner‘s 35 percent. We don’t know much about predicting injuries, especially for pitchers, but there’s research out there that suggests that a breaking ball heavy arsenal is an indicator for future injury.

Kennedy is … Kennedy. Not as flashy as the first two, but the most reliable of the bunch, having thrown at least 180 innings for five consecutive years. The performance over that period, while not overpowering, has been for the most part solid. He’s a good mid-rotation guy. The back of the rotation, with Hahn now out of the mix, currently belongs to Odrisamer Despaigne, Robbie Erlin, and whatever the Padres can muster out of Morrow/Johnson. Again, question marks.

Picking up Morrow and Johnson on cheap, incentive-laden deals give the Padres some depth at the back-end of the rotation, but neither move should make them abort any plans to add to the 2015 rotation.

***

AJ Preller has taken an intriguing route to a short-term rebuild, dealing from an abundance in quantity of young players and prospects for bonafied major leaguers. He hasn’t gone all-in in the traditional sense, as outside of Upton, most of the players Preller has acquired are under contract for four-plus years. Further, while he’s dealt off a good portion of depth in the farm system, he’s retained Hedges, Renfroe, Wisler, and Liriano.

While the offseason thus far has been entertaining, it’ll be fascinating to see how the Padres proceed from here. With an entirely new outfield, the Padres are left with a plethora of spare outfielders: Seth Smith, Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin, and Will Venable.

It’s possible one of those four switch to first base (Smith, most likely) and it’s also possible one or more are retained for bench duties (Maybin would fit as a late-innings defensive replacement, albeit an expensive one), but it’s likely that at least one will be dealt before Opening Day. Smith has the most trade value, as he was signed to a team-friendly two-year, $13 million extension last summer, although the Padres post-Josh Byrnes/pre-AJ Preller front office offered him assurance they wouldn’t trade him this year. Both Cameron Maybin and Will Venable might have enough trade value to get something back in a trade, but it probably wouldn’t be much. Even Carlos Quentin at one-year, $8 million doesn’t sound that bad for an AL team with a hole at DH, though the Padres might have to kick in some money to send him elsewhere.

The biggest holes in the lineup are third base and shortstop, where any combination of Alexi Amarista/Clint Barmes and Yangervis Solarte/Will Middlebrooks doesn’t inspire confidence. Both Amarista and Solarte are probably better suited for utility work, Barmes is a defensive replacement, and Middlebrooks is a project. First base, currently manned by Yonder Alonso and Tommy Medica, is another potential area of upgrade, though it’s probably in better hands than the left side of the infield.

We’ve discussed the rotation, which could use at least another reliable starter. There are rumors swirling about Cole Hamels, who is owed $96 million over the next four years, potentially returning to San Diego. Both the remaining contract and the idea that the Phillies are apparently asking for a huge return for their ace lefty make that scenario unlikely, and the Wil Myers’-plus-for-Hamels rumors that surfaced last week appear to be overblown.

Preller and the new Padres front office have managed to reignite a previously disinterested fan base in one week, thanks to a flurry of blockbuster trades and renewed 2015 playoff aspirations. There’s still work to be done, cleaning up a roster that remains a bit of a mess after all of the activity. While many analysts don’t believe the Padres are legitimate contenders yet, there’s a bunch of offseason left for Preller, a general manager who is apparently paid by the trade.

While I share some of those concerns about the Padres chances in 2015, it’s hard not to see them hovering around the 80-plus win mark right now. With a couple more well executed deals or free agent splurges, suddenly the Padres are realistic wild card contenders. And let’s face it, that sounds a lot more appealing than playing it safe for a couple of years, hoping the previous regime’s prospects make good.

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  • Robby Deming

    Regarding defense and pitch framing: isnt it possible that the Padres are using part of the moneyball philosophy here? Namely exploiting market inefficiencies?

    It seems to me that the Padres are noticing that other teams are suddenly placing a premium on pitch framing and defense and are exploiting that as much as possible. I don’t think the Padres are eschewing defense, but I do think they perceive a bit of a defense “bubble” in baseball and they’re taking advantage of it.

    I could be completely wrong. But when you view the moves through that prism, everything seems to make even more sense.

    • Dustin

      Great point! It’s definitely something I want to look into more as the team takes a more concrete shape.

  • TannedTom

    Ah dealing away prospects. Since the fail rate even for 1st rounders is high, a team should trade prospects for proven players whenever possible. Keep the blue-chippers and trade the rest.

    • Dustin

      That’s potentially a good strategy, especially when the proven players are cost-controlled guys like Myers and Norris.