Making sense of the Padres’ off-season

As you may have heard, the Padres had a quiet off-season. Despite October claims that the team was looking for two starting pitchers, Josh Byrnes basically called it a winter after re-signing Jason Marquis in early December.

As the story now goes, Byrnes had the blessing and the backing of the new ownership group to upgrade the team as he saw fit but instead chose to pass in what is being referred to as a “baseball decision.”

Now, before you go off and call Byrnes a dirty liar, it’s important to understand one thing: Byrnes is a very picky shopper. As he approached this off-season’s offerings, Byrnes committed himself to two simple rules:

1. Do not give out any contract in excess of three years

2. Do not entertain pitchers with risk of injury

It was Byrnes’ devotion to these rules that took the team out of contention for the services of Edwin Jackson, who requested and eventually received a four-year deal.

A cynical person, such as myself for instance, could suggest that Byrnes established these rules to insulate both himself and the higher ups from criticism when the Padres failed to improve the club. It’s not that they didn’t want to, you see, but rather that the right piece wasn’t there.

They weren’t going to “spend for the sake of spending.”

With this in mind, I have taken the liberty of going through this past winter’s crop of free agent pitchers to see who was out there that fit the team’s criteria. To do so, I immediately eliminated any pitcher who signed a deal of four or more years, then eliminated any pitcher who failed to make 75 starts over the past three season. This left me with eight starting pitchers: Kevin Correia, Ryan Dempster, Jeff Francis, Jeremy Guthrie, Dan Haren, Francisco Liriano, Shaun Marcum and Kyle Lohse. And since the point is improving the team, I then discarded Correia, Francis and Guthrie. That left me with a crop of five pitchers that seemingly fit within the team’s purview this winter.

To then figure out which of these pitchers was most deserving of the team’s attention, I looked at three factors: Career WAR (averaged out over 30 starts), 3-year WAR and ZiPS projection for WAR in 2013. Here’s what I found:

Career 3-year ZiPS
Dempster 2.7 9.2 1.9
Haren 4.1 12.3 3.2
Liriano 3.4 8.9 2.8
Lohse 2.2 6.8 3.1
Marcum 2.4 7.8 3.1

With the exception of Dempster, every pitcher is expected to be worth roughly three WAR or more and when you look at track record, two pitchers stand out: Dan Haren and Francisco Liriano. And since Liriano slammed a door on his arm trying to scare his children like a psychopath, I’ll just stick with Haren.

As you may also remember, Haren was on Byrnes’ radar this winter as well. Ultimately, however, Haren signed a one-year, $13 million contract with the Washington Nationals, a contract that not only fit within the parameters that Byrnes set for himself but that had no obvious downside for the Padres when you consider that they did not reinvest those $13 million elsewhere.

As I already had the ZiPS information in front of me, I decided to go through and look at the projected WAR for the 25 projected starters in the NL West. With word coming today from Corey Brock that Stults looks like Black’s pick for the fourth spot in the rotation and with popular consensus anointing Bass as the fifth, I set off. Here’s what I found.

Of the 25 starting pitchers in the NL West, the five San Diego representatives ranked 18th (Volquez), 20th (Richard), 22nd (Bass), 24th (Stults) and 25th (Marquis). To put that another way, the Padres Opening Day rotation will consist of one number four, one borderline four and three fives. And with this in mind, I masochistically entered Haren into the discussion and found that he would have ranked 8th, ten spots and two entire pitching staffs ahead of Volquez.

To put it out there, here’s how the other four that I didn’t focus on would have ranked: 8th (Liriano), 8th (Lohse), 8th (Marcum) and 14th (Dempster). All improvements and with the exception of Dempster, all considerable improvements.

One common argument that I’m sure you’ve heard is that the team didn’t need to go out and get pitching because pitching is coming to them. Corey Luebke, the staff ace, and Casey Kelly, the top prospect, are due in San Diego at some point this summer and their presence should bolster a rotation that ranked 29th in the league in WAR in 2012. There is also Andrew Cashner and potentially Robbie Erlin as well. But of the four young pitchers I just mentioned, only Luebke projects to be a legitimate top of the rotation option (1.7 WAR in 96.0 IP). Kelly and Erlin are both promising prospects but they are also 23 and 22, respectively. And as for Cashner, well, he sure does throw fast, doesn’t he?

With a starting eight that has no obvious holes and an average age of 27 years, the Padres came into the winter of 2012/13 with a very simple goal: to improve the pitching staff. They responded by bringing back Jason Marquis, who projects to be the worst starting pitcher in the division, and bringing in Tyson Ross and Freddy Garcia, and the team sees Eric Stults as a better option than either of them. Management claims that they “investigated a lot of different things” this winter but that “they didn’t feel like any of them made sense for us” but as we’ve seen, their self-imposed restrictions did not limit their options altogether. So what really doesn’t make sense here?

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  • VM David

    Or “dumpster diving vs. Dempster Diving”.

    • VM David

      That was an intentionally terrible joke, person who didn’t get it.

  • Dis

    As much as I like Haren as a player and would have liked to see him here (on a 2 year deal, though) I’m not sure I see the purpose of spending > $13M for one year on a pitcher for a team that is unlikely to contend. Without getting years on the deal where the team could use him to improve realistic odds of a playoff spot, a one year deal would seem to be a bit of a waste.

    This, of course, relies on a very faulty assumption that the ownership will invest the money saved back in to the team when the time for contention does arrive. Would Haren made the 2013 Padres better? Yes. But to what end?

    • While I see your point, I disagree with it. Acquiring a pitcher like Haren has more benefit than simply putting the team in playoff contention. His presence would both ease the expectations for the young pitchers (and frankly, they’re ridiculous) and it would increase the team’s options at the trade deadline. It would also make them better, which is always a positive.

      Your point is also one that the Padres could not make after acquiring both Quentin and Street before what was considered a lost 2012 season.

      • Dis

        But they (for better or worse) extended both; it’s those longer term gains(?) I’d rather see. Haren could be traded at the deadline, and again, would have had liked to see him here. But I also think he didn’t want to be here, given the chance to be on a contender for equal money. Who knows if we actually tried and were spurned, or just gave up.

        I agree with you the former is more acceptable than the latter. The front office should absolutely be doing everything it can. I’m just not sure I agree with the general criticism (not from this article) that doing nothing is terrible right now.

      • Who’s to say that the Padres couldn’t have extended Haren in a similar fashion?

      • Dis

        No one. But Haren is a bit older, and I would think would project as a 3 or 4 in potential extension years. Wouldn’t, at that point, be the team need.

        I’m not against the team making signings this year – the offseason was undoubtedly pathetic. I agree with what you said, and would have loved to see Liriano or McCarthy, who I think were more cost-effective options that would have been amenable to 2-3 year deals. I just think that the 2-3 year deals would serve the team better than one year deals for 2013.

    • Nick

      I was just about to post something similar. Using Zips, the difference between Haren (at $13m/1) and Marquis equals to $5 million per win. That’s not a bad deal if Haren gets you from 88 wins to 90, but what really doesn’t make sense is expecting the Padres to pay that amount to go from 78 wins to 80.

  • Brutal

  • Melvin

    Good stuff. Would retweet if we didn’t share the same Twitter account.

  • “Do not entertain pitchers with risk of injury”?!? Well, that pretty much leaves out… um… every pitcher ever, except Cy Young and Nolan Ryan.

    It’s good to know that we’re exhausting every option.

  • stickman0287

    I think Haren was left out of consideration due to his back injury this past year. I think he was worth the injury risk however, a veteran presence would have done the staff some good.

  • But seriously though, Byrnes DID get Sean O’Sullivan. He’s a local!

  • By averaging 3 years it waters down Haren’s 2012 which was very mediocre. 12-13, 4.33 ERA and a -0.6 WAR (per Baseball Reference). So what’s more indicative of his future ability? Past three seasons or the most recent one? Nor can we ignore the injury concern of Haren, illustrated by his 2010 season.

    Dan Haren doesn’t make the Padres better in 2014, which I believe is the plan here. But $13 million might.

    I agree in the overall argument you’ve made. I just don’t think Haren is the player to make it with.

    • More data is always better than less data.

      • Only half right I think. More good data is always better than less good data. Quality of data trumps quantity of it.

      • How do we determine the quality of the data?

  • If the Padres were one mediocre pitcher from contending then I would agree with you, but the Haren of of the past 3 seasons was not going to make more than a 1-2 win difference IF he made 32-33 starts. That is a HUGE if in his case. And the Haren of 2012 would have made zero difference.

    The fact is even if the Padres had brought in Haren or Jackson they were not going to make the playoffs without a healthy Luebke and Cashner,

    Once Cashner went down in early December, the Padres pulled out of the Haren sweepstakes. He signed with the Nats 3 days later.

    The Padres stayed in the Jackson picture right down to his signing in February, but were unwilling to offer that 4th year. According to Byrnes and others, the Padres were willing to actually offer more per season than Jackson signed for, but they were not willing to guarantee a 4th year.

    • When did Byrnes say that?