Are the Padres 2013 dark horse playoff candidates?

With Spring Training just underway, along with countless position battles to be waged and players to be considered, an obscene amount of season forecasting remains to be sorted through. There’s hardly a consensus agreement between prognosticators as to how the 2013 will end (hence, the maxim “that’s why they play the game”), and it’s interesting to see just how much some of these season hypotheses differ writer-to-writer, analyst-to-analyst, statistician-to-statistician. As explored previously on this site, fans are oftentimes divided as optimists or cynics – left to make determinations after sifting through the evidence of others or a more abstract gut feeling. While it’s anyone’s guess how the Padres will finish the 2013 season, I did discover that there was a big difference between how sabermetricians viewed their chances (see: not good) compared to the rest of the community.

This was no more readily apparent when former scout and current MLB.com writer, Bernie Pleskoff, revealed the following:

Ignoring for a moment what the time frame of “poised to strike at some point” actually constitutes, it did seem curious that some not only viewed these heated natural rivals and Peoria Sports Complex neighbors as possible division winners, but that they managed to compare them to the wildly differing situations of the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles from last season. Anybody that followed the two teams in 2012 could tell you they were anything but similar simply by looking at their run differential:

  RS RA Diff.
Athletics 713 614 99
Orioles 712 705 7

The difference is pretty striking, as the Athletics (94-68) outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by only two games while the Orioles (93-69) went from an expectant two games over .500 to 2nd place in the AL East and a Wild Card berth. As Sam Miller has argued on multiple occasions on Baseball Prospectus’ “Effectively Wild” daily podcast, the distinction between the A’s and Orioles is an argument of luck – Oakland was lucky in that a bunch of unsuspecting players overperformed relative to their projections, while Baltimore didn’t play well but were lucky in circumstance and results (their 29-9 record in 1-run games, for instance).

Which leads us to the million dollar question: which team, if any, best represents the Padres? The Orioles benefited last season due in no small part to excellent managing, which perfectly played the organization’s strongest cards by utilizing a great bullpen and a top-heavy farm to contribute positive value during the most opportune times. As respected as he is, it would be hard to argue that manager Bud Black has a similar résumé to Buck Showalter, or that the Padres have the makings of a Top 5 bullpen and Manny Machado or Dylan Bundy level impact prospects to contribute in supplementary roles during the stretch run.

The A’s? Well, they were extremely active during the 2011-12 offseason – dealing away the present for their future. Overnight, they transformed what Keith Law described as a “bottom-10, maybe bottom-five” system into one than he eventually ranked at No. 9 in all of baseball. Pitching heavy with good depth and the key acquisition of international free agent, Yoenis Cespedes, the A’s simply performed earlier than expected. By using Law’s same organizational rankings, some might view San Diego’s top-rated farm system might be the common link. However, the popular opinion among prospect analysts is the Padres’ farm system is built on depth and strength at all levels.

Without Anthony Rizzo, they no longer have a top-25 prospect in their system, but in terms of total future value of players likely to play significant roles in the big leagues, they’re ahead of everyone else. Some of these players, especially from the 2011 draft, will develop into stars. But there are so many prospects here with high floors, players who would be top-10 or top-five in other systems but are 11-20 here (such as Robbie Erlin or Edinson Rincon), that they are well-positioned to compete even with modest major league payrolls during the next five to six years.

The Padres may have added a good deal of top talent during the 2012 draft but, by comparison, it’s difficult to argue the Padres have the same level of high-impact prospects ready to contribute in 2013 as the A’s (or Orioles) did last year.

Contenders?

Let’s get down to brass tacks: statistical projection models aren’t hot about the Padres’ chances in 2013.

CAIRO*

W L W-L%
LAD 89 73 0.549
SFG 88 74 0.543
ARI 84 78 0.519
SDP 80 82 0.494
COL 72 90 0.444

PECOTA

W L W-L%
LAD 93 69 0.574
SFG 85 77 0.525
ARI 84 78 0.519
SDP 76 86 0.469
COL 72 90 0.444

ZiPS

W L W-L%
SFG 89 73 0.549
LAD 88 74 0.543
ARI 84 78 0.519
COL 79 83 0.488
SDP 74 88 0.457

Oddly enough, the average 76-86 record between the three is identical to last season. We all know about the Dodgers’ spending spree and it bears repeating that while the (defending World Series Champion) San Francisco Giants  failed to upgrade so much as maintained  the status quo, one could argue that the team – at worst – bears similarity to their post-2010 transactions. That’s still a top team in the National League. Regardless of what you think of Kevin Towers and his team-building, it could easily be argued that he jettisoned his future for a shot at the present – he certainly has the pitching to compete.

There’s the simple fact that the Padres’ Opening Day roster for 2013 will similarly reflect the same holes from the first half of 2012. If the Padres’ 2012 was defined as a tale of two seasons, how does the loss of several key players for a significant period of time not bear a striking resemblance to all that befell the squad during the first half a year ago? To expect the club’s .560 second-half winning percentage of 2012 carry over, one must believe one of a few things:

  1. The ball club, division, and schedule all bear a striking similarity to how they finished the previous year.
  2. The Padres made significant improvements to several key areas of deficiency the previous year.
  3. Key contributors will remain constant, those with down years will improve, newcomers will thrive.

As it stands now, I don’t know how anybody could definitively argue in favor of any of those points. The loss of Yasmani Grandal and the continued absence of starters Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland doesn’t bode well for the Padres out of the gates. The aforementioned trio of NL West teams either improved or retained last season’s winning formula and, according Baseball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, the Padres’ were already ranked in the bottom-third of baseball last season – so it’s hard to imagine a dramatic boost from the schedule makers. And while hardly a scientific measure of success, ESPN’s Jim Bowden ranked the Padres’ offseason 27th among MLB teams – ahead of only the Orioles, Rockies, and Marlins.

There’s also the question of performance. While a full season of Everth Cabrera, Logan Forsythe, and Jedd Gyorko is certainly an improvement over enduring even a few weeks of Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson up the middle, there’s certainly a good deal of questions when it comes to the rest of the roster. Among top performers, there’s the likely regression of Chase Headley and durability of Carlos Quentin to consider. Then there’s the rotation. Despite expressing confidence in the ten candidates competing for the five coveted rotation spots, on no less than three separate occasions general manager Josh Byrnes stated it was a necessity to improve upon a rotation that ranked 29th in MLB by Fangraphs’ fWAR.

It’s a curious change of pace given the sense of urgency Byrnes had while hammering out multi-year deals last season and, ironically, it may have been these deals that stalled his process in building an impact ball club. As CBS Sports’ Scott Miller explains:

New owners so far have failed to make any significant first impression, and for good reason: This team is broke. Former owner John Moores and temp Jeff Moorad lifted $200 million off the top of the club’s new cable television deal on their way out the door, leaving the Padres, once again, cash poor. Marquis was the club’s sole major-league free agent signing over the winter. Publicly, the Padres spoke of a weak free agent market that was overpriced. But multiple sources say the dire financial situation forced the Padres to sit on the sidelines this winter after re-signing Carlos Quentin and Huston Street last summer. Money that had been the light at the end of the tunnel, that was supposed to be pumped into the club, instead disappeared with Moores and Moorad.

With minimal roster activity and little, if any, payroll space to fill additional needs from external sources, the club is relying heavily on existing players outperforming projections. While not impossible, it’s certainly improbable to imagine that sort of approach resulting in a top three finish in the NL West, let alone a potential playoff spot. As Sports Illustrated‘s Joe Lemire observed, a strong second half record bolsters a lot of this talk (although I’d strongly disagree with his declaration that the Padres had the “league’s top defense”) and the U-T dared to compare the Padres finish in 2009 to that of 2012; arguing that a similar “aura of confidence” and “momentum” from a strong finish could allow for history to repeat itself as it did during the team’s 90-win season in 2010. The latter does a good job of painting a more mature clubhouse, but ignores dissimilar roster strengths and a stagnant offseason.

~

A popular exercise of late has been to pick “the next Rays,” a team situated to bound from nowhere to dark horse contender. Most times, these feel less like well-reasoned arguments than they do placeholders on the bandwagon. It’s a lazy designation for a more more complex question. And perhaps that’s the entire point of the exercise. We’ve been led to believe that since other unlikely hopefuls have risen to the challenge, so to can the Padres – that the 2013 squad is not unlike the club that won 90 games and was in contention until the very last game of the 2010 season. After all, of the 27 staff predictions from Baseball Prospectus prior to the 2012 season, not a single person felt Baltimore would fare better than 5th in the AL East; nobody thought Oakland was better than a 3rd-place finish in their division. Who’s to say the Padres are any different?

On the flip side of that coin, ignoring the litany of projection systems that don’t foresee anything better than a .500 record, even the casual observer can note the numerous roster holes and relative inactivity as compared to other NL West division rivals. Suggesting that clubhouse chemistry or last season’s forward momentum are key components in a turnaround team is faulty at best, oftentimes prescribed after the fact. It’s not that a veteran presence, desire to win, or – hold on, while I thumb through this collection of tired baseball clichés – “playing the right way” isn’t in some way important, it’s that its role is infinitesimal compared to the much more obvious contributors; a role far more nuanced than the magic elixir it’s being sold as. The same can be said about fishing for comparisons to teams that are wholly dissimilar in process and front office philosophy…or simply overall talent. By the strictest of definitions, the Padres are looking at long odds and must be considered dark horse playoff candidates – it’s just that the chance of that happening are slim and the comparisons to past success stories are reaches at best.

I suppose it’s hard to peg Padres fans as eternal optimists or perpetual pessimists; perhaps their curse is they’re forever damned to be both. Keeping the faith for this collection of Padres is not wholly misguided as there is always the remote possibility it all comes together for one perfect season – and hometown fans are all rooting for the same result. It’s  just that champagne and Anheuser-Busch branded beer showers in October seem extremely unlikely.

 

* It should be noted that CAIRO 2013 v0.4 erroneously lists Freddy Garcia twice.

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  • Tom Waits

    Picking the next Rays reminds me of the cities that claimed to be “the next Seattle,” musically speaking, in the early/mid-90s.

    There was no next Seattle.

  • I would quibble with “the litany of projection systems that don’t foresee anything better than a .500 record”. Projection systems project a range of outcomes. The ones that are shown as a single wins and losses record are showing you a median projection. Therefore, there are plenty of projection systems forseeing a record better than .500. They just don’t see it as happening as often as other scenarios. Still possible though. Especially that Cairo one.

    • I agree, and even conceded that projection system are far from a perfect predictor of outcome. The point was that it’s a long shot. There’s a chance that ANY team outperforms their projections, my argument is that a lot has to go right for that to happen making it rather unlikely. Ignoring projection systems for a moment, the Padres are still left a roster full of holes, a lackluster rotation, a key player coming off a monster year, and a bunch of good-not-elite prospects waiting in the wings.

      I’m not trying to say the team is bad, but that’s a lot of faulty pieces trying to leapfrog three teams in a single division, let alone a whole slew of other NL contenders. As noted, the CAIRO standings are the most optimistic, but they also list Garcia’s production twice. Regardless, all said and done, those projection systems are unanimous in suggesting the Padres are destined for a sub-.500 season.

      • I spoke to the CAIRO people…Garcia will be corrected in the next spreadsheet iteration, but they don’t believe it affected the outcome of the MC simulation.

        Also, the ZIPS update recently corrected WAR values using Fangraphs’ WAR, which resulted in a loss of a win for the Padres ’13 projections…at least by my math.

    • Many of these projection systems do provide simulated aggregates. CAIRO, for example, gives the Padres a 13% chance of winning the West. PECOTA gives them a 9.5% chance. In both of those more optimist readings for the Padres, they’re the 25th most likely team to win the World Series. So, on the most optimistic projections, the Padres are still “extremely unlikely” to win it all. Isn’t that what Bryant said?

    • I suppose you’re right, though – it was a bad choice of words on my part. It’s the likelihood of exceeding the median projections that I’m drawing attention to, and how even the most optimistic projections aren’t entirely hopeful. I hope the rest of my post made that apparent.

    • Replying to myself instead of all the other replies. The point being that as long as the projections forsee any chance of a Padres playoff run, then they can be considered dark horse candidates as the title of the article suggests. No matter how unlikely. A 13% chance of winning the NL West (which admittedly is the high side of any of these projections), a division with a financial juggernaut and a defending World Series Champion, is some pretty nice darkhorsing.

      If the comment “the litany of projection systems that don’t foresee anything better than a .500 record” were ACTUALLY true, then certainly the Padres couldn’t be a darkhorse. Since it is not, and there is indeed a chance, there there is some reason to believe that it could happen.

      I think then the question would be, IF it did happen, would it be sustainable (a la the 2008 Rays) or unsustainable (a la the 2011 Diamondbacks or presumably the 2012 Orioles). As fun as a flash in the pan might me in the short term, I don’t think that is what any of us are looking for out of this franchise.

      • Again, it was a poor choice of words. The odds of the Padres winning the NL West/making the playoffs/winning the World Series, as has been pointed out, are among the league’s worst. I’m not saying it’s impossible – that much has been made abundantly clear. As I said above, by definition the Padres are “dark horse candidates,” it’s just unrealistic to imagine them beating the long odds and implying that they’ll replicate the formula of former success stories seems foolish and misleading.

        I don’t believe the Padres are very similar to the Rays, nor do I believe the team is constructed in a manner that gives them a one-off shot like the Orioles. There are far too many roster holes and not enough elite talent near promotion that all the aforementioned teams posses. That’s not to say the Padres DON’T have elite talent, just that it’s several years away. The Padres are unique in that their system is built on depth, but even that is spread throughout several levels of the system.

        I agree with you on your last point, though, that any success the Padres might have would likely be unsustainable mainly through overproduction relative to expectations. It’s just my opinion, but I’ll say it again – bestowing “the next Rays” title on any club has become the popular way of saying the unlikely team has succeeded. It ignores the complex blueprint they established to get that way.

      • Of course we don’t want the franchise to be a flash-in-the-pan every once in awhile. That’s why we’re complaining about how the team has been run since Moores poked someone he shouldn’t: the team has been entirely unsuccessful since then with the exception of one flash-in-the-pan season. In other words: the strategy they have implemented has resulted in exactly what you say you aren’t “looking for out of this franchise”.

  • What drives me bonkers is how the team says they’ll be okay as long as they don’t get off to a slow start. Nevermind that they’ll be without their best pitcher and best young hitter for the first two months?

    • I think this is them, uh, “not neverminding” the lack of Luebke and Grandal — e.g., if they can play close to .500 ball without them, then they can make up ground after they get back–different than last years dismal, very slow start.

      This, however, also goes into the “if everything goes right” bucket that Bryant refers to.

  • I have such low expectations that the 80-82 projection actually looks really good.