Wil Myers, AJ Preller, and the Ever-Changing Padres

At the beginning of last week’s winter meetings, the Padres arguably had more depth at catcher than any other major league organization with a trio composed of Rene Rivera, a former (and, apparently, still) journeyman turned defensive wizard who had a breakout year with the bat in 2014; Yasmani Grandal, a talented 26-year-old switch-hitter with a surprising knack for framing pitches; and Austin Hedges, an offensively-challenged 22-year-old in need of further seasoning, but also gifted with the best defensive catching skills in the minor leagues.

A week later and, at least tentatively, the Padres have shipped both Grandal and Rivera elsewhere. (Don’t forget, as of this writing, both trades aren’t yet official.) Grandal went to the Dodgers as the main piece in the Matt Kemp trade and Rivera is headed to Tampa Bay in a three-team whopper that will, when finalized, bring Wil Myers to San Diego. The trade:

Padres receive: OF Wil Myers ( from TB), C Ryan Hanigan (TB), RHP Gerardo Reyes (TB), and LHP Jose Castillo (TB)

Rays receive: C Rene Rivera (SD), RHP Burch Smith (SD), 1B Trevor Bauers (SD), OF Steven Souza (WAS), and LHP Travis Ott (WAS)

Nationals receive: RHP Joe Ross (SD) and SS Trea Turner (SD) as a player-to-be-named-now*

*Turner, since he was drafted by the Padres in June, can’t be traded until next summer. Apparently, he’ll be put in the awkward position of remaining with the Padres until then.

The Padres haven’t completely depleted their previously discussed catching depth, as they got both Hanigan and Tim Federowicz back in the recent deals while hanging onto Hedges. However, before we can discuss the current catching situation with a straight face, let’s talk big picture.

***

In a recent episode of Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, Baseball Prospectus editor-in-chief Sam Miller discussed the desire fans hold for their teams to have a plan:

The internet loves a plan. Anytime you can establish a character for your team, and then make moves that fit with that character — unless you’re Ruben Amaro — people are going to cheer you, because process seems like the only thing that we’re really capable of judging. The alternative to that is if you surprise us with a super secret process, that’s good too, but you’ve gotta have a process.

He went on to discuss how teams like the Cubs and Astros have had a clearly defined plan in recent years, tearing everything down, spending less money than they were capable of spending, and slowly building toward a year in the future where that plan was going to finally result in on-field success.

The concept of a long-term plan, and how we as fans interpret it, is an interesting one. During Jed Hoyer’s abbreviated tenure as Padres general manager, a long-term plan was very clearly in place, and the internet ate it up. The Padres were going to build a perennial contender from within, focusing on drafting and player development, all under the framework of the sabermetric-focused Red Sox model (without the money, of course) used to capture two World Series titles during Hoyer’s tenure in Boston. The results weren’t always there — Hoyer dealt future Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber for Ryan Ludwick, he failed to sign 2010 first-round draft pick Karsten Whitson, and he headed a couple of so-so drafts — but a clear, defined process appeared to be in place, which allowed us to view each move as part of a grander plan. And, frankly, results be damned, it gave Hoyer the benefit of the doubt with a fan base that trusted his vision.

When Hoyer abruptly left San Diego to rejoin Theo Epstein in Chicago just two short years after taking the reins as Padres general manager, any semblance of a long-term plan seemed to travel east with him. It’s likely that Hoyer’s successor, Josh Byrnes, had a broader process in mind for most of his moves in San Diego, but many of them — and his justifications of them — felt disjointed and unconnected to any sort long-term outlook. Looking back on his tenure with the Padres reveals that plenty of those moves ended up okay in retrospect, but, without an identifiable plan or good results, the benefit of the doubt wasn’t given.

When AJ Preller made his first big move as Padres general manager, dealing Yasmani Grandal and a couple of arms for Matt Kemp and a backup catcher, there was some concern, at least from this author, that the Padres were going to continue in Byrnes’ mold, throwing moves at the wall and hoping a couple stick. After all, we didn’t really know what Preller’s plan was going to be with the Padres. We knew he was a scouting/player-development guy and, more specifically, we knew he was recognized as a premier evaluator of international talent. And we knew that he had reworked the front office, bringing in a variety of well-respected names into a suddenly stacked baseball operations department. And we also knew, based on various media reports, that Preller has had some degree of interest in every player, ever. Tireless worker, etc.

But what we didn’t know — and what we still might not know — was how Preller’s vision was going to manifest itself in terms of building a winning organization in San Diego. Was he going to sign hordes of international talent? Was he going to make a bunch of trades and rework the roster in hopes of a quick turnaround? Was he going to shoot for the slow-build, tearing things down and working toward competitiveness as the next decade approached?

Trading a young, controllable, underrated catcher for an aging star appeared, at least at the time, like a misjudgment both of one of his own teams’ players and its place in the NL West pecking order. Now, it’s just a week later, and we have a better handle on Preller’s MO. He’s going to rework the roster, he’s not going to hold too tightly onto prospects or young players that he didn’t draft or trade for, and he’s going to take on the unenviable task of turning the Padres into immediate contenders in a division with the Dodgers and defending champion Giants. It might not be the best plan, not for the long-term health of the organization, but at least it’s there, allowing us to view transactions in terms of how they’ll help the Padres in the immediate future.

***

Even in a vacuum, unlike the Kemp deal, it’s hard to criticize the Padres acquisition of Myers.

Sure, there are negatives. His first name is missing an “L.” More importantly, he’s coming off a year where he hit just .222/.294/.320 in 361 plate appearances and missed 70 games with a wrist fracture (the numbers weren’t too fresh pre-wrist injury either). His defense probably won’t be great and his work ethic occasionally comes into question. Further, some analysts are worried about Myers’ contact ability and, so far at the major league level, middling power production while others are still concerned that the Padres haven’t significantly moved the needle in a positive enough direction on the win curve. Finally, the fact that he’s been dealt twice by two different teams since December of 2012 probably isn’t a ringing endorsement.

Those are all real concerns, but you can play point-counterpoint with each of them Let’s just grab one, quickly: the idea that the Padres probably aren’t a contender right now. From Jeff Sullivan’s FanGraphs article linked above, the Padres, even with the additions of Kemp and Myers, only project as the 12th-best team in the National League. But here’s the thing: even though the Padres appear interested in putting a contender on the field in 2015, the Myers trade doesn’t represent a complete win-now attitude. He’s just 24-years-old and under control through 2019, so if the Padres plan on being in contention in any of those years, Myers should both be in his prime and relatively cheap. As Sullivan notes, he’s a lot like Matt Kemp, except he’s younger and cheaper, which is, well, really cool.

Further, the Padres didn’t sacrifice any huge minor league pieces in this deal. They held onto Austin Hedges, Matt Wisler, Hunter Renfroe, and Rymer Liriano. They did surrender 2014 first-round draft pick Trea Turner, a quickly emerging talent who carded an excellent minor league debut last year between Eugene and Fort Wayne, as well as Joe Ross, a promising — though inconsistent — 21-year-old right hander who cracked Baseball America’s top 100 a couple years back. And Jake Bauers, who put up an impressive .789 OPS as an 18-year-old in Single-A last year, is intriguing. Even Burch Smith, kind of a forgotten man after an ugly 2013 major league cameo, still can turn into a useful back-of-the-rotation arm.

So while the Padres did give up a legitimate group of prospects for the rights to Myers, they didn’t sacrifice the farm. San Diego also got a couple of pitching prospects back in the deal and, even though they rank sixth and eighth out of the eight prospectus involved in the deal according to Kiley McDaniel, they each come with their own intrigue: Reyes as a power arm out of the pen and Castillo as a 6-foot-4, left-handed, not quite 19-year-old project. Even if you think the Padres lost a lot in the trade — and make no mistake, in some respect, they did — acquiring Myers is both helpful in an attempt to win now and in the future.

Also, it appears that the Padres are far from a finished product for 2015. They now have a surplus of outfielders, plenty of prospects that still have major trade value, a trio of starting pitchers that have been rumored in trade talks all offseason, and the ability to add some smaller pieces in free agency. While the road to an 85- or 87-win projection might still be an uphill battle, it’s seems like a more reasonable possibility now than it did after the Kemp trade, and you can’t forget that Steamer isn’t the only projection system out there. Maybe ZiPS or PECOTA is higher on the Padres in the short-term.

Regarding Myers, the player, while he had an awful year all-around last season, it’s hard to imagine a write-off starting yet. Just last offseason, Jonah Keri ranked Myers as the 23rd most valuable property in all of baseball, ahead of players like Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Lucroy, and Carlos Gomez. Here’s what Keri wrote about him then:

Myers just won AL Rookie of the Year honors, but it still feels like he has lots of room to improve. He struggled at times with strike zone judgment in his debut season, and his routes to the ball in right field could stand to get a lot better — no surprise for someone who came up as a catcher. Still, he has six years to go before free agency. Watch these home run highlights, note his power to all fields (his first career homer was a grand slam to right-center at Yankee Stadium), and dream of a hitter who even in the offense-dampening confines of Tropicana Field could become a perennial .300-average, 35-homer guy.

Despite last season’s struggles, Myers still made Keri’s honorable mentions in his recently published 2015 trade value rankings, a seemingly fair position that recognizes the regression without overreacting to it. On a micro level, slicing and dicing Myers’ major league stats is probably worth it — like Cameron discussed, there’s plenty of interesting tidbits to be discovered, with perhaps some of them painting Myers’ future in a somewhat negative light. In the end, though, you’re only talking about something like a season’s worth of pre-wrist injury plate appearances, hardly enough data to change your outlook too drastically on a 22- or 23-year-old player.

Myers is still the guy who debuted with a 131 wRC+ as a 22-year-old in 2013. He’s still the guy who hit 37 minor league dingers in 2012 and ranked fourth, fourth, and seventh in top 100 prospect lists from Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Propsectus, respectively, prior to the 2013 season. Now he’s also a guy coming off a wrist injury and struggles against major league pitching, and he’ll have to both show that he’s healthy and able to adjust. The perceived value is down, perhaps significantly, which is why Myers became available without the Padres having to surrender too much. He’s exactly the kind of player the Padres should be targeting, whether they have World Series aspirations in 2015 or 2018.

For what it’s worth, here’s a back-of-the-envelope look at Myers’ surplus value:

myers

He’s a completely different player, but in some ways, Myers is a lot like the recently departed Grandal. He’s young, controllable, and possesses significant upside. While the Padres appeared to sell-low on Grandal, they’re buying low on Myers.

***

Dealing both Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera — the top pitch framing combo in the majors last year — within a week probably tells you something about what the current Padres front office thinks about pitch framing. That is, of course, until you realize that Ryan Hanigan is sort of Rene Rivera Version 2.0, and also one of the best pitch framers in baseball. According to Baseball Propsectus, Hanigan’s been worth 84.2 runs above average since 2008 by framing alone, and he’s also a solid blocker. By receiving runs per 7000 — essentially a full season for a catcher — Hanigan’s 19.0 is better than both Grandal (16.2) and Rivera (15.3). Hanigan, also like Rivera, is excellent at slowing down the running game. His caught stealing rate fell to 21 percent last year, but he led the league in both 2012 and 2013 by gunning down nearly 50 percent of would-be base thieves during that span.

Swapping Rivera for Hanigan is a sort of peculiar move, as the player’s are so similar. Even offensively, just looking at the Steamer projections, both Hanigan (86 wRC+) and Rivera (87 wRC+) are almost mirror images, although Hanigan does it with less power and an impressive career 1.1 walk-to-strikeout ratio.

Maybe it comes down to money. Hanigan is owed $8 million over the next two seasons (he has a $3.75 million club option in 2017 with a $800,000 buyout) while Rivera will be arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2015, so the Rays save some dough and get back a similar player with a little less wear and a little more recency.

It seems silly to speculate too far into the future, but as of this writing, it looks like Hanigan and Federowicz will hold down the fort until Hedges is ready.

***

Last offseason, Grantland ran a series of mostly team-related previews, with the Padres one earning the title: ” Learning to Love Baseball’s Almost (But, Not Quite) Least Interesting Team.” An article that featured 950 words, it only mentioned “Padres” six times. Even in the national spotlight for a fleeting moment, the Padres could barely grab anyone’s attention.

Assembling a winning team isn’t a popularity contest, but there’s something to be said for garnering some national headlines. It helps to build and expand a fan base, it helps make the season a bit more interesting for current fans, it helps with things like getting on national television, increasing attendance and TV ratings, and maybe, in some ways, attracting free agents, and sponsors, and all that good stuff.

Over the last week-plus, the Padres have received the kind of national attention usually reserved for the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Dodgers. That’s what happens when you make two mega trades and insert yourself into rumors about every other player on the market. I don’t know if any of it really means anything, but it’s fun to watch the Padres act like a major league organization, like a team with a purpose, like a team with the financial resources to occasionally compete with large-market foes and steal some of their usually monopolized front page thunder. If anything, it’s an ancillary benefit to building a winner, and one that can’t be completely written off as insignificant.

If it isn’t already clear, my opinion on the Padres offseason is fluid one. I didn’t like the Kemp trade and, despite plenty of good articles that did, I haven’t completely changed my mind on that one. But getting Wil Myers without giving up Hedges or (Tyson) Ross or Cashner or Kennedy or Renfroe improves the team now and later, infusing San Diego with the kind of talent that usually isn’t available at a discounted price on the trade market, allowing Padres fans to dream about a 2015 playoff run. Maybe that isn’t realistic yet, but it’s only mid-December and chances are right now — it’s midnight — AJ Preller’s working on something else.

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  • Len Gutman

    Holy cow, thanks for the in depth review. I was really worried right after the Kemp deal that the Padres weren’t thinking long term, not because they gave up Grandal but because they brought in Kemp. But the Myers trade yesterday got me fired up! I really like your assessment of the win now and later philosophy that Preller is bringing. I think it’s spot on. I think the Padres will be much better in the near term with Kemp and if they pull some more strings and play their cards right they may very well be contenders in the next couple of years while Kemp is still serviceable. The Myers trade was brilliant. Yes, the Nats may ultimately have “won” the trade, but the Padres really helped themselves offensively without giving up any of the MLB-ready talent they have and that is magnificent. I cannot wait to see what else Preller has up his sleeve before March. I suspect we’ll have a new starting shortstop (maybe Profar) and hopefully we’ll move some of the dead weight in the outfield. I like Seth Smith, but if he is part of a trade to bring us a new SS or a young corner infield bat I’m fine with moving him. And I’m still OK moving one of the big three starting pitchers in exchange for infield help because we have some great young arms coming up.

    What do you think the future holds for Alonso and Solarte? I think Solarte still has upside, although I’d be OK giving Spangenberg a shot at third. I’m still not sure what we have in Alonso. Some days I want to DFA him and other days I think he’s still coming into his own and maybe with Kemp and Myers around he won’t press too hard to be a home run hitter.

    Either way, I was depressed about the Padres two weeks ago and now I’m excited about 2015. Preller gets major kudos for that!

    • Dustin

      Len, appreciate the thoughts.

      RE Smith: He looks like an obvious trade candidate if the Kemp deal gets finalized, but the Padres did apparently tell him they wouldn’t trade him after he signed the extension last summer. Even though Preller wasn’t in a change then, I wouldn’t break that promise unless Smith agrees to be dealt. Either way, it shows that the Padres, with a skeleton front office in place, probably shouldn’t have extended Smith *and* gave him the no-trade assurance.

      I don’t mind Solarte at third if they upgrade elsewhere, which is what it looks like they’re going to try to do. There are worse options out there and, while he may be exposed in an everyday role, there’s a chance he’s a decent contact guy and somewhere near a league average hitter. Kind of have the same feeling with Alonso. If the Padres go into the season with Alonso at first, Gyorko at second, Barmes/Amarista at short, and Solarte at third, it still might be hard to view them as a serious contender, especially with bigger questions marks at catcher now, even if they 22 useful outfielders. I assume they’re going to make an upgrade at at least one of first base, short, or third.

  • Bielsa Widow

    Great article, though I think you’re being a little conservative with Myers’ projections. If he’s still just a 2.5 WAR player at age 28, I don’t know how happy we’ll all be.

    • Dustin

      Thanks – That’s possible. But PECOTA only projected Myers as a 3 WAR player in his age 26 and 27 seasons (and just 2.2 WAR at 28), and those numbers don’t include Myers’ miserable 2014 campaign. There’s a decent chance Myers develops into something more than a 2-3 WAR player, but overall, with some of the concerns in mind outlined above, I think if you get 12 or 13 WAR from him in five years, you’re happy.

  • ballybunion

    I’m glad your opinion on the Padres’ off-season is a fluid one, because it’s not over. Since you posted, the Padres have picked up catcher Norris from Oakland and got Justin Upton from the Braves, and there’s talk of flipping Hanigan for Middlebrooks of the Red Sox. I don’t envy you trying to provide analysis in between bursts of AJ Preller’s machine gun trading style.

    • Dustin

      I appreciate the concern! I’m overwhelmed by all of this moves, and it appears there will be plenty more. Crazy. Mostly good crazy, but still crazy.

      I think it’ll try to put some thoughts together on everything early next week, but it’s possible none of it will be relevant by the time I finish.

  • Jacob Guerriero

    My main concern is really the Fangraphs piece. We all remember the Blue Jays adding Reyes, Melky, Dickey, Buerle, et. al and improving by one win. I think its more important to focus on the renewed energy and vigor the front office is showing and not, as a fan base, get discouraged if the Padres don’t make the playoffs in the first full season of the AJ Preller era. These projects take time. I just hope ownership doesn’t lose patience.