Yesterday, on twitter, I did what I do best on there. I hijacked an otherwise innocent thread and turned it into a lengthy debate on nuance (it turned into a good discussion, by the way).
I'm down with tank and all, but if Padres can't win with *this* farm system, plus players they'll get soon in trades, it's hopeless anyway.
— Dustin (@sacbuntdustin) July 30, 2017
First off, I’m down with the tank. I’ve been on board since day one, and although maybe I haven’t been loading and firing artillery, or driving that thing, I’ve been present in the back, filing paperwork on code regulations and such.
The tank makes perfect sense. If you’re not going to be good, be bad; be really bad. Don’t strive for the middle. That’s about all it is, really. Being bad in baseball gives you certain perks. For your toils, you get a higher first round draft pick, more draft bonus pool money, (formerly) more international money, and the ability to orchestrate a plan that focuses just about all resources on the future. It’s a strategy that allows you to draft MacKenzie Gore, to trade for players like Fernando Tatis Jr., and to audition Rule 5’ers like Luis Perdomo or Allen Cordoba.
The Padres have done a pretty good job with it. Their 68-94 record last year netted them the third overall pick, and they’ve been able to locate and polish up a number of diamond-in-the-rough types, either to use in trades (Trevor Cahill, possibly Brad Hand, etc.) or to maybe hold on to (Perdomo, etc.). They’ve also spent and scouted diligently in the international amateur market, and done a solid job with the stateside draft. As a result, the farm system is loaded with both upside and depth, and it currently ranks like fourth-best in all of baseball, give or take a few slots depending on your source.
But right now, despite an awful run differential, the Padres sit at 47-58. There are five teams with more losses than San Diego and another small handful right in the vicinity of 58. The Padres are expected to struggle for the rest of the summer, especially if they trade away some of their most valuable remaining players (like Hand, specifically). The other bad teams are expected to struggle too, however, because that’s what bad teams do best. There’s a chance, even if they play at a sub-.400 clip over the season’s final two months, that the Padres draft outside of the top five in 2018.
Yeah, yeah, they can’t even tank well.
In that sense, though, the Padres have the worst run different in all of baseball, so maybe they’ve just been unlucky. Their bullpen has been solid relative to the team’s overall quality, and it’s at least partly to blame for some of those extra wins beyond their Pythagorean record. Then again, the Padres have used that bullpen to rehabilitate pitchers like Hand, Ryan Buchter, and Kirby Yates, all of whom have either helped net them good prospects or could by the time this virtual ink is dry. Further, while role players like Matt Szczur and Jose Pirela performing well has perhaps inadvertently damaged the tank, it at least reinforces the idea that the Padres are doing a good job identifying undervalued players.
Tanking ability aside, a broader question emerges: when does it end?
This may or may not be an unpopular answer (probably depends on who you ask), but I think there’s an argument that the rest of this season will be the last stage of “the tank,” as loaded a term as that may be.
Consider the roster next season. The Padres will have important players like Manuel Margot, Austin Hedges, and Hunter Renfroe in their second full seasons to go along with solid older vets like Wil Myers and Yangervis Solarte, if neither of them are dealt by next April. They’ll also have interesting projects like Dinelson Lamet, Matt Strahm, Perdomo, Franchy Cordero, Cory Spangenberg, Phil Maton, and Carlos Asuaje. Further, and perhaps just as important, another wave of prospects should be hitting San Diego. Players like Luis Urias, Eric Lauer, Joey Lucchesi, and Cal Quantrill all could be knocking on the door by early in 2018, if not breaking it off its hinges.
The argument for not “tanking” in 2018 is simply that the big-league roster will be filled with good, young players. If you’re fielding a team that may feature as many as eight or 12 future pieces, well, you probably ought to be winning more than 60 or 65 games. I’m not arguing that the Padres will be good in 2018; they shouldn’t be, and they likely won’t be. And they shouldn’t start suddenly going all-out to win again this offseason. But it’s hard, from a big picture organizational perspective, to attempt to put a losing team on the field when half the roster is going to be made up of players that you want to perform well.
Even if 2018 is a transitional year, 2019 looks like the season where the Padres should start to turn the corner, and actually begin trying to win. By then, Margot & Co. are in their third year, you can definitely count on something from the group of prospects mentioned a couple of paragraphs up, plus you can anticipate the debuts of new ones, like, perhaps, Michel Baez, Jacob Nix, Jorge Ona, Josh Naylor, and (maybe) Tatis.
I’m not saying that the rebuild is done, by any means, or that the Padres should ever stop looking for talent, for ways to exploit every loophole (within the rules, or close enough). It just feels like the tank is going to be derailed by the talent acquired from it, and maybe it’s happening sooner than expected. It’s hard to bring up so many players you’re counting on and still expect to lose, and there’s little good to come from players like Margot or Hedges or Lauer having to sit through multiple losing seasons. It’s unfair to expect those guys to suddenly be able to turn into winning players once the front office says “go.”
Consider the Houston Astros and their tank from earlier this decade. Despite a stretch of three straight 100-loss seasons from 2011 through 2013, their current group of core players generally didn’t spend much time on losing teams. Carlos Correa, Houston’s franchise guy, played on exactly zero bad teams. His debut came in the 2015 season, as part of a 86-game winner. George Springer played on just one losing team in 2014, and that team won 70 games. Alex Bregman and Lance McCullers? No bad teams. There are exceptions, of course, as Dallas Keuchel and Jose Altuve were both around, and playing poorly, through most of Houston’s rebuild. But this powerhouse Astros roster didn’t all play together for multiple seasons on a tanking team. For one, good players generally don’t play together on bad teams, plus the Astros timed it so they wouldn’t.
While there are some parallels between those Astros and these Padres, no rebuild is the same. The Astros went to a different level of putrid on-field performance, and their tanking teams rostered few long-term pieces; in fact, both Keuchel and Altuve could be considered the product of something sticking to the wall, as neither were sure-thing prospects. And for every one of them, there were multiple players like Lucas Harrell, Jordan Lyles, or Brandon Barnes. Further, the Astros seemingly relished the strategy, and their general manager Jeff Luhnow, or their owner Jim Crane, didn’t sidestep around what was going on. While the Padres, ownership and all, has bought into their own rebuild, you still get the feeling that it’s not exactly the desired path, and that they don’t like talking about it frankly (build vs. rebuild, etc.).
Give the Astros credit for seeing their plan through, and communicating it well. They had their share of missteps along the way (hey, Jacob Nix), but right now they have the best team in the American League and a decent shot to make Sports Illustrated look clairvoyant. Give the Padres some credit, however, for not having to stoop to that level for that long. While they likely haven’t accumulated as much young talent as the Astros ultimately did, the Padres have done an excellent job putting together a solid group of young big leaguers and a great farm system, and it hasn’t taken three years of 50-something wins to do it. Instead, the Padres sort of played it in between. As Ryan Luz mentioned yesterday in that twitter thread, they’ve put all of their efforts into winning in the future and not necessarily into losing right now. It’s a fine line, but there’s a difference in strategy there.
Now, because of that difference in strategy, the Padres have to think about winning soon. Certainly not for the rest of this season, and probably not even in 2018. But soon. If the Padres aren’t ready to start winning by 2019, that means that the first and second waves of prospects, combined, aren’t good enough to contend at the major-league level. And as much as we’re looking forward to the returns from recent international amateur classes, placing too much emphasis there would be like putting all of our eggs into a basket that’s being dropped off Petco’s upper deck without a parachute. The Padres have good players now, and they should have good players later. That’s not a bad thing. They’ll just have to continue finding good players without the benefit of a top five draft pick—and the other perks that come with extreme losing—every year.
For us, it’ll soon be time to stop worrying about the team jockeying for the first overall pick, and to start paying closer attention to the development of players on the major-league roster. Are Margot, Renfroe, and Hedges the heart of a future contender? Can Lamet or Perdomo turn into solid, mid-rotation starters? Is Lauer a fifth starter, or something more? Are Asuaje and Spengenberg more than future role players or trade fodder? The end game of the tank is to bring good players to San Diego. Some of those players have already arrived, and there are more coming. It’s about time to see if the Padres can win with them.