Chatting with Sandy Alderson (Part 3)

This is the third of a three-part interview (Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here) with San Diego Padres CEO Sandy Alderson. Big thanks to Mr. Alderson for taking time out of his busy schedule to make himself available, and also to his assistant, Dayle Tedrow, for her indispensable assistance in making this happen.

Ducksnorts: Something that’s near and dear to my heart: Paul DePodesta has recently started a public-facing blog, which is really cool. When I was working in industry, that was one of the things I was trying to get my company to do externally… I’ve seen a lot of examples — Wells Fargo, Southwest Airlines, IBM — of very reputable corporations doing public-facing blogs, and really to great effect in terms of customer outreach and so forth. That said, it’s pretty revolutionary for the Padres to take that step. What factors influenced you to start that?

Alderson: Well, first of all, I really believe in as much interface with the public as possible. I do a radio show every week — we’ve got Grady [Fuson], Kevin [Towers], Paul — all those guys do a radio show every week, and my attitude is, the more people hear about us and from us, the better off we are because I have a lot of confidence in the people we have here.

The blogosphere creates another opportunity to communicate, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in Paul — in his ability to write, in his ability to self-edit if that’s necessary — to be as straightforward as possible under the circumstances. We ran it internally for, I don’t know, a month or something like that and decided… let’s go ahead. I’m not sure what we get back in the form of commentary is terribly useful because it tends to be — not a fringe element, but I wouldn’t say it’s [laughs] an accurate poll of public opinion.

Ducksnorts: It’s like the radio. [laughs]

Alderson: Right, and I don’t consider that to be perfectly representative either, but it’s another source for us…

Ducksnorts: You’ve got to be out there.

Alderson: Yeah.

Ducksnorts: I think that’s commendable that you guys view it as an opportunity, because [with] a lot of people — not necessarily within the baseball world, but within the corporate world, my experience has been, “this is new, we don’t know what it is, and let’s wait till someone else does it before we determine that, oh, hey, yeah, that was a good idea; we really should have gotten in on that.”

Alderson: The other thing we’ve been toying around with is allowing people like yourself into the press box. I know there’s a lot of controversy about that among mainstream media and so forth, but our attitude is, the more access, the better. In Paul’s case, it’s a chance for him to express himself on an unflitered basis. He doesn’t get interpreted by [radio host] Philly Billy [Werndl] or [newspaper columnist] Tim Sullivan or somebody else. It’s an unvarnished line of communication.

Ducksnorts: It benefits him, and it benefits us, the readers. I don’t presume to speak for everyone, but the people I’ve spoken with, in the circles I travel in, are very excited about it.

Alderson: Great, I’m glad to hear it.

Ducksnorts: Turning back to the draft, and player development — the draft just finished taking place and, as you say, we’ve gone out and gotten a lot of position players this year… There’s been criticism in the past that the Padres have been “overly conservative” in their strategy, with an emphasis on polished college players, and preferring risk avoidance over perceived upside — the Jay Bruces of the world, or the Upton brothers — obviously, those guys weren’t available at our slot, but I think you see what I’m getting at — the guys that are perceived as being once-in-a-generation types… How would you describe the current philosophy/strategy, and how satisfied are you with it?

Alderson: As we discussed earlier, we’ve made pretty significant strides in our farm system over the last couple of years. To some extent, I think a strategy has to be devised in the context of where you are, where you’ve been, and where you want to go. In other words, if we had the #1 farm system in all of Major League Baseball, would we tend to take a few more shots in the dark? Maybe. Would we ever get to be the #1 if we didn’t take a few shots in the dark?

I look at a team like — just to give you an example — Tampa Bay. I think you could go back and look at Tampa Bay over the last 10 years or so, and the reason that they’ve now started to be successful on the field is because they’ve been successful over the last three, four, five years — but not before that — in converting #1 draft picks. You can go back and look at the kind of money that they’ve spent on draft picks, some of whom have worked out and some which haven’t. The guys that are starting to work out for them are not just high-ceiling high school players but high-ceiling college players that happened to be available to them in the first or second slot.

I think there’s a lot made in San Diego of what happened surrounding the Matt Bush selection, and I think that was — in terms of where we’ve come since that time — something of an aberration. The only other possible basis for that assumption is the fact that in the last couple of years there have been some players like Rick Porcello and so forth who’ve dropped, and Detroit or somebody else has swept in and taken those players. In some cases that’s worked, in some cases it hasn’t.

What I’m hoping is that our farm system from now going forward is going to be viewed as a single unit — the draft and Latin America, or our international signings. We haven’t done very much at all internationally, we haven’t been successful at all internationally.

We’ve done quite a bit over the last couple years to improve the system. When your system is ranked 29th or 30th, I think you do things a little differently than if it’s ranked 10th or 12th, or if it’s ranked first or second. If we’ve been a little cautious in the past, it’s probably been with a view toward improving our farm system at a time when it was absolutely barren and we didn’t have terribly high draft picks. If you’re drafting [in slots] 20-30, you’re not going to get Evan Longoria. The fact that we got a guy like Chase Headley in the second round I think says more about the way we’re approaching things than the fact that we took Matt Bush with the first pick in the country. That’s ancient history around here, and the problem is, people don’t understand that.

Ducksnorts: It doesn’t feel like ancient history to fans. Certainly much has changed. Not to mention that there’s nothing anybody can do about that; it’s done.

Alderson: Right. [laughs] The philosophy that we have here — I hate to do this, but if you want to look at a longer record… you have to go to Oakland and look at the stuff that Grady [Fuson] was doing, and while I was there and after I left. The philosophy hasn’t really changed, it’s just been in effect here for a shorter period of time.

Eric Chavez — but he was the 10th pick in the country. Tim Hudson was a guy taken in much higher rounds. Mark Mulder — but he was the second pick in the country.

You take that opportunity to take the #1 guy in the country, and we whiffed on it, but it really was a different time and place. The organization is substantially different now, the philosophy is substantially different, the process by which these decisions are made is substantially different, and the personnel involved are different.

Take our most recent draft. I know there’s been the bloggers — “oh, they took this guy and that guy.” You know, Arizona was going to take [Allan] Dykstra right after us… People make assumptions about what would happen, might happen, and so forth.

Ducksnorts: You’re not drafting in a vacuum.

Alderson: [laughs] No. Again, we were looking for talent and that’s what we took. The other thing that people should understand is that talk about lower ceiling or higher ceiling is really about probabilities. Let’s say the ceiling is 100 and a kid is a high school player and he’s now at 50… You can say he’s very projectable to get to 100, but the fact is he’s at 50 on a scale of 1 to 100. And you’ve got a college kid that’s at 80 and he’s not as projectable. Why? Well, in part because he’s already at 80 instead of 50.

Now that’s just in the abstract. If you take the tools that are available to us, that we try to use — and that’s not to say, hey, we know something you don’t know — but in terms of the way we try to do the analysis — and we’re not unique in this — you take the scouting, you take some of the other analytical tools, there’s no question that there is a higher predictability with college players than with high school players. It’s just the way it is because there’s more data available.

The other thing is that… in the average draft, take the top 30 players that are taken — the first 10 are pretty much consensus; in other words, all 30 boards — first 10 guys, 12 guys, everybody’s [board is the same]; after that it goes like this [sweeps hand over head], because the depth of true quality just doesn’t exist beyond the first — it doesn’t even get through the first round. Some of the guys who were taken in the first round we didn’t even have in our top 50, so that’s got nothing to do with high school…

There’s no question that we put an emphasis with position players on the ability to hit; you can’t hit, you can’t play in the major leagues. You can run like the wind, you can have a great arm, you can do this, you can do that — with very few exceptions, if you can’t hit, you can’t play.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that we’re more conservative. I think we’re more analytical and we do rely on probabilities. At the same time, as our system gets stronger and has more of a foundation, you may see a difference in approach — but again, I think what you’ve got to do currently is think in terms of the draft and the international market as a single entity and that one group of players complements another group of players.

We took a high school kid in the first round, [Jaff] Decker… He may not be a middle-of-the diamond guy, but let’s see what happens internationally, where we’re also committed to improvement. It’s got to be viewed as a composite.

Ducksnorts: That’s a really good point, because so much attention is focused on the draft — especially now that they’re starting to televise it and everything, and the international stuff is still very much behind closed doors, or maybe not so much in the public eye.

Alderson: There was a kid in the draft who — [people ask] “why did you pass on this guy, why don’t you take him?” Well, one of the kids that they were talking about has [long pause] — I mean, there were several issues related to, uh, not typical scouting issues. You can’t expect people to know that, but when they pop off with the absence of information, it’s frustrating.

Ducksnorts: Before the season start I was pegging this team as an 85-86 win team. I’m on record in several places as saying 85 or 86, and right now it looks like it’s going to take quite an effort to get to that total.

Alderson: We’re 6 1/2 out. [laughs]

Ducksnorts: Well, the great thing is Arizona has come back to earth and nobody else seems to be doing anything, so the opportunity is still there… Where is the disconnect? Obviously somebody like Josh Bard is hurt right now, but if you looked at all the expert prognosticators’ expectations of him, Khalil Greene, and a handful of other guys — it’s not even like he’s a little bit off of his normal game — what we would expect of this guy given that he’s in his physical prime; it’s like night and day — you’re not even looking at the same player. How do you account for that when you’re taking stock of your club — doing risk assessment, that sort of thing — and then when you actually get to the point where you look up and go, “oh my goodness, this isn’t where we wanted to be or realistically expected to be”?

Alderson: Well, partly what you have to do is go back and do a little bit of self-analysis, try to figure out, okay, where did we overestimate, why were we so off? The other thing is, you have to recognize that there are these vagaries that exist in life, they exist in the game, and they can manifest themselves over two weeks, three weeks, a months, six weeks, a year.

If you look at the places where we’ve really been hurt, you can say, okay, the [Jim] Edmonds thing didn’t work: is that because he didn’t have any spring training or is it because he’s just lost it? He’s actually playing decently right now with the Cubs, [but] I’m still happy we made the decision we did because it’s allowed us to look at people for the future. Jim Edmonds was not the future of the Padres. Could Jody Gerut or Scott Hairston have a role in that future? Yeah, I think so, depending on how things go.

We never really solved the left field problem except with the Hairston/Gerut/[Paul] McAnulty thing. We didn’t sign [Milton] Bradley, we didn’t get [Kosuke] Fukudome, which would have maybe allowed us to move some people around. Having said that, you look at catcher, you look at — [second baseman Tadahito] Iguchi wasn’t playing particularly well in April. Greene has been a complete disappointment…

Pitching wise, if you look back at April, [Jake] Peavy wasn’t pitching all that well, the bullpen was completely out of sorts, Chris Young wasn’t pitching at his best, Randy Wolf was erratic early, [Justin] Germano was Germano.

Part of it is just the unpredictability of the game, part of it is that we didn’t solve a couple of problems that existed in the off-season that we hoped we’d addressed. The bullpen was a concern of mine to some extend because of the amount of change that had occurred… We still had [Trevor] Hoffman, we still had [Heath] Bell, we still had [Cla] Meredith… we had [Justin] Hampson coming back, but he was hurt…

Ducksnorts: [Joe] Thatcher looked great at the end of last year.

Alderson: We had Thatcher coming back. Kevin Cameron had pitched pretty well. But they were all sort of having to move up a step and it wasn’t successful either because of injury or because of something else, and suddenly we were pretty vulnerable in the bullpen. Who knows, the 22-inning game or what have you, what kind of impact did that have on the ‘pen? But clearly the ‘pen was not performing well…

Ducksnorts: I know we’re running short on time here, but I’ve got a couple of fun ones to end with. You played second base at Dartmouth. What is your fondest playing memory?

Alderson: Well, I don’t have any real fond memories of playing varsity baseball there… In those days we had freshman baseball and varsity. I played freshman and then I played varsity one year, and I probably got about 10 at-bats. I don’t think I got a hit. I don’t really have any positive memories of playing college baseball. [laughs]

Ducksnorts: [laughs] Fair enough. What about your fondest baseball memory, period, if you can narrow it down to one?

Alderson: That would have to be winning the World Series. Especially now, after almost 20 years, winning in 1989, recognizing how difficult it is — I mean, we went to the World Series three years in a row — you realize how difficult it is to get there and then win it.

More generally it’s having been able to share baseball with my family — my kids, my wife, and my dad. My dad wears my World Series ring… It’s been great for the whole family.

Thanks again to Mr. Alderson for being so generous with his time and sharing his thoughts with us here at Ducksnorts. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with him about the game and the team, and I hope that came through for those of you reading this.