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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  • Shamu35

    So 25-35$ million extensions for Gyorko, Maybin are to be celebrated (initially by most (all?) padres public bloggers); 13$ to Seth Smith a mistake because two yrs for a platoon lefty who can hit and get on base is going to clog up our outfield for prospects that are more than a year away?

    • I was not for the Maybin extension simply because he has never ever become the elite hitter he was supposed to be. But he has been an elite defender his entire career, last year’s injury plagued campaign notwithstanding. He’s currently +8 on the Dewan plus/minus scale, meaning he gets to balls most OF can’t. Every year he’s been at least +12. Given the size of CF at Petco, his kind of range is absolutely essential. So yeah, that was a good extension.

      It’s way too early to evaluate the Gyroko extension. I’m willing to give him a do-over on this season since he went to the DL 6 June with planter fasciitis.

      I think both Dustin and I believe Smith was signed to a reasonable, team friendly contract. We don’t have an issue with the deal, but question the timing of it.

      • Tom Waits

        I brought this up in one of the Byrnes firing discussions, or at least I meant to.

        Maybin’s deal made more sense because the salary was less than what you’d expect him to make if he turned into a really good hitter, with 15+ HR a year. It took advantage of the fact that his defense would be really valuable but wouldn’t get him big raises in arbitration if he wasn’t hitting for average or pop. Same thing for Luebke, the Padres got control at the expense of commitment, the player got security at the expense of some salary.

        Gyorko’s deal paid him what he’d get if he improved as a hitter in the arbitration categories, and that’s as a second baseman, ignoring the chance of him going to 3b where the standards are higher. The Padres don’t win paying people what they’re worth.

      • Shamu35

        I understand that the Gyorko and Maybin deals are one kind of contract extension, the Smith is another. And that clearly new ownership is making a statement to fans with this one — I don’t mind that. I’m not saying that Jedd/Cam are worthless as players or that I’ve given up on Gyorko, just that the model is a highly questionable one; in both cases waiting at least another year for them to prove they can not only keep it up but make adjustments would have been wise. Smith won’t be an all star, but many outfielders are in their primes in early 30s.

    • Dustin

      Yeah, like PadresTrail said, I don’t really have a major issue with the deal, it’s just the timing that confuses me. To make a semi-big splash like this, 1 1/2 weeks after ousting Byrnes, just doesn’t make that much sense. It makes me wonder how much Dee/Fowler continue to meddle in baseball operations, and I don’t really think anyone wants that, either with the interim GMs in place or when the full-time GM emerges.

      • Tom Waits

        That is weird and probably a bigger concern.

        The team is trying to attract a great young GM to a situation that, in brutal honesty, is not all that attractive. Two candidates have already said No thanks, even to the interview, which at least would have been a free 5 star trip to San Diego and practice for the job opening they might pursue in the future. What do the remaining GM candidates see? Dee giving Street a de facto no trade clause and mandating an extension for a 31 year old outfielder whose current OPS+is 36 points higher than his previous best season and 45 points higher than his career mark.

      • Dustin

        Exactly. Here’s hoping the next GM has pretty much free reign in baseball ops and doesn’t have to funnel everything through Dee/Fowler.

  • Patrick R.

    Great article. Your intro is a huge tease. Farhan Zaidi has been my dream GM for nearly 3 years now.

    • Dustin

      Thanks, Patrick!

  • Sean Dreusike

    True Grit and Ocean’s 11 were pretty good remakes.

    • Tom Waits

      Payback, The Magnificent Seven

  • Tom Waits

    I’m not a Padrepublic blogger, but Gyorko’s not a comparable case. I didn’t see the rush, but Gyorko, assuming he gets himself right, will still be around when the Padres are ready to compete. Smith won’t, unless everything possible goes right. That includes things going wrong for the rest of the division.

    Another point is that bloggers, and commenters, aren’t getting paid to put together a major league roster. Maybe an endorsement of Gyorko means that these unnamed bloggers should be more circumspect in their praise, but it doesn’t make the Smith extension any more sensible.

    I’d love Zaidi to get the job.

    • Who’s the “unnamed blogger” you’re talking about?

      • Tom Waits

        It’s unnamed bloggers, plural. And it’s whoever Shamu35 was referring to in his post comparing the reactions of “bloggers” to the different extensions.

      • Ah! Got it. Carry on.

  • curmudgeoninchief

    Seth Smith wanted to play in SD for two more years. The Padres wanted him to play for them two more years. This isn’t rocket surgery, guys.