When Do We Park The Tank?

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).

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.

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  • Robby Deming

    I hate to be that homerish guy, but sign me up for a 75 to 80 win team next year. The kids, for the most part, appear to be alright. Margot looks like he could be something special and I think Renfroe could become a poor man’s Jay Bruce. Hedges needs to stay healthy, but there’s some cause for cautious optimism.

    And I think you bring up a really important point. It’s not just the draft. Finding guys like Pirela, Yates, Czusur (sp?) and the Rule 5 kids shows that this team is able to find value in unexpected places.

    I know some folks are down on Preller because of the way this all started, but I think he’s done a brilliant job of setting this franchise up for some hopefully sustained success.

    • ballybunion

      Just as the team was expected to lose 100 games this year but won’t even come close, they may not lose that much in the last 57 games. If they play .500 ball as they have the last two months, they’ll add 28 wins to the current 47, for 75 wins THIS YEAR. Come on Robbie, be a REAL homer – sign up for a winning record next year.

      The returning injured pitchers and the lefties Wood and Strahm can’t do worse than Weaver’s nine starts, most of Richard’s starts and the missing month Cahill produced. The position players will be more experienced, as will the young relief pitchers. And who knows what moves Preller will make? Join the optimists’ club – membership is free.

      • I still can’t see them going .500 down the stretch this year. Next year, I don’t know. If they wanted to push it, maybe they could get there. But I’m not even sure they’re ready to be that good yet. I guess it mostly depends on the performance of a lot of these young players.

        I do think it’ll be a different kind of year next year, hopefully with more flashes of a solid team. I’m thinking they end up closer to 65-70 this year and then get it up to the mid-70s in 2018, if not a little higher.

        (Don’t quote me on any of this. Gotta see what they do in the offseason before we really dive into 2018 predictions.)

      • ballybunion

        Well, look at what Fangraphs are predicting for the rest of the season. They have the Padres at 24-33 the rest of the way, for a total of 71 wins. I was responding to Robbie and the 75 win total, and it’s not that far away from doable.

        I’m optimistic about next year, but you’re right about Preller in the off-season. Preller is great at acquiring high ceiling talent, but there comes a time for a GM to hold onto players who are not part of the future, but can help develop players who ARE part of the future.

        I’m thinking of guys like Hand, who can anchor the bullpen the rest of this year and all of next, and have a potential closer in Phil Maton get experience as a setup man alongside Yates, who isn’t part of the future either, but can help with Maton’s development.

        That’s my fear about Preller: that he won’t or can’t switch gears from acquiring prospect talent to letting a team keep its mix of youth and veterans long enough to develop a winning team. Churning a roster is as bad as churning an investment portfolio. Buying and holding quality investments is better in the long term.

      • Robby Deming

        Hah, I’m all in. I’ve never been one to just slag the FO while ignoring the economies of baseball. And as brazen and bumbling as I find him, I do think Fowler genuinely wants this team to a) win and b) be a source of pride for the community. With the Chargers gone, the Padres have a real opportunity to build an identity in the community. I’d really love to see that happen.

  • Loren C

    It’s one thing to be a 75-80 win team with Kemp/Upton/Kimbrel/Shields, that’s an obvious failure. But if you could hit .500 with the young kids taking a big stride, that’s a huge positive. It means the tank might not be as bad or for as long as they expected and that the team is finally in the upswing.

    And as a note did anyone expect the Giants and Phils to suck THIS bad. I don’t think the Padres are capable of sucking that bad, even with this group, just because the Pads are actually trying.

    • Nah, I mean the Giants were like borderline to solid contenders coming into the year. That’s baseball for ya.

  • Billy Lybarger

    I’m not expecting much in ’18, simply due to the pitching being very young, and there should not be expectations of winning with the rookies. Sure, you want to see them progress and look better as the year goes on, but that’s about it. ’19 looks a bit like a year to go for .500, but my difficulty in seeing it is again pitching, plus the fact that I’m not sold on some of the first wave guys being good players. Myers and Renfroe look like ~ 2 win players ceiling types. Maybe they develop more, but it’s getting harder to see with the former, maybe less so with the latter.

    I honestly believe their window is more likely to open when Tatis Jr. is the starting SS. And as he becomes more productive at the MLB level, so goes the Padres chances for a championship. When you look over the current Astros roster they have 3 guys with 4+ wins right now on offense. They could easily have 7 players have 4+ wins seasons, with 3 guys over 6 wins each. If you honestly assess the Padres current and future roster, you tend to tilt to the extreme homer side in wishing for that many wins from just the offense. Though I do believe the Padres have a serious chance at producing quite a few wins from the pitching side. I hate pinning all hopes on one player currently in A ball, but the truth is someone needs to be a breakout high producing star, That player has to be developed as the Padres cannot afford to buy such a player. Tatis jr. looks every bit to be that type of player. I’m hoping he is ready by ’20 to join the club. And I consider that season the true opening of the window for their run for a championship level team.

    • I agree, actually, that they shouldn’t be expected to win next year, no way. I just think it’s hard to try to tank when, I don’t know, up to maybe 3/4 of the roster will be guys you want to play well. With part of a potential young nucleus on that team, I just don’t think it makes sense to try to extend the tank into next year. Let a bunch of young guys plays, sign some Cahill types, and see what happens. They might lose 65 games anyway, but I wouldn’t try to force it.

      Tatis should be ready by 2020, I think, if all goes smoothly from here. That’s always the big question, of course, and always is. But he should at least get through High-A next year, and then 2019 could be for Double-A and Triple-A, if needed, and I think that’s something of a conservative timeline. We’ll see. The Padres have been pretty aggressive promoting guys, but obviously there’s still a long way between Fort Wayne and San Diego. Either way, I agree that he’s a big part of the future outlook, but hopefully the farm system is good enough to avoid having to put too much pressure on one player.

      • GT500KR

        Man, if they only lose 65 next year…. 🙂

        I’ll take the under on 70 wins next season. What we’re seeing this season is the very definition of luck. We’re already 8 games ahead of our Pythagorean and that almost always comes back to bite you in the tuchus. The 2017 Padres feel like the 2016 Phillies to me. Hopefully our luck won’t swing quite as hard the other way as it did in Philly.

        Like you say, the right call for Preller is to repeat his approach to 2017. Maybe not three Rule Fives, but fill out the rotation with cheap vets, look to flip relievers, let Margot-Hedges-Renfroe-Spang-Asuaje play. The jury is still out on all of them to varying degrees. I’m not nearly so ready to anoint the entire core as “good players” quite yet.

    • GT500KR

      Largely of the same opinion, differing in a few details.

      I’m of the reverse thinking on Myers and Renfroe, based mostly on plate discipline and secondly on defense. Hunter’s keen eye of May disappeared when the calendar page flipped, He drew NO walks in July. You should get two or three if you stand there with your back to the pitcher.

      Even if the current group does have several 2 win players, it’s like a race car. You use relatively little horsepower to get to 150 mph, neck and neck with your competitors, but it’s hard as hell to accelerate from there. A couple of current Padres will need to contribute in a big way, and then you still need (jinx alert) Tatis and Urias to do great things. Ideally from the middle infield, but from 3b and 2b works too.

      • Billy Lybarger

        I’m starting to think it is time to either put a fork in Myers or move him to LF. His bat was atrocious in July, and I worry we could see a second half performance that is worse than last season. Sure, he might limp to 30 HRs, but not much else. Obviously the Padres have little immediate help system wise for a 1B as Josh Naylor, the most promising prospect, is the youngest guy in the Texas AA league.

        But the big problem is having a long term face of the franchise contract with a guy who seams to check out for half the season. Is he even salvageable? Do you move him down the order? Will moving him to LF help?

        I think Renfroe is probably who he is, and possibly he’ll learn some plate discipline and surprise us all. He is not a young rookie, so he could be set in his ways, but he could come around. I guess I owe him the courtesy of a bit of patience.

  • EarthWindnFriar

    Lots of great points. I’m pretty much with you about transitioning away from the tank in ’18, especially due to the pitchers who will probably arrive in the 2nd half. Would be nice to get one last tank payoff this year tho. Wouldacouldashoulda.