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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