Did Somebody Report a Fire Sale?

Before the 1999 season started, the popular conception among media types and, unfortunately, many San Diegans was that this year’s Padres would bear a strong resemblance to the Florida Marlins of the previous season and would go from the World Series to stinking up the league quicker than you could say, “Richie Garcia.” According to this theory, the Padres had “broken up” their ballclub in a “fire sale.”

Reality, of course, paints a very different, if less colorful and marketable to the masses, picture. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, defines a fire sale as “a sale of merchandise damaged in a fire; also a sale at very low prices.”

If the Padres had indeed conducted a fire sale prior to the 1999 season, then one would expect them to have “sold” their assets for less than what they were worth. In baseball terms, such “selling” generally takes the form of (at least outwardly) lopsided trades. But is this really what happened? Before we answer this question, let’s take a look back at a real fire sale.

The Great Fire Sale of 1993

Once upon a time the Padres were owned by a man who didn’t care at all about baseball. This owner, whose name is not uttered in San Diego, had a bright young general manager named Randy Smith, who was under orders to slash payroll as quickly as possible, without regard for the impact it would have on the team’s performance. The owner went public with these orders, so that every team in baseball knew precisely what Smith had to do, thus severely compromising Smith’s bargaining power.

The Padres made four significant trades that season:

  • Just before Opening Day, they traded Darrin Jackson to Toronto for Derek Bell. Jackson was 29 years old and had hit 38 home runs the previous 2 years with San Diego. Bell, age 24, was the Blue Jays’ Minor League Player of the Year but didn’t get along with then-manager Cito “Death to Rookies” Gaston. This deal was made solely for financial reasons. Jackson went on to miss much of the season due to illness and was eventually traded to the New York Mets; except for one bizarre season with the White Sox, he hasn’t done much to distinguish himself since. Bell, in the meantime, established himself as a solid big league center fielder before moving on to Houston in a trade.
  • They traded Gary Sheffield to Florida for Andres Berumen, Trevor Hoffman, and Jose Martinez. Sheffield had one monster season with the Marlins, went to the World Series the following season, and then was shipped off to Los Angeles as part of another fire sale. Berumen and Martinez made cameos with the Padres, while Hoffman has become one of the elite closers in the game. At the time of the trade, Sheffield was 24 years old, coming off a season in which he made a serious run at the Triple Crown, and due to be a free agent in the near future. The three pitchers in the deal had minimal big league experience.
  • They dealt Fred McGriff to Atlanta for Donnie Elliott, Vince Moore, and Melvin Nieves. McGriff, at age 29, was good for 30-35 homers a year back when that could lead a league, and drew tons of walks. But he was expensive, and Elliott, Moore, and Nieves were young, cheap, and, as fate would have it, really lousy ballplayers.
  • The final trade is probably one of the more impressive ones I’ve ever seen made given the circumstances. The Padres traded Greg W. Harris and Bruce Hurst to Colorado for Andy Ashby, Brad Ausmus, and Doug Bochtler. Harris was a promising young pitcher with a reasonable track record, and the expansion Rockies were desperate for pitching. Ashby had a career ERA of 7.44 in 133 innings with Philadelphia and Colorado before coming to San Diego. Ausmus was a rocket-armed catcher plucked out of the Yankees system. Bochtler was a minor league reliever with a funky delivery. Randy Smith insisted that the Rockies take Hurst, an injured, aging, and expensive left-hander, in the deal, and the Rockies complied. Hurst never barely pitched an inning for Colorado (or anyone else). Ashby learned how to pitch and became one of the better starters in the game.

Thanks to some brilliant work by Randy Smith, the Padres made out very nicely in three of the four deals.

Back to the Future, er, Present

This is all very interesting, but what’s the point? It’s simple, really. Now that we know what a fire sale looks like, we can examine what the Padres have done in 1999 in its proper context. More importantly, we can get an idea of whether Randy Smith’s successor, wunderkind Kevin Towers, has improved the club’s chances in the long run.

After the Padres’ improbable 1998 World Series appearance (remember, they had finished last in the NL West in 1997), the frenzy of fans (diehards and bandwagoners), and a show of civic pride in voting for a new baseball-only stadium downtown, the masses of San Diego felt more than a little betrayed when minimal effort was made by management to re-sign this crew of aging veterans whose best years were behind them and who, despite the odds, had collectively assembled a magical team that refused to bow to allegedly superior teams before finally succumbing to the New York Yankees, hailed by some as the greatest baseball team ever (although, according to Bob Costas, we’ll never know, because they weren’t tested in the World Series by a worthy opponent — sorry to disappoint you, Bob).

The 1998 Padres were a great team and a great story, a collection of misfits who played better on the field than they should have on paper. They were old, expensive, and they overachieved their way into a World Series. They had a big parade downtown, and then they let their old, expensive, overachieving “stars” sign elsewhere as free agents.

The knee-jerk reactions, that the Padres were conducting a fire sale and were a disgrace to the game, although very popular among members of the media who had latched on to a similar story in Miami the year before, as emblematic of the idea that excess in professional sports (as opposed to, say, in the movie industry, in the music industry, in the automobile industry, etc.) is somehow evil and to be avoided, and among some San Diegans whose understanding of the great game of baseball could best be summarized as “that thing that happens on the field while we’re eating nachos and doing the wave,” had nothing to do with the facts at hand.

The Numbers, Please

Frustrated and disgusted at the popular notion that the Padres were a minor league team and had given all their alleged superstars away, I began posting comparisons of the ex-Padres and their replacements on one of the AOL boards earlier in the season. I’ve updated them fairly regularly, and here is what they look like at the All-Star Break:

Stats through games of July 12, 1999

Player         99 Salary ($M)  Age     G    AB    R    H   2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB   AVG   OBP   SLG
Steve Finley       5.375        34    87   331   51   89   19   5  17   63   29  .269  .331  .511
Ruben Rivera       0.265        25    78   226   33   50   12   1  15   32   21  .221  .291  .482

Greg Vaughn        5.615        33    78   288   49   67    8   2  20   54   41  .233  .329  .483
Reggie Sanders     3.700        31    65   232   56   73   12   2  15   37   35  .315  .412  .578

Ken Caminiti       4.500        36    36   130   18   38    5   0   2   17   18  .292  .373  .377
Dave Magadan       0.575        36    67   183   16   54   11   0   2   25   24  .295  .370  .388

Former Padres     15.490       34.3  201   749  118  194   32   7  39  134   88  .259  .337  .477
Current Padres     4.540       30.7  211   641  105  177   35   3  32   94   80  .276  .356  .490
Player         99 Salary ($M)  Age    W   L   PCT    G  SV     IP    H    R   ER  TBB   SO    ERA
Kevin Brown       10.714        34    9   6  .600   19   0  132.2  122   63   52   35  114   3.53
Matt Clement       0.201        24    5   8  .385   17   0   96.0  101   63   51   47   64   4.78

Joey Hamilton      4.250        28    1   5  .167   13   0   49.1   75   47   47   21   28   8.57
Woody Williams     3.000        32    4   7  .364   18   0  112.0  121   60   56   40   67   4.50

Former Padres     14.964        31   10  11  .476   32   0  182.0  197  110   99   56  142   4.90
Current Padres     3.201        28    9  15  .375   35   0  208.0  222  123  109   87  131   4.72

Note. Magadan is listed as the Padres’ third baseman because he has gotten the majority of at bats, although George Arias technically is the starter. Other, “lesser” players involved in the various deals (e.g., Damian Jackson, Mark Sweeney, Carlos Almanzar) are not included.

Here are the records of the Padres and the teams that are supposed to have benefited from the Padres fire sale:

                  W   L   Pct    GB
Cincinnati       49  36  .576    -
Houston          50  37  .575    -
Arizona          48  41  .539   2.5
Toronto          47  43  .522   7.0
San Diego        43  43  .500   6.0
Los Angeles      39  47  .453  10.0

All these teams, with the possible exception of the Dodgers, are very much in the hunt for a playoff spot.
We’ve Seen the Numbers, Now Tell Us What to Think

After a terrible start offensively, in large part due to his skipping out on Winter Ball (which he now admits was a mistake), Rivera has been making tremendous strides at the plate. He’s seeing a lot of pitches, and if you throw out the first month of the season, his OPS is over 900, very nice for a center fielder. On defense, I used to believe that Rivera was Finley’s equal but I was wrong. Rivera is better, and it’s not close. He covers more ground, and he’s got a much stronger arm. Rivera is probably the best defensive center fielder in the game not named Andruw or Junior. From a financial and a baseball standpoint, it made no sense for the Padres to offer Finley the kind of money he was seeking as a free agent when they had a younger, cheaper, and frankly better alternative waiting in the wings.

As expected (by some of us, at least), Sanders is outperforming Vaughn both offensively and defensively. Again, the Padres got younger, cheaper, and better with this move. Oh yeah, and they got Damian Jackson, too.

Magadan isn’t much of a third baseman but Caminiti’s pre- and post-San Diego career has been mediocre. I cannot dismiss Caminiti’s contributions to the Padres while he was here, but truly, other than in the clubhouse, his departure has been no great loss. Caminiti is being paid an awful lot of money to spend his days on the disabled list. Better that the Astros should flip the bill than the Padres.

The departure of Brown hurts but not as much as paying him $10.7 million would have. The Padres knew when they traded for him that they wouldn’t be able to sign him after the season — that’s why he came so cheaply.

Hamilton was injured and lost his job in the rotation for a while but has come back strong of late. Williams pitched very well early in the season before getting bombed on Planet Coors. Since then he’s been in self-destruct mode, and he does have a history of fading in the second half, so the jury’s still very much out on him. Still, Williams clearly has outpitched Hamilton thus far. This was the one move I was critical of during the off-season but right now it looks pretty good.

The evidence has been presented. Now let’s answer our original question: “Did the Padres conduct a fire sale this off-season?” The answer to this is a resounding, “No!” They made two trades, in which arguably they got the better end of the deal now and for the future. They also let three free agents, ages 34, 34, and 36, walk for just over $20.5 million this year. There is a good, two-word term for this course of action, but it’s not “fire sale,” it’s “common sense.”

The bottom line is this: The 1999 Padres aren’t as good as the 1998 club (which was better than it “should” have been), but it’s doubtful that the players and their $22,713,000 who departed San Diego would be contributing enough to make this year’s team any better than it already is. That doesn’t fit too well with the “greed is evil” agenda some would foist on the masses but it is an accurate assessment of reality, which is what we are (or should be, in my opinion) interested in, anyway.

The big-name players who chose to leave San Diego or were shown the door after the 1998 season are being paid exponentially more, are older, and generally have been no more succesful than their replacements. On an emotional level, it is easy to understand why some folks were disappointed to see “their guys” move on to different cities. Change is often met with resistance, especially when it follows success. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is quaint and does have its place in the world, but in this case, it was very much to the Padres’ advantage to “fix” the ballclub before it broke: a little preventive maintenance. 1998 was a great ride for the Padres and their fans, and it will always be cherished by those who were associated with and/or affected by it, directly or otherwise. But it’s over now, and the 1999 version is a very different club. The notion that the same personnel somehow would have brought the same results has no basis in reality and is nothing more than an attempt to preserve the unpreservable.

After the facts have been examined thoroughly, it’s quite obvious that the Padres took the actions necessary to ensure the long-term health of the organization and that nobody was cheated. For a team that has made only two World Series appearances in over 30 years, the suggestion that ownership somehow committed a transgression against the people of San Diego and baseball in general not only is an extremely ungrateful and misguided position to take but also smacks of hidden agendas that are best left outside the stadium.

Fire sales can and do happen in baseball and other sports, but there is no evidence of one having occurred in San Diego, in 1999. This was simply, to perhaps overextend the metaphor, a false alarm.

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