How the Padres Went From Bad to Mediocre

By: Jack Boulia

In 2014, the Padres offense was historically bad. As a team, they posted a .226/.292/.342 triple slash line and I promise you there is not a single typo. With an absolutely putrid 82 wRC+ and a 10.1 WAR on offense, the Padres were one of the worst offensive teams of all time. However, the Padres had a wealth of good pitching combined with the pitcher-friendly PETCO park, leading to a team ERA of 3.27. The only teams with better pitching consisted of the Nationals and Mariners. The pitching was good enough to propel them to a 77-85 record which, while not good, wasn’t totally indicative of a team in bad shape. However, BaseRuns is indicative of a team in bad shape. Seventy-seven wins looks like a team on the upswing. Seventy-two wins, however, looks like a team that is completely lost. So, this offseason, AJ Preller set out to improve his team. And he did. It was a dramatic transformation in terms of looks and fan interest, but in terms of actually getting better, Preller’s work leaves a lot to be desired.

Now, to start, I do think the Padres got better, though marginally in terms of actual talent. I’ll list a quick synopsis of the key players, in my opinion, that they acquired and traded away.

Acquired 

Matt Kemp

Justin Upton

Derek Norris

Brandon Maurer

Wil Myers

Will Middlebrooks

Traded Away

Rene Rivera

Ryan Hanigan

Yasmani Grandal

Jesse Hahn

Max Fried

Seth Smith

Acquired

Right off the bat, you can tell the Padres did improve. They also brought back Josh Johnson, and also brought in Brandon Morrow. And while the two are seemingly never healthy, they signed them relatively cheaply and betting on talent is safer than betting on health. But that’s the thing; if Morrow and Johnson are question marks, what makes the other players safe? Granted if you throw enough questions against the wall, some have to be sure answers. It’s the reason why people diversify portfolios in stocks, or why teams stockpile prospects. Something has to stick. 

I’ll write brief a brief synopsis about each player, starting with Matt Kemp. You don’t have to scroll down very far to find my article convincing you to draft Matt Kemp for fantasy purposes; and I still stand by it. Even with his trade to PETCO, Kemp is far from a useless offensive player. And yeah, he was the best man at the disabled list’s marriage standing next to the 2014 Texas Rangers, but when he’s healthy, he is an absolute offensive force. Steamer is a good deal lower now on Kemp after the trade, however he still projects for twenty homers and a .266/.336/.452 slash line which isn’t bad. Combine that with average defense, and you should have a three-four win player. The problem is, Kemp does not combine good offense with good, or, even average defense. He combines good offense with some of the worst defense in the major leagues, if not the worst which significantly saps his actual value. Steamer projects Kemp as a 1.9 win player, basically equivalent to my two-win projection. That’s a league average player. League average players go for a lot these days, and for the Padres, Kemp is essentially being paid as a league average player. It’s not good value, it’s not bad value, it’s fair value. He’ll be worth his contract this year. This year. Let’s assume, now that Kemp is older than thirty, that if he were to stay healthy all five years, he would decline at a healthy 0.5 wins per year. Adjust for inflation, and this deal may not look bad, right? But if Kemp declines at a half-win per year, he goes from average, to below average, to bad, to replacement level, to below replacement level. Granted I think it is a bit harsh to call Kemp below replacement level, but you get the point. This will become ugly and his money will be a sunk cost. And before you lampoon me for advocating Kemp in my previous post, realize that there is an enormous disparity in value between real-life and fantasy. I do think five years and $77 million would be a fair price on the free agent market for Kemp. Would I do it? Probably not, because surplus value is important. But the Padres didn’t sign Kemp, they traded for him, giving up a valuable piece in the process.

Justin Upton is a very good player. Not much to write about him. He was hurt a bit in projections after his move to PETCO, however he still projects for twenty-three home runs and a .253/.337/.442 slash line. I guessed he’d be a roughly three-win player; Steamer projects him for 2.8. Last year he was a very good 3.9 wins. He’s being paid a relatively cheap $14.5 million dollars this year, the final year of his contract. Because this is his final year, the Padres look to be going for it. Upton is potent offensively, make no mistake, however Preller once again sacrificed outfield defense for more offense (more on why this is especially bad for the Padres in a bit). If I were a general manager of a competitive team, I would have made this trade. However, I would have rather kept what the Padres gave up given their situation. Not terrible, just…confusing.

Last year, Derek Norris broke out with the A’s. I hadn’t seen Norris really until the wild card game last year, but I saw enough to realize he’s nothing special at the position, even in so short a small sample size. Fangraphs seems to generally like his defense, and Steamer projects him to be fairly good, but StatCorner doesn’t like his framing. He doesn’t project to hit well next year (.235/.325/.386 slash line) and he’s being paid pretty much nothing. Interestingly, Steamer likes Norris enough for 2.3 wins in ninety-eight games, but frankly, I just don’t like him as much. Norris is essentially projected for 3.8 wins over a full season, and I don’t think he’d be a part-time catcher if he was that good, nor do I think the A’s would give up a four-win catcher making league minimum at a pretty young age. The Padres didn’t give up much so I still like it, though I’m sure the pitchers will definitely suffer throwing to Norris as opposed to Rene Rivera. Or Yasmani Grandal. Or Ryan Hanigan. Pitchers and catcher defense complement each other, and Padres pitchers become worse throwing to Norris.

Quietly, this may have been the Padres best acquisition; now-former Mariners pitcher Brandon Maurer. Still very young and affordable at twenty-four years of age, Maurer had always exhibited great control in the minors, and last year he posted an impressive 2.45 BB/9 to go along with an average 7.11 K/9, leading to a very promising 3.49 FIP. He should leave more men on when adjusting for regression, and Steamer likes him a lot next year, projecting him for a 3.67 ERA, 8.34 K/9, and 2.89 BB/9. That’s a very valuable pitcher to have. I really, really like Maurer, actually more than anyone else the Padres acquired. He could be a good mid-rotation starter for years to come, and if he doesn’t start, he should post sparkling relief numbers.

Here’s probably going to be the most polarizing part of the article; I don’t like Wil Myers. Neither did the Royals, neither did the Rays. According to scouts and personnel, Myers is un-coachable and refuses to make adjustments. When people think of Wil Myers, they think of the former top prospect who had a fantastic rookie year, hitting sixteen home runs to go along with a .293/.354/.478 slash line who had a bad season because he was injured. But when I think of Wil Myers, I think of his .362 BABIP his rookie year. I think of his shaky defense. I think of his personality and refusal to make adjustments. I see a major league hitter that can’t hit a fastball and that hit .227/.313/.354 before he landed on the disabled list last year. And his Steamer projections aren’t anything to dream on, either. Unless Myers comes back and has a ton of power, enough to hit thirty-plus home runs, I don’t see anything to be remotely excited about. He could be league-average. Preller did not give up much. But I’d rather take a chance on what he gave up than what he got.

The last key player they acquired I used to be very excited about and also suffered from a BABIP-inflated rookie year; Will Middlebrooks. Not a lot to say about Middlebrooks, he has a ton of power, but not much else. And, oh, the thing about power. It becomes useful when you can make contact, a skill that Middlebrooks sorely lacks. It seems a bit cruel to call him a major league hitter since he doesn’t actually hit anything. He’s fringe-average defensively at third base to boot, contributing no value anywhere and taking up space on a roster. As a fan of baseball, it frustrates me that a team still values Middlebrooks. But as a Red Sox fan? I’ve never been more excited about Ryan Hanigan.

Traded Away

Fans of catcher defense love Rene Rivera. Padres pitchers loved throwing to Rene Rivera, and for good reason. If you believe in framing metrics, Rivera was worth almost two full wins from pitch framing. But it’s not only his value that helps a team, it’s that it makes the pitchers throwing to him more valuable. In 2014 alone, Rivera was worth three full wins according to Fangraphs in the most extended look he’s had in his entire career. He did this while making nearly nothing; his surplus value is enormous. Steamer projects Rivera to be a two-win player next year. I think it’s a low estimation since pitch framing is not a variable in WAR. Rivera only has to be an average bat as a catcher to be one of the most valuable catchers in baseball. The move from Rivera to Norris makes the Padres a significantly worse team not only on defense, but overall.

Fans of catcher defense will also appreciate Ryan Hanigan, the new Red Sox acquisition. While nothing flashy, Hanigan does add depth and plays very good defense at a relatively cheap price. His defense is valuable enough to make him good in short spurts; but I feel like he would have been a more than acceptable stopgap for defensive whiz Austin Hedges as well as adding value to the Padres pitching staff.

I’m all aboard the Yasmani Grandal hype train. Grandal, of course, was a former top prospect. Once again, there is a general theme here; catcher defense. Catcher defense.

Catcher defense.

It’s valuable. Grandal was worth roughly 1.3 wins last year just based on framing. I’m sure his pitchers appreciated his skill. As a former catcher who was a glove-first guy at the position, I can tell you with confidence framing is a skill that goes unnoticed. Because I caught through travel ball at a younger age, I was able to take advantage of a rather large strike zone and it saved games at times. It saved innings. Grandal is projected for 2.3 wins by Steamer, and most of the weight here comes from his offense since framing isn’t a variable in WAR. He’s probably pushing a three-win player and is making nothing. And like I mentioned before, that three wins is very nice, but he makes his pitching staff better, too. Last year we saw Devin Mesoraco break out as a post-hype sleeper and though Grandal won’t have a season like Mesoraco’s, he’ll break out in his own right. Catchers take a while to develop and Grandal is at the age where he is primed to be one of the most valuable catchers in baseball.

For me personally, due to PETCO suppressing fly balls, pitchers and defense are more valuable to the Padres than hitters. Exploit your strengths if you can’t improve a weakness. Jesse Hahn never made any Top-100 prospect lists. He was a relative no-name until he debuted with the Padres last season. Last year he posted a great strikeout rate of 8.59 K/9 and an OK walk rate of 3.93 BB/9. This led to a 3.07 ERA, 3.40 FIP, and 3.59 xFIP. While I don’t totally believe in Hahn, I do like his mix of pitches, and I especially like his changeup. He’ll be a good back of the rotation starter to have, but the most innings he’s thrown as a professional was last year at 73.1 innings. His 50.3% ground ball rate will make him a great fit in Oakland, and although I don’t think he has the durability to go over 140 innings as a starter, he could be a terrific middle relief pitcher and good rotation depth to have.

This might be the most intriguing part of the trade, former Top-100 prospect Max Fried. Pre-2013 he ranked #61 on Baseball Prospectus’ list and pre-2014 he ranked #55 but was rated higher in both seasons by both Baseball America and MLB.com. He’s still only twenty years old and is a former first round pick now recovering from Tommy John surgery. While Tommy John surgery this young generally constitutes some risk, in his extended looks since being drafted, he’s clearly a talented pitcher. Sure he comes with a bit of risk, but it’s easier to bet on talent than health. He doesn’t throw a ridiculously hard fastball, nor does he throw a slider often enough to be a concern, so this may just be a one time thing. The Braves also have a tendency of developing very good pitchers and if Fried develops like he should, he could be a very nice #3/4 starter.

The last main player, possibly the main player they traded away, is Seth Smith. Smith was a nice little player for the Padres last year, compiling a healthy 2.6 wins in 521 plate appearances last year. Smith is a great platoon bat and has always crushed right handed pitching to the tune of .277/.358/.481 over his career. Simply put, he’s a fantastic platoon option for anyone and it was a very fair trade in my opinion, with a little bit of an edge going to the Padres. Just a quick little anecdote about Smith, I don’t know why, but I find it interesting he’s spent his career in the most extreme home ballparks playing in Coors Field, the Coliseum, PETCO, and now Safeco.

And now time to wrap up what is easily my longest article to date. By name value, the Padres got better. They’re exciting and will be fun to watch. However. Their pitching staff, if they stay the same talent-wise, actually got worse. Significantly. A very poor defensive outfield combined with a below-average pitch-framer makes that staff less valuable. And their staff was the reason they didn’t fade into oblivion last year. The players they added besides Upton are question marks, some of whom are on the decline, and one very expensive question mark that will cost $77 million. Hard to believe there wasn’t a more efficient way to spend that money. So really, the Padres got better but paid a significant price. They traded away what made them serviceable in the first place.

Play to your strengths.

Don’t upgrade a weakness that can’t be fixed.

 

 

 

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