Going All-In With Joaquin Benoit

I used to play online poker for hours upon hours a day. I never played for significant stakes, but that wasn’t really the point of playing. Poker, especially tournament poker, is a great test of patience and decision-making, and even at super low or even no stakes, it’s a competition, and I love to compete.

The Padres want to compete, too. They may not be built to, but they aren’t in rebuilding mode either. They’re in an in-between stage, in which they wait for their farm system to pay more dividends as they slowly build payroll up from the bottom of the barrel to somewhere closer to the middle of the barrel.

In 2013, the Padres were in a similar position and stood pat, adding almost no new talent. In poker terms, they folded their hand pre-flop. With the odds against them, they faced a choice of going for it or giving up, and they gave up. It was frustrating to witness, and it must have been frustrating for many in the organization as well.

This offseason has been a little bit different. With the signing of Josh Johnson to build depth and raise the ceiling of the starting rotation, plus the trade for Seth Smith which should have a similar affect on the outfield, the Padres have been addressing needs like a team that thinks it can win a lot of games in 2014. Maybe they’re overrating their talent, or maybe they realize that sometimes you have to risk all your chips knowing that the odds are likely not in your favor.

It’s called going all-in with the worst hand, and it’s a strategy I wholeheartedly endorse. Poker players who employ this strategy are generally short-stacked, not having enough chips to compete regularly with the other players at the table. This is the Padres. Due to several factors, the Padres will never be the big stack at the table, throwing their chips around and asserting pressure over the rest of the table, or in their case the division/league. That’s for the Dodgers and Yankees and other high revenue teams. The Padres, perpetually short-stacked, must employ more desperate measures.

With the Padres’ projected payroll for 2014 currently sitting very close to the $80 million it was expected to hit this offseason, they could call it a winter right now and say they tried when they ultimately end up with 79 wins next season. However, by trading Luke Gregerson in the Seth Smith deal, the Padres opened up a hole in their bullpen. They could rely on their young talent to fill the hole, as I previously predicted they might, or they could go seek out a similar replacement to Gregerson, perhaps even a small upgrade.

This is where Joaquin Benoit comes in. A few days ago it was reported that the Padres were competing with the Indians for the 36 year old closer’s services, and that both teams had offers in to Benoit in the range of at least 2 years, $14 million, with the possibility that the Padres may be offering a 3rd year option. Not only that, the Padres were reported later that day to have an advantage in the negotiations. Exciting stuff, right?

Then nothing happened. Until Sunday night, when it was announced that the Indians have signed free agent reliever John Axford. You might remember him as the guy who was non-tendered by the Cardinals two weeks ago while on a flight to San Diego. As I’m writing this, the terms of the deal remain unclear, and there have been no official announcements or statements made by the Indians front office, but I think it’s safe to assume that this means the Indians have moved on from Benoit.

So now we wait. I’m writing this late on Sunday night, assuming that nothing will happen in the 10 hours between now and 9am pst. If something does, I’m going to look pretty dumb posting this piece, but I’ll probably post it anyway just because I don’t like re-writes or having a thousand words go for nothing. I’ll just put one of those bold update things at the bottom. Anyway. I can’t right now say that the Padres will sign Joaquin Benoit, but I can make the case that they should.

If the rumors are correct, the contract Benoit would sign with the Padres would be the biggest guaranteed contract ever handed out to a free agent by the Padres in the history of the franchise. The fact that Orlando Hudson‘s 2 year, $11.5 million contract is the current biggest is a pretty sorry statement about the Padres, one that David Marver of Change The Padres has used against the team repeatedly, and it’s one that really resonated to me.

Should the Padres give their largest ever free agent contract to a lowly reliever? Yes. Or anybody else who deserves it. That should not be a factor in the decision-making process. The better question is whether the Padres should be allocating such a large amount of money to the bullpen, considering that Huston Street is already making $7 million in 2014.

In my opinion, yes. As it stands now, with an $80 million payroll, the Padres would be spending around $11.5 million on the bullpen, including Street’s $7 million, Tim Stauffer‘s $1.6 million, and 5 other pre-arbitration relievers. That’s only 14% of their total payroll. The league average for payroll allocation to the bullpen is closer to 20%. If you add in Benoit at $7.5 million, the Padres would be budgeting in between 20-21% of their payroll to their bullpen, right in line with the rest of the league.

What about the offense, you say? Shouldn’t the Padres be focusing on getting a big bat in the lineup? Okay, but where are you going to find one that’s an upgrade to the current offense, costs less than $10 million a year on either a short-term deal or under team control, and won’t cost any of the team’s precious top prospects? Plus, the Padres are already allocating over $50 million to the offense, more than 60% of the current projected $80 million payroll. Adding more payroll to the offense would make an already unbalanced payroll even more so.

Joaquin Benoit isn’t your typical statement signing, but in this case, he would be. If the Padres were to sign him and make no further payroll adjusting moves, at $87-88 million they’d start 2014 with the largest team payroll in franchise history, and it would be several million dollars more than what was predicted by the ownership going into the offseason. When ownership is challenged over their commitment to success on the field, for the first time since the Moores divorce they’d actually have some ammunition with which to defend themselves.

Plus, it might even be a good baseball move for 2014. Billy Beane, the genius GM of the Oakland A’s, will be committing a similar amount of their payroll (which is also projected in the mid-$80 million range) on the bullpen, with Jim Johnson and Gregerson highlighting the group. He’s going all-in with his team, and he’s saying so:

“We’ve never sort of straddled the fence. We don’t have five-year plans here,” Beane said. “We have a year-to-year stadium lease. How can we have a five-year plan? We have to recognize opportunity when it’s there and be aggressive and try to take advantage of it. In some respects it’s no different than we’ve always operated. We’re kind of either all in or we’re all out.”

The Padres’ situation isn’t entirely similar, but it’s not entirely different either. If it’s good enough for Billy Beane, it should be good enough for Josh Byrnes too. It’s time to take a chance and shove all the chips into the middle and see what happens when everyone turns over their hands.

The Vocal Minority posts on Mondays. Thanks to Ray Lankford, former blogger for The Sacrifice Bunt, for his help with some of the math in this post. Ray quit Twitter, but I didn’t, so follow me. This will likely be my last post of 2013, so happy holidays to you all and thank you for a great first year with us at Padres Public. It’s been a lot of fun, and I look forward to a great 2014.

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  • Lonnie Brownell

    Excellent analysis. I reckon his age is just another factor in the “push all the chips in and hope we can pull it off” thing, but then again, health has been our bette noir the last couple of seasons, so that’s got to change, right?

    Plus, I’m looking forward to hearing his named pronounced as both Ben-wah and Beh-noyt.

  • USMC53

    Great post. A very enjoyable read, and I enjoyed the poker analogies.
    It seems like it would definitely be a good baseball move; you can’t have too many solid back-of-the-bullpen arms. And I would love to see ownership load up with ammunition against the incessant rants of fans who say that they are cheap and don’t care about winning.

  • http://padrespublic.com/ AvengingJackMurphy

    Great stuff, Nate – I enjoyed it.

    Here’s a question for you: What would you say to those who may argue that signing a middle-aged reliever does not constitute going “all in”?

    • Nathan Veale

      The title of my post might be a bit misleading. You don’t go all-in with a player, you go all-in with a roster. You make the best hand you can, and then you lay it on the table and see what happens. Although maybe signing Benoit and going all-in represents a semi-bluff at best, I’m not sure this team can do much better than that without making some moves they aren’t willing to make. Let’s say you think they could easily use that money to upgrade at 1B or SP. The counter is that they are at this time unwilling to give up on Alonso, and adding another SP to the mix would prevent the team’s younger talent from getting their chance. So then where is the next biggest hole? It’s at the setup reliever position, and it’s better to go ahead and make that move than not.

  • Sac Bunt Melvin

    I usually think of “all in” to include trading long term value (prospects) for larger short term value (veterans) which I don’t think the Padres are in the right spot to do right now. Of course I do agree it makes sense to spend money on payroll, but mostly because it isn’t mine.

  • BipRobertsGhost

    Great article. As a long time Padres fan and season ticket holder, I’m still confused by the idea of trading a great, consistent RH middle reliever for an average LH OF with poor defensive skills. Follow that up by chasing after an aging, expensive RH middle reliever to fill the hole that was created in the bullpen. I need some help understanding the logic behind these moves…

    • Nathan Veale

      I think the logic is that the relief pitching is a lot easier to find, and even very good relievers aren’t that expensive.

  • ballybunion

    I would only take exception to the 79 wins by standing pat. The starting rotation imploded in 2012, with the Padres picking up a motley crew of washed up starters, and the team still won 76 games. The position players were hard hit in 2013, with seven of 8 positions on the DL, and six of them (catcher, first base, second base, shortstop, left field and center field) losing more than a month of play each, and the team still won 76 games. I have a feeling this team is far better than 79 wins, HEALTH PERMITTING. In fact, I think there’s enough depth, and surgically repaired promise, for the Padres to be a surprise contender.

    • Nathan Veale

      Part of the reason I think it’s good to sign Benoit is because if everything goes right, they could be good enough to make the signing worthwhile, and while I know that signing Benoit isn’t going to make a huge difference mathematically, there’s such a big psychological difference between spending that extra money and not spending it, and that if they don’t spend it they’ll be destined to fail again. /runonantisabermetricsentence

  • VM David

    My issue with Benoit isn’t that he’s unworthy of the highest free agent contract in Padres history, as that fact is purely the fault of the Padres. It’s more concerns about his age and not being a huge fan of throwing a bunch of money at relievers. Ramona’s Own Nick Vincent comps very favorably to Benoit, but I suppose I understand not wanting to entrust a sophomore player with the vaunted “set-up” role just yet. Also, the fact that these moves look good and are justifiable on their own, but in the big picture I’m not necessarily seeing a long-term plan.

    Anyway, I like what you’re written here and I come away more convinced that these aren’t necessarily moves that portend a collapse of what the organization has supposedly been building toward. Benoit is a very good pitcher, and it’s hard to argue against acquiring one of those.

  • pointerdave

    For me it still comes down to the Gregerson trade , I enjoyed Geoff’s Why they need Seth Smith & found it informative , it does make mention of Quentin but for me that’s is the real underlying issue of the Smith acquisition. If your Brynes your selling it as bringing in an extra OF / bat vs lefties IMO it highlights the fault of the Quentin signing in general .The trade itself I can see an argument that it was or wasn’t of equal value , but for me the reason behind the trade itself I find to be with out debate. sure who’s going to admit they need 2 guys to play 1 OF spot . I really don’t like the fact that Byrnes is in charge of the chip stack , dosn’t seem to be good at poker , looks more like
    a “craps” player

    • Nathan Veale

      The Quentin contract isn’t that bad, but the no-trade clause attached was a really bad move, and it has absolutely handcuffed the team. With Quentin and Smith as the primary LFers, they’re spending $14 million on the position. If they weren’t stuck with Quentin, they wouldn’t need Smith, and they could afford to spend that money in a much more effective way.

      • http://padrespublic.com/ AvengingJackMurphy

        No trade clauses do NOT handcuff teams. ~ Sincerely, Phil Nevin.

  • Brian

    Very well said. I follow the logic and actually think this group could be pretty darn good this year. Given the team’s contract situations and the offenses perform when full stregnth, this is a good year to go all in. Let’s pray for a hot start.

  • Brian

    I think it is also worth noting that relief pitching seems like an area where the Padres can actually afford to get the best out there in free agency. $7m for what could be an impact player is pretty unheard of in FA. Lowish risk too give his performance the last 3-4 years. For those who question the efficientcy of spending so much on a reliever, I think the last pieces of a roster can tend to be slightly inefficient and that is OK. You can’t really afford to opportunistic when trying plug certain holes and have a complete roster ready to truely compete.

    I for one will be that much more excited for next year if we make this signing.