Twitter Mailbag: A Grade For Preller

In the spirit of not picking anything in the “B” range, I’m going with an A-.

I know, I know, maybe that’s aggressive, but I’ve been inching closer and closer to the front of the A.J. Preller bandwagon since the pains of 2015 have worn away. There are dings, of course—Yasmani Grandal-for-Matt Kemp was always terrible, the Wil MyersTrea Turner trade didn’t look good then or now, and last year’s medical records snafu wasn’t a good look.

The positive marks are overflowing, however, and you can spot most of them somewhere at a Padres minor-league affiliate. MacKenzie Gore, for instance, looks like a steal, even though he was the third pick in this year’s draft. Fernando Tatis Jr. looks like a legit candidate for baseball’s best prospect come next season, perhaps flanked by the aforementioned Gore. And there are intriguing players littered throughout the system, many of whom were acquired to little or no fanfare, like Michel Baez, Hansel Rodriguez, Pedro Avila, and on and on.

Sometimes it seems really easy to build a good farm system—after all, a team like the Chicago White Sox built a super system in the blink of an eye. But the Padres haven’t had many Chris Sales or Jose Quintanas sitting around to deal, so it’s something of an accomplishment that they went from a middling system to a top one in a year or two. Players like Tatis and Esteury Ruiz were plucked in lopsided trades; Gore was a savvy (if obvious) draft pick; Baez, a 6-foot-8 flamethrower, was somehow snagged for a cool $3 million last winter.

In short, Preller & Co. have been great at finding good young talent. That alone is an exciting development, and we haven’t even touched on the solid work they’ve done scraping the bargain bin for big-league contributors (Drew Pomeranz, Trevor Cahill, Brad Hand, Jose Pirela, etc). They still have to prove they can put a winner together, but we’ll find out about that soon enough. I’m a big fan.

To expand on your point, according to Baseball Reference, the Padres, at nine, easily have the largest positive differential between regular wins and Pythagorean wins. The Royals are second at seven and the only other team with more than a three-game difference is the Blue Jays. By Pythagorean record, the Padres are currently on top of the tank standings, battling with the Giants; in the real world, they’re sitting at eighth.

It’s mostly just luck, I think, luck and sequencing and randomness, all that good stuff. They’re 17-18 in one-run games, which I suppose is partly a credit to having a guy like Brad Hand around, and a competent bullpen overall. They’ve also been blown out a number of times (18-to-4 here, 16-to-nothing there), so maybe that’s skewed the run differential some. Then again, bad teams tend to get blown out more often, and the Padres still qualify as a bad team. Mostly lucky, but there’s some good bullpen/overachieving in there, too.

This might surprise you, but I think the rookies/young players have been pretty good. Decent, at least. Manuel Margot‘s had a well-documented good year. Nothing special, necessarily, but as a I wrote about a couple of weeks back, there’s a lot to like there. Austin Hedges has been either good or bad, depending on whether you look at stats that include pitch framing (you should). By Baseball Prospectus’ WARP, for instance, he’s been worth 3.1 wins, and he rates as the best framer this side of Tyler Flowers. Framing runs don’t carry the same cache as, say, hitting runs, but they’re important nonetheless. His slash line does look empty if you glance at it without swoon-approved rose-colored glasses on, but there’s room to grow. Personal favorite Dinelson Lamet has been a revelation, and fringier guys like Carlos Asuaje and Cory Spangenberg have held their own. Hunter Renfroe, of course, has not had a particularly good year (more on him in a minute).

Obviously some of the more valuable contributors have been out-of-nowhere veteran finds, like Jhoulys Chacin, Hand, and Pirela, and the Padres haven’t turned any of those guys into future pieces yet. That’s sort of disappointing, particularly with Chacin, a free agent at year’s end. But once you combine the solid stable of rookie performers with what they were able to get out of Cahill, Brandon Maurer, and Ryan Buchter, I’d lean toward the cautiously happy side.

I did not, at least not until you mentioned it. Couple of things:

  1. It’s kind of odd that it took this long for the Statcast folks to release that metric. It seems like a straightforward improvement over some of the other stuff they had out there. It also seems like translating it from outs to runs would make sense, as well, although I suppose that could be estimated easily enough.
  2. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m still a bit skeptical about all of the Statcast stuff. I mean, I use it quite often, and I’m sure it’s pretty accurate. I like it. I’m just not sold that it’s as accurate as advertised, and in the world of baseball statistics, you want as much accuracy (and transparency) as possible. I would just tread carefully with Statcast-based numbers for a while—let them be fleshed out by the sabermetric community, reviewed, and improved upon before assuming Big Brother Baseball can measure everything right down to the centimeter.

Okay, on to Hunter Renfroe.

I figured that Renfroe was going to rate really poorly by this new metric, given that you bunched the questions together (and Renfroe’s had his defensive issues this year), but he’s actually at a reasonably ho-hum -3 outs, well ahead of Matt Kemp (-14) in last place. (Shoot, maybe this thing is deadly accurate).

Overall, though, it’s been a rough year for Renfroe. The defense has been a concern at times (-6.4 runs by UZR, worse by the eye test), but most disappointing has been the bat. Renfroe hit just .230/.285/.443 in 435 plate appearances before being abruptly sent down to Triple-A El Paso last month. There, he crushed, OPSing nearly 1.500 in 14 regular seasons games. Credit Renfroe for making positive adjustments out of the limelight, as he coaxed six walks to just seven whiffs in 61 PAs. Ultimately he’ll have to prove it back in the bigs, of course, and I think he’ll get at least another year to show off that he’s good for more than just an occasional Western Metal Supply Co. roof shot.

Sheesh, that’s tough.

Hems

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Haws.

That’s tough. I think I’m going to make #ShutUpRonFowler the good side of the scale, because I think he (mostly) means well, in that way that older rich kinda-sorta (alright, definitely) out of touch people mean well. I don’t know.

More to the point of your question, if you take into account prospects and everything, I think it’s actually been a solid year. There are some negatives, of course. The tank didn’t really work out as planned, they didn’t get anything for guys like Hand and Chacin, and none of the younger big leaguers (besides Lamet, maybe) really broke out. On the other hand, look at other teams. The Giants were trying to be good and they were awful, and their farm’s barren. The Phillies took a step back at the major-league level, and they’re reaching a point where some people are questioning the entire rebuild. The Angels are going to miss the playoffs in another year of Mike Trout‘s prime. The Mets—man, the Mets are a mess.

Everything’s relative. It’s been an okay year all-around, a great year for prospects, and an even better year for the solar eclipse glasses market.

They can, yes. All they’d have to do is eat whatever money’s left on Travis Wood‘s contract—and it isn’t much, as the Royals paid for much of it. My guess is that he gets pushed out of the rotation pretty early on next season, maybe even after the offseason deck chairs are rearranged. I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to shift him back to the bullpen at some point, as sort of an innings-soaking longman, just to have him around.

Even though the Padres aren’t in win-mode yet, I don’t think they’re comfortable with a five or six-something ERA out of a regular starter, and there is an opportunity cost to sticking with someone like Wood over perhaps someone younger and/or more interesting (*cough Joey Lucchesi*). From here out, I’d be a little surprised if he gets more than like 10 starts in San Diego.

Speaking of more interesting options than Wood, Matt Strahm‘s definitely one of them. I think they’ll give him every chance to start. There’s really nothing to lose, especially next season. Maybe he’s a reliever long term, but maybe not. There was a lot of talk about Lamet being a reliever, but not so much right now.

Strahm had a nice year as a starter at Double-A back in 2016. His work in the majors has been spotty, of course, and the control and fastball-heavy arsenal are fair concerns. It’d be tough for a contender to pencil someone like Strahm into a rotation, or even the bullpen. You just don’t know what you’re getting, especially when you throw in the missed time. That’s one of the advantages the Padres have here, and one they’ll have for at least another year, maybe two. They just don’t have much to lose, and someone like Strahm provides a live and exciting arm to test run. Worst case, he bombs as a starter and they repackage him as a power lefty out of the ‘pen. Worst-worst case, he bombs there too, and everyone moves on and forgot any of it ever happened.

The current Padres are light on good, polished, drafted-outta-college hitting prospects, so I’d grab one of those . . . except the Padres didn’t really have many of those guys back in the 1990s either.

So I’m going with Sean Burroughs, although he barely makes your ’90s cutoff.

Maybe we’d be more hesitant about Burroughs first professional season today, given that it was carried by a crazy-high .403 BABiP, but he still slashed .359/.464/.479 with 74 walks and 59 strikeouts as an 18-year-old in the Midwest league. Burroughs wasn’t a total bust in the majors—he hit .298 one year, and .278 for his big-league career. The power just wasn’t there, though, so pitchers were able to attack the strike zone ad nauseam. It’s just tough to make it work as a no-power third baseman in the major leagues, especially when glovework isn’t your forte.

Hey, maybe we can actually make this work—like, for real. Burroughs stuck around affiliated ball for a few years after he busted in the majors, took a break, and then resurfaced in independent ball. He played this year, at 36 years old, for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League, one of the best indy leagues around. (The team featured plenty of other major-league washouts, like Alberto Callaspo and Manny Delcarmen.) Burroughs had a vintage Burroughs year to boot, hitting .328/.398/.409 with nine more walks than strikeouts (and, yes, just three home runs).

It could read like I’m being facetious here, but I’m not. It’s cool to see someone like Burroughs keep playing, and keep playing well. A lot of these guys who stick around professional ball long after you’d expect end up stinking up the joint, even at the independent level. Burroughs has acquitted himself well in all four of his indy ball seasons.

More to your question, Burroughs’ more advanced skill-set (back to the hypothetical here) would mesh nicely with a farm system that’s loaded with more raw, high-ceiling position player prospects (and a ton of pitchers) And I still don’t see why he couldn’t have a Bill Mueller-type career if given another go-around.

Just looking at the average team age from this year’s Northwest League, Tri-City was the second-youngest team in the eight-team league, just narrowly behind the Spokane Indians (Rangers system). It’s a young player’s league, of course, with the average age somewhere north of 21 and the youngest team usually coming in like a year lower than that. The Padres are pushing the boundaries, as you mention, with a bevy of young international and/or high school players ready to start there next year.

It’ll be interesting to see just how young they can get at various affiliates. It’s something of an organization-wide strategy, or trend, in part just because they have so many young players. In the Midwest League this year, the Padres fielded the youngest of 16 teams, at about 20.5 years old. It’s a credit to the players they’ve found and the coaches at each stop that most of the teams in the Padres system were able to remain competitive despite being so young.

Gotta go with Fernando Tatis Jr. in a runaway. There’s probably like a 50/50 shot that he makes the majors next year, probably in September (if it happens), and a much better shot he’s up by sometime in 2019. I don’t see the brown unis coming back before then, at least not in permanent or semi-permanent fashion. This questions provides me with a good excuse to discuss Tatis or the brown uniforms more . . . and I’m going with Tatis.

After his surprising call-up to Double-A, he hit just .255/.282/.327 with a 30 percent strikeout rate in 14 games. It’s such a small sample that it’s barely worth discussing, really. On the plus side, however, those numbers don’t include playoff at-bats, and Tatis went seven-for-20 with a home run and just three strikeouts in five playoff games, improving that slash line even though he won’t get official credit for it.

Tatis was also drafted first in the Dominican Republic’s winter ball draft last night, which is especially pleasing to me given that I’ve been touting him as a better prospect than the more hyped Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (it’s close, I’ll admit). I love Tatis.

Lightning round (late question):

I’m with you on Tatis; he can stick at short for a while. The third base question gets murky, though, as there are a lot of options (Hudson Potts, Gabriel Arias, Eguy Rosario, etc.) but not one standout choice. I’m a big fan of Esteury Ruiz, so maybe he ends up moving over there in time. It could end up being a guy outside the organization, or whichever one of the young third base options take a leap forward. Should be a little clearer next year, as most things are.

Not sure about anything with Adam Jones. Certainly wouldn’t oppose it.

It’s tough to do Shohei Otani lightning round style, but I’d like to at least amend my previous thoughts on the issue. Back in May, I basically said there was no chance that they Padres would sign Otani. There still probably isn’t a great chance, but there’s a chance. Yes, I’m telling you there’s a chance.

Since Otani’s likely coming over this offseason, and he’s under age-25, he falls under the international amateur free agency rules. That means that the Padres, who spent a boatload of money on international players in the 2016-2017 signing period, can’t sign him or any other international amateur for more than $300,000.

That would seemingly eliminate Otani from the Padres radar, but . . . maybe not. Since he’s coming over a year before he’d essentially become an unrestricted free agent, he’s already giving up a ridiculous payday ($100 million? $200 million?). To sign with the Padres for $300,000, he’d only be giving up, at most, like $10 million. That’s about the max any team could pay him, although most teams have already spent at least something on amateur players this signing period (shrinking that number) and a bunch of teams are, like the Padres, under the penalty. So, in reality, it’s probably a good bit less than $10 million that Otani would be passing up to sign with a team like the Padres instead of the team that could pay him the most money within the rules.

In short, Otani’s already sacrificing a ton of money to play in the majors ASAP, so it wouldn’t be crazy if he decided to sacrifice a little more cash for the perfect fit. I don’t know if San Diego’s the perfect fit, but I’m sure Preller & Co. are doing their homework. And Otani, if he’s at all concerned with currency, is basically betting on himself here. If he lives up to expectations, he’ll get his big contract soon enough, either by signing an extension with the team that signs him or by hitting free agency early. The first bonus is just an appetizer.

(By the way, Jim Callis recently discussed the issue, and similar specifics, on the East Village Times podcast.)

Whew, some lightning round. See ya next week.

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  • ballybunion

    One other option for Travis Wood: pinch hitter extraordinaire. Could he be the next Matt Stairs?