The (sort of) Puzzling Seth Smith Extension

The year is 2026. After a 10 year run of dominance in the National League West by the San Diego Padres, Jonah Keri has completed his fifth bestseller — Friar Fever: How Farhan Zaidi Took the Forgettable San Diego Padres from Cellar-Dwellers to the Top of the Baseball World.

Consider this passage, from the first chapter:

… Josh Byrnes was ousted after two-and-a-half years of mediocrity, as the 2014 Padres seemed destined by late-June for a third straight mid-70s win tally. His reign was more incomplete than it was ugly, however, and he didn’t leave the cupboard completely dry. Seth Smith, whom Byrnes acquired from Oakland in an ever-risky challenge trade with Zaidi’s former boss Billy Beane, was in the midst of a career year. In three months he had morphed from platoon outfielder to major league slugger, and Zaidi, taking the reins just prior to the July 31st trade deadline, had to cash in on his first big deal.

The Boston Red Sox — fresh off a surprise World Series title the previous year — were reeling, and their offense was in shambles. GM Ben Cherington gambled that Smith would remain an offensive force, at least for the rest of 2014, and sent third basemen Will Middlebrooks and mid-tier second base prospect Sean Coyle to San Diego in exchange for the 31-year-old outfielder. Middlebrooks, once a consensus top 100 prospect, regained his form with the Padres. Filling in for the departed Chase Headley at third base, he hit .260/.340/.475 through the end of ’14, and has since gone on to blow away Headley’s franchise-leading 18.5 career WAR mark for Padres third basemen. Coyle, considered a throw-in at the time of the trade, turned into a valuable utility infielder in San Diego until they spun him to Minnesota for current closer Michael Cederoth.

Back to reality.

On Wednesday, the Padres extended Seth Smith to a two-year, $13 million deal with a 2017 option. In a vacuum, this deal makes plenty of sense. Buoyed by an off-the-charts month of May, Smith’s hit .281/.384/.506 in 277 plate appearances so far this year. He’s obliterated the ball at Petco Park, too, OPSing just north of 1.000* in 164 PAs. Smith has been awesome, and in some sense, he deserves to be compensated for that awesomeness. And $6 or $7 million a year for Smith is a bargain by today’s standards, even if (when) he inevitably returns to a more realistic version of himself .

*In fact, Smith’s current single-season home OPS of 1.013 is higher than any Petco-era Padres player (min. 100 PAs).

But the Padres don’t play in a Hoover Windtunnel. There are several reasons why this deal – and the apparent no-trade (at least in 2014) clause that comes with it – doesn’t make much sense at all.

The Padres don’t have a general manager

They just fired Josh Byrnes – the guy who brazenly acquired Smith in the Gregerson-to-Oakland deal — and are currently working with Omar Minaya, AJ Hinch, and Fred Uhlman Jr. (and, likely, Ron Fowler/Mike Dee) as interim GMs until a replacement is hired.

The show must go on without Byrnes and it’s unreasonable to postpone all major baseball related decisions until the next general manager surfaces, but it’s also strange to extend Smith just over a week after Byrnes was dismissed. As Padres Trail mentioned yesterday, was Smith’s extension so important that it had to take place right now? Might it have made a bit more sense to at least wait until the end of July, re-evaluate both Smith’s season and the status of the GM search, and then proceed from there?

With a new GM unlikely by the deadline some trades are probably going to have to be made without the full-time GM in place. Extensions can wait, though. Even if the Padres don’t finalize the hire until late-August or September, that would give the new GM plenty of time to evaluate whether Smith is an extension candidate.

Seth Smith is a potentially valuable trade chip on a team that should be retooling

Rebuilds are often overstated. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Padres were pretty decent next year and I don’t think anyone would be overly surprised if they were contenders by 2016. Long-term, Astros-style rebuilds are not always necessary. While injuries and sub-par performance have taken a toll on the Padres farm system, there’s still plenty to like there. And there are enough young assets at the big league level – like Andrew Cashner, Cameron Maybin, Yasmani Grandal, Jedd Gyorko, Tyson Ross, etc. – to tease at a quick turnaround to competitiveness.

At the same time, most of the expendable, older players should be dealt away for a younger, more cost-controlled return. Chase Headley is likely going to have a one-way flight out of town by the deadline. One of Huston Street or Joaquin Benoit, if not both, will probably be sent packing, and there’s no reason not to listen to offers on Carlos Quentin, Chris Denorfia, Eric Stults, Tim StaufferIan Kennedy, and Will Venable.

Smith has an advantage on all of those guys, excepting the two relievers: he’s having a career year and, at least on the surface, looks like a big league masher. Most teams are smart enough to know that Smith hasn’t suddenly transformed from platoon outfielder (he still can’t hit lefties, by the way) to middle-of-the-order mainstay, but only one team has to bite. There are plenty of contenders, like the Cardinals, Red Sox, and Yankees, that could use an outfield bat and are poised to overpay. It’s easy to imagine that San Diego could receive a struggling former blue-chip prospect like Middlebrooks or a couple of mid-level prospects like Coyle, just to throw out a few random examples (and could-have-been subjects of a future bestseller).

Seth Smith is … Seth Smith

When the Padres acquired Smith for Gregerson in the offseason, Gaslamp Ball tallied the votes. The deal got a 30 percent rating on the Tomatometer which, as GLB noted, put it on the movie equivalent of 2012’s Total Recall remake. That can’t be good. I mean, I haven’t seen that movie and I liked the original, but aren’t all remakes universally bad? In the poll section of the post, 85 percent of (presumably) Padres fans disliked the trade. Heck, Smith’s “The Final Piece” moniker, courtesy of Josh Byrnes, was mocked until Smith started hitting the snot out of the ball.

Half a season later and Smith, the guy that nobody wanted despite being acquired for a late-inning, aging reliever, is suddenly The Next Big Thing. Smith’s been great this year, but if you squint just a little bit, it’s only been one really good month. April was solid but largely ordinary (.257/.367/.400), May was unreal (.354/.459/.683), and June was a struggle (.203/.300/.354).

The Padres made a similar extension in 2012, giving Nick Hundley a three-year, $9 million pact (plus an option) based largely off of his torrid hitting in August and September of 2011. Like Smith, Hundley’s previous track-record was more pedestrian and didn’t suggest that kind of performance was sustainable. Also like Smith’s deal, Hundley’s extension was so reasonable that even after injuries and lack of performance derailed the rest of his Padres career, it still wasn’t a complete mistake. Still, by extending a mediocre backstop, the Padres eventually ended up with too many catchers on the roster and had to ship Hundley to Baltimore for left-handed reliever Troy Patton before even reaching the option year decision.

Even after his anticipated regression, Smith’s still a nice player to have around. Both ZiPS and Steamer peg his rest-of-season wRC+ at 120, which puts him squarely into the “Very Good” bucket of offensive players. Throwing in below-average defense, the platoon issues, and his age probably knocks him down a peg or two, but at $13 million for the next two seasons it’s hard to go wrong.

The problem, like Dave Cameron said yesterday, is the opportunity cost. There are only so many roster spots and, more specifically, so many outfielders that can play in one game. Like Hundley, Smith might end up getting in the way of a youngster like Rymer Liriano or, soon enough, Hunter Renfroe. Smith seems more like a guy you want to bring in to a ready-to-contend situation as a, wait for it, … Final Piece. And the Padres probably aren’t there yet.

Further, like Cameron also notes, you lose out on the chance to trade Smith when his value is at an absolute peak. Sure, there’s always next year’s trade deadline, but after Smith returns to the slightly-above-average hitter he’s always been (a year older, no less), the trade market might look elsewhere.

On the surface, this isn’t a bad move. But the circumstances surrounding it — the fact that the Padres made the deal just days after firing their general manager (who acquired Smith), without a current GM in place, on a team that’s nine games under .500 and should be trading it’s eldest overachievers for youth — make it a bit of a head-scratcher.

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