The MLB off-season is all about the general manager (GM), and what he does to improve the organization. Last off-season, Padres GM A.J. Preller was handed a checkbook by owner Ron Fowler, and he proceeded to make splashes. In hindsight, the only deal that Preller probably regrets is the Matt Kemp trade, although nothing turned out well on-the-field for the 2015 Padres.
Let’s get the Matt Kemp situation straight, and understand what it is. In San Diego, Kemp is a 5th wheel, and he never really fit– which isn’t his fault. The Padres only paid $3.25M of his salary in 2015, with the Dodgers covering the remaining $18M. It’s flipped for the last 4 years, with the Padres owing $73M ($18.25/yr), and LA paying $14M ($3.5M/yr). Preller definitely has to eat contract to deal Kemp, but that was understood when he made the deal for him with a low cost in 2015.
The real question is when will a opportunity present itself for a deal? A high-payroll AL team, desperate to make the post-season, looks at Matt Kemp much differently than the Padres do. If a team like NYY, BOS, DET or LAA (just to throw out examples) thinks he’s the missing piece, then Preller has something they want. At that point, it just becomes a matter of negotiations, with Preller dealing from strength. He’s been doing it all off-season, so there’s no reason why he can’t eventually get it done, to the Padres benefit. It would help if Matt Kemp got off to a hot start and stayed healthy.
All Padres fans interested in winning agree that Matt Kemp needs to move to the AL where he can DH, because all his value is now in his bat. He can spot-start or fill-in at corner OF (and maybe 1B), but he primarily needs to DH. He’s 31 this season, with a career line of .289/.345/.489, as a CF & RF. Last year it dipped to .265/.312/.443, and much of that can be attributed to being on a bad team, and being asked to field a position he really couldn’t play anymore.
Around two thirds of the teams in the AL are faking it at DH. Only BOS (David Ortiz), KCR (Kendrys Morales), MIN (Miguel Sano!), TEX (Prince Fielder), and TOR (Edwin Encarnacion), have a legitimate DH. One could also add Alex Rodriguez (NYY, age 40) to that list, but he’s a huge regression candidate & injury risk. Notice these are (mostly) competitive teams, that often play deep into October.
As of now, the fakers at DH include: Mark Trumbo (BAL), Adam LaRoche (CWS), Victor Martinez (DET), Evan Gattis (HOU), C.J. Cron (LAA), Billy Butler (OAK), and John Jaso (TBR); with SEA & CLE are still searching.
The only legitimate OF/DH bats left on the free agent market (as of this writing) are Justin Upton & Yoenes Cespedis. After that, DH options drop off to the likes of Ryan Raburn & Jimmy Parades, which is replacement level. Rule # 1 to winning is, stay away from the replacement level.
There’s room somewhere in here to deal Matt Kemp fairly, while minimizing the damage to the Padres. Matt Kemp is a professional hitter, and a proud player who wants to earn his contract. This isn’t a “Manny being Manny” situation, which gives Preller time & room to maneuver, but this needs to get done sometime in 2016.
Wil Myers was A.J. Preller’s steal of last off-season, and if he stays healthy he will rake, and be the face of the franchise for years. That’s a big IF, as health is a skill, but also depends somewhat on luck & other factors. A player increases his value if he has the ability to stay healthy. Cal Ripken, Jr. (BAL) is a clear example of durability providing & enhancing career value. A similar player from his era is Barry Larkin (CIN), who could have been the greatest SS ever, if he had had Ripken’s knack for avoiding injury. Instead Larkin spent much of his career on the DL, and that reduced him to merely a HoFer, which only shows just how good he was when healthy.
If we take a closer look at Barry Larkin’s injuries, we find a mixture of reasons for them. He played most of his career on Riverfront Stadium’s astroturf, which leads to more wear & tear vs. playing on natural grass. That’s something a player can’t control. Larkin blew out his elbow while participating in the Relay-Throw Contest at the 1991 All-Star game, which was mostly his fault. MLB has eliminated that silly contest since that incident. Barry Larkin even had a freak injury where he was struck in the knee by a bat while waiting on-deck; and there’s nothing you can do about something like that. That’s a concise overview & understanding of injury risk.
The Padres are definitely a better team as of this writing. Their 2015 opening day starting infield was: 3B Will Middlebrooks, SS Alexi Amarista, 2B Jedd Gyorko & 1B Yonder Alonso which was probably the worst in MLB. In 2016 it’s 3B Yangervis Solarte, SS Alexei Ramirez, 2B Cory Spangenberg & 1B Wil Myers– which is a fair-to-significant upgrade at every position. Plus the Padres will start the season with an actual CF (B.J. “he needs a nickname” Upton), who is healthy (recall he started 2015 on the DL w/ turf toe in his right foot). In LF Jon Jay is not Justin Upton, but he’s left-handed, affordable, and a good candidate for a bounce-back season. What remains is C Derek Norris & RF Matt Kemp (for now).
The pitching staff is the same at the top with James Shields, Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner– minus Ian Kennedy whom they don’t need. Preller is building the back-end of the rotation & bullpen the correct way: from within the organization, via low-level trades, and by acquiring veteran arms on the cheap. Buy low/sell high– especially with relievers.
Most Padres fans I’ve interacted with like (or at least are willing to be open-minded about) new manager Andy Green and the coaches he’s brought in. All Padres fans are ecstatic about retaining ace pitching coach Darren Balsley.
The key to the Padres off-season was (believe it or not) when Ian Kennedy refused their $15.9M qualifying offer. That allowed Preller the financial flexibility to trade 2B Jedd Gyorko for OF Jon Jay, while eating the $7M necessary to make the deal, and then sign Rameriz as a stopgap SS to top prospect Javier Guerra. The Craig Kimbrel trade and the (4!) Rule 5 picks were also huge, but if Kennedy had accepted that offer (as he could have), then Preller would have been handcuffed and this team would now look a lot different–in a worse way.
Trading a player at the 7/31 deadline vs. keeping them (and extending a QO) is a razor’s edge. A.J. Preller hung onto Justin Upton (& the rest of his assets) at the 2015 trade deadline, because 1) he didn’t like what he was being offered in return, and 2) he owed it to EVERYONE (players, fans, etc…) to stick it out. In September, when it was hopeless, many fans still tuned in, and appreciated every bomb J. Up hit. They were electrifying, and win or lose, that still has value. It all depends on what a GM can get, and if its a flooded buyer’s market (like July 2015), then it’s best to hang onto the player and take the two-months value & the QO-compensation pick.
Preller gambled his entire off-season plan on Ian Kennedy refusing the QO, because he WANTED that compensation pick. It’s a tough call & good GM’s play it close-to-the-vest; and that’s why they’re paid what they’re paid.
By avoiding stone-handed SS Ian Desmond (when many MLB ‘experts’ were clamouring for the Padres sign him), Preller sent a message to MLB that the SD Padres are not interested in being suckers in the bloated free-agent market. General managers of Padres past (Josh Byrnes, Kevin Towers, etc.) would surely have handed Ian Desmond a 5-yr/$80M deal, when he isn’t worth 2-yr/$25M. That kind of bad contract kills any chance of winning.
An efficient GM gets his arbitration players signed quickly, with fair raises because he knows they are underpaid to start. If these players under-perform, they get smaller raises; but they aren’t nickel & dimed, because they are bargains to begin with. Conversely, a saavy GM avoids handing an overly-generous multi-year contract to an arbitration eligible player who doesn’t deserve it (see Jedd Gyorko), as this hurts the organization too.
When the 2015 season ended, the Padres farm system was universally ranked 30th– dead last. With the young talent already added, along with the bevy of picks Preller has lined up for the June amateur draft, the Padres will probably jump up to a the middle-of-the-pack system by the end of the 2016 season. That’s a solid plan with measurable progress, which is just what Padres fans need. A.J. Preller had an ‘A+’ off-season, even if the Padres have a worse record in 2016– and he did it without making splashes. There is a lot more upside with this organization now, and it’s because the Padres finally have a smart general manager.
Final Note to Padres Fans 1-16-16
Before I started posting in the Padres MLB.com forum, I observed the discussions; and it was mostly blame-storming, and always towards Bud Black, Murph, this player, that pitcher, etc…
Every team in sports is operated by a GM, and they are primarily responsible for an organization’s failure or success. They are the ones who must ALWAYS answer the tough questions and solve the difficult problems which inevitably arise. Whether that organization ever wins a championship is mostly on them.
A.J. Preller is definitely running the show for the Padres, and that is a 180-degree turnaround for this franchise, because since inception it’s always been the Show running the Padres.
A fan’s responsibility is to understand as much of what’s going on as possible, and educate other fans. When fans correctly understand when (and why?) to cheer vs. when to call out a mistake, player performance improves because they know they are being watched by intelligent & fair observers. Conversely, when angry fans act out with drunken belligerence, players tend to stop caring. Fans do have an influence, and a big part of it is what YOU share with others & bring to the ballpark.