Monday, December 13, 2010

Jed Hoyer steers the Padres’ ship in the right direction

In just his second offseason since becoming GM of the Padres, and following an incredibly successful, encouraging campaign in 2010 – though it was also thoroughly disappointing – Jed Hoyer has been anything but stagnant.  While Jed was trained in the midst of Theo Epstein’s growing empire, the Boston Red Sox – of which Bill James is also under the employ – where each offseason is a battle between the richest and most dominant franchises for each league’s elite talent, the Sox of Beantown – not Oakland – and Evil Empire of Gotham specifically, he now finds himself sifting through the bargain bin in sunny San Diego.

In mid-November, just a couple of weeks after the Giants put the finishing touches on their first World Series championship in San Francisco, Hoyer kicked off the winter by trading Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica for Cameron Maybin. Maybin was once thought to be a future star, so much so that he was the real get in the Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis trade.  But not one of the haul of prospects in that trade panned out for the Fish, not even in the form of an average regular, and so many wondered if Florida’s eagerness to launch Maybin to one team or another was for little other reason than to obtain: out of sight, out of mind.

In roughly a full season of at bats, split between a 2009 and 2010 audition in Florida, Maybin has a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .310, or around 30 points below average. He’s also failed to make contact in about a third of his plate appearances, troubling for obvious reasons. But in nearly a full season of at bats in Triple-A, also split between ’09 and ’10, Maybin has a .325 average to go along with a .401 on base percentage (OBP) and .477 slugging percentage (SLG). And defensively, he’s proven to be a quality center fielder if not a plus one with plenty of speed and athleticism, his instincts the only question mark to become the latter, an absolute must for a team playing in Petco Park.

Webb is a right-handed reliever with a hard fastball and lots of sink. He’s a very solid option in the bullpen but certainly not a future closer. He’s never had incredible strikeout rates in either the minor leagues or in San Diego in 2009 or 2010 and his walk rate is solid but nothing special. His greatest skill is to induce the ground ball as his career rate of 60.7% is outstanding, but also a skill far more valuable if you’re pitching half your games in say Colorado rather than San Diego, and thus was something Jed probably saw as expendable given the return he hopes to get. Webb also gave up just .15 home runs per nine innings in 2010, a huge delta from the 1.05 he relented in 2009, a sign his baseball card might not reflect another sub-3 ERA in 2011.

Mujica is another interesting righty who struck out more than a batter per inning for the Padres in 2010 and produced a Cliff Lee like 12:1 strikeout to walk ratio. Unfortunately, he basically gave all that value back by giving so many souvenirs to the folks in the bleachers, or sand boxes, or whatever they have in San Diego. His 1.81 home runs per nine is truly flabbergasting given his home ballpark, and it really doesn’t look to improve much with a 1.43 mark over his career of 233.1 innings. He’s a rare case in which his pitching coach – and his manager Bud Black, who used to be one too – probably wished he’d mix in a few more walks, if only to reduce the gopher balls. He became, like Webber, expendable.

San Diego has quality bullpen arms falling out of their pockets, and Hoyer kicked off the hot stove by taking what seemed like a worthwhile risk. I think Rob Neyer said it best: “If you’re not willing to trade two relievers for a young every-day player with potential, you might as well get out of the business and find a real job.” Bill James seems to share Hoyer’s optimism, projecting a .344 wOBA for Maybin in 2011, roughly between his Triple-A line and disappointing major league numbers, or something that’s hardly difficult to expect for a 23 year old with excellent tools.

In a subsequent and expected move, the Padres non-tendered Scott Hairston and Tony Gwynn Jr., despite his bloodline, because he didn’t project to ever hit and the former, though powerful and versatile, wasn’t all that much with the bat either.

He then did the unthinkable, trading franchise player Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox for prospects. Instead of going for major league ready players already on Boston’s roster, Hoyer targeted future value, prompting many to say the Padres were punting 2011. While this undoubtedly weakens their team going into 2011, it far from eliminates them as contenders in 2011 and positions them nicely for 2012 and 2013. Everyone knows what they gave up*, so let’s focus on the return.

*This is actually a bit misleading. People know what they gave up, but probably fail to realize what they REALLY gave up. Gonzalez is a free agent at the end of 2011, and the odds of him signing long-term in San Diego were about as good as the odds it might snow there this Christmas. He’s an excellent player and has every right to be – no, would be stupid not to be – paid handsomely for his on-field contributions. The Padres’ 2010 payroll was around $38 million and neither their market nor their uninspiring attendance during their completely unexpected season atop the division is indicative of a substantial increase in payroll. You have to expect Adrian’s salary bidding to start around $23-$25 million per season, or if you’re not a math whiz, more than half of their payroll. Such an investment in one player would be so irresponsible for the franchise, it would render Alex Rodriguez’s original contract in Texas prudent. They gave up one season of his services, as well as the first-round pick in 2012 from the team which he would have signed with. Unless, an overzealous team such as the Orioles offered him the most dollar signs and years and scooped him up. Given their almost certainty to once again reside in the cellar of the mine-field which is the American League East, a nightmare that has become theirs and the Jays’ reality, their first rounder would become protected and the Padres would have gotten just their second round pick instead. So, you see, this is not the type of risk a small-market, sane-brain General Manager can take.

The Padres picked up three of the BoSox’s top six prospects, according to Baseball America. They got their number one prospect, Casey Kelly, who had the best curveball in their system. They got their number three, Anthony Rizzo, the best power hitter in their system. And they got their sixth best prospect, Reymond Fuentes, who was the best athlete in Boston’s system.

Kelly received a substantial $3 million bonus to pull him away from a quarterback scholarship at Tennessee in the 2008 draft. He’s expected to have plus command and sit in the low-nineties when he makes it all the way up, which could be as soon as 2012. Keith Law had a nice write-up [Requires EPSN Insider] on each player. He called Kelly's curveball “…sharp…with excellent depth…” and went on to say he’s “… an outstanding defensive pitcher to the point that it’s like having an extra infielder…” The Sox let him play shortstop for half a season in 2009 at his request before he became a full-time pitcher in 2010, giving further evidence to the type of athlete he is. He struggled in 2010 but was a 21 year old in Double-A hampered by a fingernail issue. A similar fate fell upon the Giants’ Zack Wheeler this season, yet the long-term outlook for both remains promising.

Rizzo is a left-handed hitting first baseman and the natural replacement for Gonzalez, at least eventually. Again, deferring to a more capable evaluator, Keith Law said of Rizzo: “In 2002, Gonzalez played in Portland at age 20, which was a Marlins affiliate at the time, and hit .266/.344/.437 with 34 doubles and 17 home runs in 573 PA. Rizzo played most of 2010 in Portland, also at age 20, and hit .263/.334/.481 with 30 doubles and 20 home runs in 467 PA…given the overall similarity and the fact that Rizzo lost a year of development while he fought cancer*, it’s more evidence for optimism in San Diego.”

*That’s right, the kid fought off cancer. And if John Lester, also from the Sox’s system, is a good litmus test for the type of competitor and person one has to be to overcome such adversity, well, the Padres may have plucked a good one in Rizzo.

Fuentes is the least of the prospects but no slouch. He, like Kelly, was a first round pick himself who Law says, “…has the potential to be Jacoby Ellsbury without all the injuries.”

The Padres needn’t be too gun-shy on this deal. For one, Hoyer knows these players about as well as Epstein as he was apart of the organization just one year ago. And two, he can feel confident that the Red Sox know what it is to keep a solid relationship by dealing value for value as they moved young superstar Hanley Ramirez to Florida for Josh Beckett and netted themselves a World Series championship in 2007 by doing so. Moving Gonzalez furthermore provides San Diego with a little more payroll flexibility to incrementally improve their 2011 roster in other ways.

With most of the heavy lifting done, Hoyer then targeted some starting pitching and scooped up Aaron Harang for just $3 million. Harang was as solid as they come just a few years ago, averaging 225 innings from 2005 through 2007 and pitching very effectively in a tough environment – Cincinnati’s ballpark – for fly ball pitchers. But a myriad of injuries – appendectomy, forearm and back – have somewhat derailed his career over the past few seasons. Jed pretty much struck gold with Jon Garland in 2010 and probably is hoping to do the same with Harang. While he’s no longer the slam-dunk, guaranteed 200+ inning horse that Garland is, he’s got more upside – and yes, more risk as you would expect – but he won’t necessarily have to be to earn the slight salary he’s owed. What’s more, it’s hard to imagine he won’t benefit going from one of the friendliest hitters parks in the National League to the without question worst hitters park in the Senior Circuit. If healthy, he’ll be a bargain.

He also added Dustin Moseley, which just became official, in order to add starting rotation depth and a pitcher capable of being a swingman.

And in another move, though one that is yet to be officially exacted, the Padres traded two more capable relief arms in Adam Russell, who has struck out well over a batter per inning, and Cesar Ramos, a young and projectable lefty, for Jason Bartlett. Adding Bartlett allows the Padres to go younger and more athletic than Miguel Tejada who departed to San Francisco, as well as with a bigger bat than the non-hitting, offensive-sinkhole that was Everth Cabrera. And if any team had the capability to subtract from the ‘pen to add to other areas, it was the Padres. Beyond that, Hoyer will look to add depth to the remainder of his roster and rotation.

Did the Padres reduce their win total in 2011 by trading Adrian Gonzalez? Probably, if not, absolutely. But you have to understand that even a player of his extraordinary talents is only worth around six wins per season, most of which could completely evaporate in the outside chance he went down with a freak injury such as being hit on the hand and breaking a finger or any other unfortunate malady that strikes each team, and almost every player, from time to time.

Many Giants fans were thrilled to see Gonzalez leave the division, thereby immediately improving San Francisco’s chances to repeat as division winners in 2011. I, however, was not. I see a franchise that’s being smartly run by a Red Sox trained, protégé of Theo Epstein, and which has likely significantly improved it’s positioning to contend on a yearly basis in the very near future. And within the haves and have-nots economics of baseball, of which there is no end in sight, this is the only way to conduct business. Otherwise, you become the Royals instead of the Rays.


  1. While they made a nice haul in the A-Gon trade, in terms of top Boston prospects, I think the proof in the pudding will be when we see the Top 100 overall prospect rankings and see where these prospects fit in. Hanley was in the top 15-30 in BA's experts lists; as much as I like Kelly and Rizzo (I selected both of them in my keeper league), I don't think they will rank that high, and I worry about Rizzo's strikeout ways.

    For example, Project Prospect does not list either Kelly or Rizzo in the top 25's:

    Only Jaff Decker made either list (I also drafted him).

    I agree that this is the way a franchise that is money-strapped - relatively - has to be run. You get a lot more for a player in trade than you would in getting the two draft picks, which at best is most likely not to be as good as the player you just traded away.

    I don't know that they will be able to compete as well into the future, however, unless one or two of their pitching become ace level starters like Latos. Because they will need that to compete with the Giants.

    They led the division this year because roughly three of their starters were pitching at ace-level performance (low 3 ERA or better) each month in the early part of the season until late.

    However, only Latos was a prospect deemed good enough to reach such a level by the prospect experts, and eventually the others fell back to Earth (August in particular) and their projected level of production, as well as Garland, and Correia was never able to get it all together because of the tragic death of his younger brother in May (which I don't blame him; he was really close because of their tough family situation growing up).

    Kelly could give them maybe two aces, if he can continue to develop, but I don't really see any top prospects in their system other than Donovan Tate, and Project Prospect didn't even list him in their Top 25.

    Until they find some pitchers to match ours, I am not too afraid of SD after the A-Gon trade because they don't have the young prospects to compare with Posey, Sandoval, Belt either. If you'll notice, Project Prospect thinks much more highly of Belt than Decker. And they have no one to compare with Sandoval, let alone Posey. Blanks maybe if he can turn himself around. But otherwise, the Giants run circles around SD in terms of young star quality players.

    SD, in my opinion, really blew it in terms of A-Gon. They were losing with him the two prior seasons, but picking up good draft picks. They should have traded him before the 2010 season and try to get an even bigger package for him, they were not really expected to compete in 2010 and only did so because two of their middle rotation prospects pitched really well. Unfortunately, they fell back and they lost. Can they be that good again? Doubtful, though not impossible.

    That just blew a year where they could have let the team lose, pick up another good draft pick because their farm isn't that talented right now. And they could have picked up more and better picks for A-Gon (think like what A's got for Haren by trading him early).

    Rays did it right, losing horribly for years, picking up quality talent and then upping the ante and getting them together for a pennant run.

    Royals didn't do it right, trying to win most years, ending up with middling draft picks and drafting safely (for example, passing on Lincecum to select Hochevar).

  2. In other words, I think long term they won't be much of a pain in our sides for the next, say, 4-6 seasons, unless they can develop another ace starter. But it's extremely hard to do unless you are losing and picking high in the draft.

  3. I wrote this post because 1) I like to dabble in MLB writings among my many Giants posts 2) they are in division, and you ought to keep your enemies closest, and 3) a real good buddy of mine is a die-hard Padres fan - and a reader.

    Anywho, they could have gotten a better return on Gonzo had they moved him sooner, but how can you blame them? They were a few breaks shy of winning the division. They were a 3 game losing streak (if you go from, say, the 11 gamer to an 8) from winning the division. If I'm a fan, and my GM gives up on a season that takes 162 games to eliminate me? Well, I want his head.

    I'm confident the Padres are in good hands with Hoyer, regardless of their current farm talent and payroll situation. Thanks for commenting!

  4. That is cool, R.A., I totally get your reasonings. In particular, #2. Just to be certain, I had no problem with the post, I thought it was an interesting topic, which I shared my thoughts on it.

    Your stance on the return is tinted by hindsight. Prior to the 2010 season, while I was very encouraged (and thus discouraged since I'm a Giants fan) by the Padres .500 play late in the 2009 season, there was no reason to think that they would necessarily take the next step and add 18 wins (going from 81-81 to 90-72). They should/would contend a bit but getting to 85-77 would have been a nice achievement, but then A-Gon would only have one year of control left.

    The ideal time (and this, as always, is just my opinion) was to do it before the 2010 season, pick up some stronger and/or more prospects for A-Gon, let the young players continue their rising arc from the end of 2009, and then by 2011, the new prospects would be ready to push the Padres higher.

    This issue to me, which I didn't touch on above, but thought about, is that the Padres really only just ended a good stretch of winning. When a team is winning, they get very poor quality draft picks, in the back of the first round, which my study suggests that there is maybe 10% chance of picking up a difference making (or good) player. As a result, that is why most teams that have been winning for a while tend to have farm systems that don't work anymore, like the GM suddenly got dumb - when it was really just a matter of lack of access to talent: in first five picks overall, odds around 40-45% of finding a good player, roughly 20% from 6-20 overall.

    A team wanting to rebuild efficiently therefore, once you start losing, should sell off all their good players and stockpile prospects, don't spend a lot on free agents, let the team limp around up to 4-6 years to build up Top 5 picks to find your franchise player, and once you found him, then can start trying to win the division again.

    I derived this idea/method from the way the A's won, both in Philly (under Connie Mack) and Oakland (Charlie O.), plus how the Marlins pulled off their double World Series, and from how Bobby Cox rebuilt the Braves from losers to long-term powerhouse. And, of course, from the sorry Giants franchise from almost the moment I started following them in the early 70's to when Sabean took over.

  5. The Padres did not follow this path. They had one really bad losing year (good) but then was better (i.e. mediocre) the second year, meaning they had to hit on that one good pick (which was Tate). That is fine for being competitive in 2009 and 2010, poor, I believe, for rebuilding well for the long-term.

    That one good player isn't going to get you anywhere but mediocre. Just look at the Giants with Jack Clark, one of the better players of his era, yet the Giants couldn't do much with him. He makes the World Series with Cards.

    So I'm happy the Padres took this path, since I'm a Giants fan. Yes, they were close in 2010, but they, IMO, lucked into that with brilliant overperformances by two middle-rotation starters in Richard and LeBlanc. The way they ended the season, do you really think they would have beat the Braves? I don't.

    I expect a regression back in 2011, particularly with A-Gon gone now, despite Hoyer's bravado that they haven't written off 2011 (and he needs to do that as GM, so I don't blame him). And that has nothing to do with how good I think Hoyer is.

    It is just a matter of my belief that Richard and LeBlanc won't repeat such great performances again. Richard's tERA and xFIP both suggest a fallback of around 50 points to 4.25-ish. LeBlanc: 4.50-ish ERA. Both good, just not ace good, which is what drove their team to win so many games early in the season.

    Now, if they had continued to pitch well all season, then I would be more worried. And there is also the possibility that maybe they are that good but just tired out by late season. But given their scouted predigre, that they aren't skilled enough to be top line starter while coming up, plus they don't strike out a lot of batters, nor are their K/BB ratio very high, I think the proper bet is that they aren't as good as they appeared to be early in the season.

    I agree that the Padres are in good hands with Hoyer. But no matter how good a GM is, if he does not have a lot of talent in the farm system, his hands will be tied. He has restocked some, but as I noted, Kelly and Rizzo, while good prospects, are not among the best. Neither are Tate or Decker.

    In contrast, the Giants over the 2007-2011 seasons had Top 10-20 prospects in Lincecum, Posey, Bumgarner, and now Belt looks like he will join the group (Villalona also was considered up there as well before, you know...). And Sandoval probably should have been up there as well.

    Looking over their roster, only Latos appears to be a good player, a difference maker. Kelly, maybe, but odds are longer the further down a prospect is on any overall Top prospect list. And the only Padre on the Project Prospect Top 25 list is Jaff Decker, and even he is not that highly regarded there, he's only on their list of players expected to contribute this season, not on overall potential, whereas Belt makes both lists.

  6. Agree with your assessment on their rotation. I too see huge regression from some of their mid-rotation starters. Of course, their park and defense helped them a lot too. I guess we will see what Boston's prospects do for SD.

  7. A question for both of you regarding the "brilliant overperformances" by Padre pitching. As you are not constant followers of the team, this can easily slip by, but I think that you will see it when I point it out, especially as the Giants also play in a very pitching friendly ballpark.

    Simply put, the return to form/career year thing by Garland is not an isolated incident. Ismael Valdes, anyone? David Wells even? Not to mention a slew of relievers.

    Petco Park is so incredibly pitching friendly that it enhances any pitchers value. (What I mentally still call Pac Bell Park also does this.) I would not be at all surprised to see Aaron Harang experience the same (provided he stays healthy.

    So my question...why do you feel that it is so unlikely that Padre pitching will continue to "overperform?"

  8. Hi Rich. I'm well aware of how impressive Petco is at reducing runs. AT&T is thought to be a pitchers park, but it actually plays close to fair. It's slightly pitcher friendly on home runs, specifically it hurts left-handed home run power. But, it's also above average in doubles and triples which helps to bring it near fair.

    Garland's strikeout rate was well over a K per 9 IP higher than his career. I have no idea how he did that, but I doubt it will happen again. Most importantly, his FIP was nearly a run higher than his ERA. His batting average on balls in play (BABiP) was .267, and isn't sustainable. Simply put, he was lucky on balls put into play in 2010 - a lot of them went for outs. He's in LA this year, another pitchers park, and I'll be shocked if he posts an ERA under 4.

    But you're right, PETCO helps A LOT. I won't be surprised in the least bit if Harang bounces back to have a nice year.