The Padres have made an uncharacteristically loud splash this holiday season. As fans complained about inactivity at the Winter Meetings here in San Diego, the team tuned out the noise and dealt Yasmani Grandal, Joe Wieland, and Zach Eflin to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp, Tim Federowicz, and $31 million.
With a laughably incompetent offense and a disillusioned fan base, the Padres have decided to commit large amounts of money to name players. There’s a new GM, a new hitting coach, and a relatively new ownership group. They want to make a positive mark on the franchise and the city.
Before the trade, the Padres had been linked to many marquee hitters this offseason. They missed on Pablo Sandoval and Yasmany Tomás. Other names included Jay Bruce, Adam Jones, and Justin Upton. Some still think Upton might yet happen.
Ron Fowler, Mike Dee, and A.J. Preller had a budget and were going to use it. When Sandoval and Tomás landed elsewhere, they turned to Kemp. But was it worth the cost?
First off, the peripheral guys aren’t exciting. No disrespect to any of them, I’m sure they’re all fine young men and far better at baseball than I am in my wildest dreams, but let’s be real. Wieland has the ceiling of a no. 4 starter when healthy, and he hasn’t been healthy. Eflin couldn’t put the ball past A-ball hitters. Federowicz is a body the Padres can use to back up Rene Rivera while everyone waits for their chance to place unreasonable expectations on Austin Hedges.
So it’s Grandal for Kemp and $31 million. Kemp is owed $107 million over the next 5 years, which means the Padres are paying $15.2 million a year for his age 30-34 seasons.
It also means the Dodgers are paying Kemp $6.2 million a year to play for a division rival. Remember that when he homers against his former club. Plus the extra cash could help absorb the “loss” of Carlos Quentin.
“Hey, has anyone seen Carlos?”
“No, I think he got lost.”
“Oh well, carry on.”
That’s a dream I sometimes have.
Is Kemp at $15.2 million a year for his age 30-34 seasons (less the services of Grandal, which we’ll get to in a moment) a better deal than Sandoval at $19 million a year for his age 28-32 seasons or Tomás at $11.4 million a year for his age 24-29 seasons? We don’t know Tomás’ capabilities because he’s never played on the North American continent, but based on reports and the financial commitment of very smart people, he’s probably good.
Before we look at Sandoval, let’s discuss Grandal. Many, myself included, see him as a breakout candidate in 2015. If healthy, he’ll hit. He has more value behind the plate, but if health (2013 right knee surgery) or defense (good at pitch framing but little else) force a permanent move to first base, he’ll do enough damage with the bat to make that work. Carlos Delgado, Raúl Ibañez, Paul Konerko, Justin Morneau, Mike Sweeney, and others have moved with success. Grandal can do it, too.
If he sticks behind the dish? Well, damn. Then he’s bordering on stardom. But you’re willing to risk losing a guy like that when your goal is to appease fans that are tired of watching their team lose many games in the most boring ways possible.
Returning to Sandoval, both he and Kemp have been brilliant at times, are familiar with the NL West, have significant injury histories, and are of limited utility or worse on defense. The expectation in Boston, for example, is that Sandoval could eventually replace David Ortiz at DH. This wouldn’t be an option for the Padres, due to a lack of both Ortiz and DH.
Kemp’s defense? Depending on who you ask or what metrics you look at, he’s either kinda lousy or just plain awful. Here’s the thing, though. Whoever the Padres brought in to spice up their offense wasn’t coming to town to flash leather. It’s possible that Kemp could cost them games with his glove, but the hope is that his bat will be potent enough to offset that liability. Obviously, this comes with some risk, which is why it cost the team relatively little (says the guy who loves Grandal).
Anyway, if you only look at the offensive contributions of Kemp and Sandoval, their recent histories (2012-2014) make it obvious which one you want:
This is a gross oversimplification, but that’s the difference between Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou (or, if you prefer contemporary names, Evan Longoria and Howie Kendrick). The larger point is that if you’ve committed to throwing wads of cash at a slugger, you want to be sure the guy actually slugs. Kemp fits the bill. Sandoval, not so much.
Yeah, health. Yeah, defense. We’re assuming the powers-that-be just want a big bat with a big name. Well, they got one. Maybe fans will come out to watch him play. Maybe the team will win more. Maybe a lot of things will happen.
There is historical precedent for this with the Padres: Willie McCovey. Gene Tenace. Steve Garvey. Jack Clark. Fred McGriff. Greg Vaughn. (Don’t mention Joe Carter or Ryan Ludwick. Ah, too late!)
Most recently, at the tail end of a 98-loss season and headed into a new downtown ballpark, the Padres traded for Brian Giles. And although many people think he was a disappointment in San Diego and still pine for Jason Bay (sort of like Andrew Cashner and Anthony Rizzo), the truth is that Giles had some great years here. His name is all over the franchise batting leaderboards. He and Jake Peavy practically carried the Padres into the 2005 postseason.
Giles was a little older then than Kemp is now. But Giles was also healthier and a better hitter, with more power and patience. Due to advancing age, a move from NL Central bandboxes to NL West graveyards (including a devastating home park), and possibly other factors, Giles never approached the power numbers he’d posted in Pittsburgh but remained productive through his age 37 season.
Meanwhile, smart folks have come down hard against the Padres for acquiring Kemp. At FanGraphs, Dave Cameron asserts that “the 2015 Padres are going to be bad” and compares Grandal for Kemp to Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells. It’s a fun comparison until you realize that Napoli was better than Grandal, and Wells worse than Kemp, at the time the respective trades were made.
Cameron’s argument also assumes that one should surrender in the face of long odds rather than fight. The Padres are going to be bad, we have declared it so in December, and there is nothing to be done, end of story. If you don’t think too hard, this almost makes sense. Almost.
Padres Public’s own resident smart guy Dustin calls the move “a particularly rotten trade.” He raises some good points, but I disagree with his overall assessment. I don’t believe, for example, that “signing Adam LaRoche, Nori Aoki, and, say, Jed Lowrie” would have drummed up fan interest locally or on a national level.
The latter is a crucial point. We can debate whether the Padres should be looking to make national headlines, but raising visibility while raising quality of play appears to be on the current leadership group’s agenda. Kemp probably improves the team’s offense. He definitely improves its visibility, which raises a fun philosophical question: Does Kemp make the Padres more relevant, or do the Padres make Kemp less relevant?
Fowler, Dee, and Preller are literally banking on the former. For better or for worse, they are intent on making bold moves. Or to put it more cynically, if the Padres don’t field a better team, they’ll at least field one that is less cheap.
Hey, we’re bad! Now with former superstar!
And this is why I’m not in marketing.