The Power of Hope

The power of hope is a curious thing. —Probably not Huey Lewis

You’re Bathing in It

It seems like a lifetime ago that Padres fans were bathing in hope after new GM A.J. Preller rebuilt the organization in his own image. The entire process captivated us in a way that the Padres seldom do.

Tired of the same old “be smart with limited resources” conservatism favored by previous regimes that yielded sporadic incremental improvement but failed to push the franchise into respectability or capture the public’s imagination, fans embraced this new, bold way of operating. People remembered how to be excited about the local baseball team again, or perhaps in some cases for the first time.

As I noted in December, this mattered a lot:

After a year of fans griping about stupid little things like drafting Johnny Manziel or naming a plaza after Bud Selig, the Padres needed to grab more positive headlines. Their recent flurry of activity represents a huge PR boost for a team that desperately sought one.

The reaction in San Diego and throughout baseball was, What the heck are the Padres doing? People in New York are talking about the Padres in December, which probably violates several laws. Locals in this football town are making noise and buying season tickets.

Analysts are wondering if Preller’s strategy will work. Of course, it already has. In the span of a week, the Padres have gone from off-radar to the forbidden realms of curious relevance. They are in the public’s consciousness, which is a strange place for them to be.

Hope soared, as did ticket sales. The Padres sold a better story, and people bought it:

Whether it’s warranted or not, folks are actually excited about this team. There is value in that.

Baseball is part of the entertainment industry. Dwindling attendance has been a problem in San Diego. Can’t stay in business if you don’t have customers. Get ’em interested, they’ll buy what you’re selling, which in this case is a bucketful of hope. Did the Padres improve their situation by acquiring expensive brand-name players? Maybe, maybe not, but there is a perception that high price equals high quality. Even if there is no actual improvement, they at least got fans thinking there is.

Perception is a hell of a drug.

Warning Signs

Even as Preller was busy transforming the Padres, there were warning signs. For one thing, the team lacked a legitimate leadoff man. For another, the defense had gaping holes. These various shortcomings led to my muted conclusions amidst a wave of optimism from the faithful:

Returning to the larger point about PR (can’t say “Preller” without “PR”), there’s a decent chance the 2015 Padres lose as many games as last year’s version, but in different ways, with more recognizable and expensive names. But for now, in December, they have tapped into the power of belief.

For a team that hasn’t been fascinating in any aspect for a long time, his approach marks a welcome change. It may or may not generate wins, but it’s generating interest, which is novel. Maybe something good will happen. How do you know if you don’t try?

Yes, I said “his approach marks a welcome change” and given the state of the fan base before his arrival, a part of me still believes it (although swapping Carlos Quentin’s bad contract for Melvin Upton’s horrendous contract defies all sensibility). The Padres desperately needed to capture the public’s imagination, which they did.

Bad Things Happened

After 15 games, the Padres appeared to be capturing more than just imaginations. They started the season 10-5 and found themselves in first place after beating the Rockies in Denver on April 21.

Then bad things happened.

The starting pitchers couldn’t keep the ball in the park. When they did, the fielders couldn’t make plays behind them. When the starters and fielders performed, the bullpen faltered. When the bullpen held, the offense disappeared. When the offense disappeared, the manager followed.

Matt Kemp turned into a more expensive Jeff Francoeur, and nobody else hit much either (Justin Upton did for a while, but he hasn’t done anything since May; his slash line is lower than Seth Smith’s). It was hard to differentiate between 2014’s cheap, no-name offense and 2015’s pricy, famous offense:

Year BA OPB SLG OPS+ R/G
2014 .226 .292 .342 85 3.3
2015 .238 .294 .368 88 3.9

Even this year’s totals are deceiving. Runs have become increasingly scarce as the season has progressed:

  • April: 4.6 R/G
  • May: 4.1 R/G
  • June: 3.8 R/G
  • July: 2.3 R/G

After scoring 26 runs in a three-game sweep of the Rockies at Petco Park to begin May, the Padres were averaging 5.0 runs per game on the season. Then they got shut out in three of the next four games and never recovered. Since May 4, they’re essentially duplicating last year’s effort, averaging 3.5 runs per game and hitting .229/.287/.349.

You’d think all that money would buy more than a slightly better version of the same crap. Isn’t that how capitalism is supposed to work?

The Padres went 22-28 after their hot start and Bud Black was “relieved of his duties.” Dave Roberts then took over for one game while the club summoned Pat Murphy from Triple-A El Paso. Under those two men, the Padres stumbled to a 9-15 finish headed into the All-Star break, needing two wins at the end to do even that.

As is so often the case, the future looks different when it becomes the present. Reality changes, and we must adapt.

What Is There to Sell?

Thanks to the new reality, there’s talk that the Padres might be sellers at the trade deadline. Makes sense, but what of value is there to sell? They already shipped Joe Ross and Matt Wisler to contenders in the offseason. Both have helped their new clubs.

Kemp and Melvin Upton are unmovable. Justin Upton should fetch something, although he is a rental. Ditto Joaquin Benoit. Not much left after that. James Shields? Craig Kimbrel? They’re on long-term deals but could be useful to someone now and into the future.

The Padres, meanwhile, continue to insist that they are “committed to winning.” It’s a wonderful sentiment that folks love to hear, and throwing money at name-brand players is a nice touch, but what does this actually mean? Because right now the Padres are “committed to paying” $71 million to six players who, depending on which flavor you prefer, have combined for 0 to 2 WAR through the season’s first half.

The way I see it, there are three possibilities going forward:

  • Preller has some neat tricks up his sleeve that we haven’t yet seen (given his reputation, the international market might be a good place to look).
  • The new ownership group has more money than anyone realizes and is willing to outspend its mistakes like a large-market team.
  • The Padres are screwed, and we’re all going to miss the days when Jeff Moorad pretended to own the team and Bud Selig pretended to let him until Jerry Reinsdorf told Selig to stop.

My vision is dark. You can probably guess which scenario strikes me as most likely.

“Outstanding Job”

On the bright side, fans are still flocking to Petco Park. Maybe this is why Padres CEO Mike Dee believes (or at least says) that Preller has “done an outstanding job.”

In May I noted that attendance was way up from last year. Only the Royals and Mariners had seen a greater increase. This is still true in July:

G 2014 Att/G 2015 Att/G Diff
23 26,674 31,758 +5,084
40 26,573 31,479 +4,906

If the Padres had a slightly better record right now without all the fuss of an offseason filled with high-profile transactions, would this bump in attendance have happened? No way.

The Padres are 10 games out of first place at the break. What if they had stood pat over the winter? Maybe they’d be a little better, say only 6 games out of first. Then people would start to ask whether the team should have done more: “If the Padres had gone out and got Justin Upton, by golly, they’d be right in this thing!”

Now we don’t have to wonder. They made bold moves that haven’t worked so well. Their failure is not for lack of effort. They might not know what they’re doing, but they’re doing something.

Maybe “let’s be crazy” is an easier narrative to sell than “let’s be responsible.” For as lousy as the Padres have been, they’re on pace for the sixth highest attendance figure in franchise history, behind 1998 and the first four years of Petco Park. The fact that a team this miserable is competing with a pennant winner and a series of contenders that was basking in the afterglow of a shiny new ballpark is nothing short of incredible. So in that sense, Preller has “done an outstanding job.”

He and the Padres have sold a vision. They have gotten people to believe. Even in July, folks are still paying money to watch a team that is no better than last year’s less expensive, less famous version. Previous regimes couldn’t have made that happen.

Not Bathing but Drowning

It remains to be seen how long belief persists in the absence of results. The promise of a brighter future can be a powerful weapon, but you have to reach that future. Otherwise this becomes the latest in a long line of disappointments that have come to define the San Diego Padres.

Some folks have probably already reached that conclusion. On the other hand, as ticket sales show, many are still waiting in anticipation of better days ahead.

I’ve tried examining the situation from many angles, and it always looks like a colossal mess to me, indecipherable and unsolvable. Then again, nobody is paying me to decipher or solve anything. Maybe I’ve overlooked some critical piece of information, or maybe I’m just plain wrong. Either way, here we are again, bathing in hope. Or maybe, with apologies to Stevie Smith, not bathing but drowning.

Let us hope not.

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  • Pat

    I had reached a similarly dark conclusion before I’d read any of your recent stuff, Geoff. Not sure if it’s a case of great minds think alike or long time Padres fans know to expect the worst, but I’m right there with you.

  • Lonnie Brownell

    If you’re into conspiracy theories (and you know who you are), this could have been the most evil/clever (alleged) ploy by Padres Management yet: “See, spending money doesn’t really buy baseball happiness, so we’re going back to low, efficient payroll levels.”

    Now, if Preller can find a way to offload the six under-performing contracts for $71 million cited, then he truly will be doing an outstanding job. Per Mike Dee, anyway.

  • Shaq

    Well written; enjoyed reading.

  • Shaqapopolis

    I’d still like a short stop….

    • ballybunion

      I’m thinking Clint Barmes has shown enough to put Alexi on the bench.

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  • ballybunion

    I’m going to go with “B”, the owners have more money than we think and are willing to spend it. I think they really mean it when they say they’ll try to compete EVERY YEAR. The team was massively made over and needed time to jell, the first half strength of schedule was the 9th toughest in the majors, and the key player, Kemp, hasn’t been the 2014 second half player they hoped he would be. But the schedule the next 32 games is soft, the pitching is more like what was expected, and the team could claw its way right back into the race, since LA and SF have had uncommonly easy first half schedules (27th and 28th toughest), and that’s about to change. Then again, I’ve been called ‘The Blue Bird of Happiness’ before, but 72 games left is a lot.