Bounce or Crash?

This is a guest post by long-time Ducksnorts reader and contributor Tom Waits.

Few teams have fallen so far, so fast, as the 2008 Padres. A team that was one out away from the playoffs in September 2007 is now 33 games under .500, with a very real chance of picking first in next year’s draft. But is this disaster a systemic failure, the result of poor design and poor execution, or is it more akin to a plane crash caused by wind shear — a horrific event that nonetheless does not call into question the laws of aerodynamics? Put another, less tortured way: What are the chances that the 2009 Padres are a helluva lot more fun to watch?

My original plan was to detail the main weaknesses of the 2008 squad (pitching) and propose possible solutions. However, recent news stories about payroll cutting and retrenching, plus an innate laziness that borders on sloth, led me to at least temporarily abandon that approach. Instead, I looked in the historical record to see what it might reveal about our chances in 2009.

Big Turnarounds of the (Recent) Past

There’s a lot of talk about the Padres being destined for several years of rebuilding, based on their miserable 2008 campaign. It’s not just angry and disappointed Padre fans, either. Several national writers believe that San Diego is trying to fit too many square pegs into far too many round holes, that there’s insufficient farm system depth or money to fix it anytime soon, and that the front office is out of touch with what it takes to build a winning baseball team in the “post-steroid” era.

But… is that true? A look at recent baseball history suggests that, while the coffin lid may have been put in place, it’s not nailed down… yet.

Tigers, 2005 to 2006

The 2005 Detroit Tigers won only 71 games. The next year, buoyed by some young talent and unexpected performances from veterans, they added 24 wins. Their offense was only average, like it had been in 2005, but their pitching improved immensely (95 to 118 ERA+). Their top four starters all had positive ERA+ numbers. Zach Miner and Mike Maroth, taken together, were above-average in the fifth spot. Their bullpen was insane; the top six relievers ranged from good (Todd Jones) to great (Joel Zumaya). Even Wilfredo Ledezma managed a 127 ERA+ in 60 innings.

The Tigers and Padres make for another interesting comparison as well. After two straight winning years, Detroit fell on hard times in 2008. Not so hard as San Diego, to be sure, but they made extraordinary off-season trades for Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Dontrelle Willis, all players who had been above-average (even great) for the balance of their careers. Yet they started the season about as poorly as they could without playing a man short, and they’re still 5 games below .500 and well out of the playoff race. Bad seasons happen to lots of teams, whatever philosophies their management might hold or however much their owner spends.

Tampa Bay, 2007 to 2008

Of the three examples we’ll look at, the (Devil) Rays are the least instructive. They were very bad for a long time, but in the years immediately before 2008 they began to invest heavily in their farm system. The Padres have made strides in this regard, but San Diego’s minor leaguers are a pale shadow of Tampa’s young talent before 2008 began. Still, young talent sometimes takes time to gel. The Rays gelled fast, and have already tacked 19 wins onto their 2007 total. Their lead over the Red Sox can’t be called comfortable, but it’s still there. They’re a near-mortal lock to finish with 90+ wins; 95 is easily within reach and 100 is not out of the question. Baseball Prospectus tabbed Tampa to add 22 wins to its total, but few other observers, mainstream or sabermetric, believed they would be anywhere near this good.

It’s not entirely skill and talent. Anyone want to bet on Edwin Jackson’s 2009 overall value if he walks 72 and strikes out only 98 in 166 1/3 innings again? It’s probably not going to result in a 106 ERA+. But that’s actually somewhat encouraging from our bruised and angry perspective on the opposite coast. A young kid with talent can get lucky and help his team, even if he hasn’t been that good before and isn’t likely to be that good again. We saw it with Clay Hensley in 2006. You can’ t count on those performances, but every year several players substantially outproduce their peripherals. Nothing says that Wade LeBlanc can’t get control of his below-average fastball and provide 165 innings of league-average pitching. It ain’t bloody likely, but it ain’t impossible, either.

Tampa also took an enormous risk in the offseason, trading Delmon Young and Brendan Harris for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. The most compaarable Padre move in recent years was the trade of Josh Barfield for Kevin Kouzmanoff, so it’s not against all our principles. The current Chase Headley — Kouzmanoff situation seems ripe for a similarly bold decision, but there’s less urgency if the team decides to hold back in 2009.

Padres 2003 to 2004

This is more like it. It’s our own beloved Padres, it happened recently enough that you shouldn’t need hypnosis to recall it, and the the causes of failure are almost identical to the 2009 Padres. You couldn’t really ask for a better case study.

The 2003 Padres lost 98 games. They had an average offense (OPS+ of 100) and not a single qualified starter with an ERA+ that was above-average. That staff included a rookie Jake Peavy, which should give many Wade LeBlanc, Josh Geer, and Will Inman fans a serious pause. Those guys aren’t Peavy.

Anyway, back to 2003. The bullpen was largely atrocious: 140 above-average innings from Rod Beck, Scott Linebrink, and Matt Herges; 350 innings of crap from everyone else. Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you haven’t been paying attention to what’s caused most of our losses this year, especially since April.

From a structural standpoint the 2003 Padres represented the tail end of a terrible run. The team hadn’t posted a winning record since 1998.

Then, a virtual miracle occured. The 2004 Padres won 87 games. They didn’t make the playoffs, finishing six behind the Dodgers and four behind the Giants. But improving your win percentage by .142 in one season is a huge accomplishment.

For some more context, on September 9, 2004, the Padres were 74-66. On the same date in 2008, Los Angeles held first place with a record of 74-71.

What were the big changes? Brian Giles gave us the first of several very good to great seasons (128 OPS+). The trade that brought Giles here was controversial (more so later than when it occurred), but it’s helpful to remember that Jason Bay would have provided roughly the same production. A blockbuster trade, therefore, wasn’t required. Ramon Hernandez came over from Oakland and was almost twice as good a hitter as his predecessor, Gary Bennett. Mark Loretta had a career year after being a competent, but by no means impact, hitter for many seasons. Khalil Greene’s rookie campaign remains his best ever, and was a major improvement over Ramon Vazquez. But the team OPS+ climbed “only” 10 points from 2003. That’s not enough to add 23 games to the fun side of the column.

The real change was in the pitching department. Only two starters were actually good (Peavy and David Wells), but they were backed by a dominant bullpen. Of the top six bullpen arms (in terms of IP), only Blaine Neal was below average, and he still managed a 95 ERA+. Between Trevor Hoffman, Linebrink, Akinori Otsuka, Jay Witasick, and Antonio Osuna, Witasick had the lowest ERA+ at 121. Aki and Linebrink were particularly lethal, combining for 170 strikeouts in 161 innings.

The 2003 Padres, like the 2008 model, had more talent than their record indicated. Some of that talent was young and needed to mature (Peavy). Some of that talent was hurt (Phil Nevin, Ryan Klesko, Hoffman). But would anyone look at the the months between October 2003 and April 2004 and suggest it was a radical retooling? There were significant improvements, and we shouldn’t undersell them. We traded very good players to get Brian Giles. We moved Mark Kotsay and took on Terrence Long to get Ramon Hernandez. But we did not “gut” the farm system, which would have been almost impossible given that it was as deep as a sheet of tracing paper. We made a couple of bold moves, a couple of players bounced back, and a couple of young players (Greene and Peavy) stepped forward. Voila, a 23-win improvement.


I’m not suggesting that the 2009 Padres are guaranteed, or even likely, to go from 100 losses to 85 wins in a single season. I’m simply suggesting that a bounceback is possible, despite the proclamations of doom from Padre fans and certain analysts. The 2004 Padres, 2006 Tigers, and 2008 Rays were very different squads, but they all managed to add 20 or more wins. There’s no one magic formula; the 03-04 Padres had the weakest farm system of the bunch, but made aggressive trades and got lucky with Loretta and Wells. The 2006 Tigers grew from both internal resources and key free agent sigings. Tampa boldly moved a top prospect and watched its young players mature very quickly. There’s more than one way to right the ship.

Barring a complete retrenchment on the payroll front or a decision to rebuild, the 2009 Padres can be a playoff contender. It remains to be seen if the front office feels the chances are good enough to justify taking some risks in pursuit of that goal, or if ownership would even allow it. But the 2009 Padres are not fated to put us through this kind of agony again.

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7 Responses »

  1. Interesting analysis. To me the biggest question impacting how the team will move to structure itself for 2009, and beyond, is how the Moores handle the ongoing marital discord and divorce proceedings. A chaotic ownership situation does not bode well for the team’s 2009 chances, imo.

  2. Nice job, Tom. I think you’re right that the Kouz/Headley situation could be a great opportunity to snag a useful piece of the puzzle. My biggest concern remains the bullpen, and I’m not really sure the best way to proceed, but hopefully KT will figure it out.

  3. Good job, Tom. I agree that the team might be able to bounce back next year.
    I’m just not so sure that the bounce will be enough to put the team past .500 mark especially with the rumor of payroll cut.

    I’m curious to see how the newly picked up knuckleballer fares the rest of the season. If he’s decent, the Padres may have added another piece to the puzzle that is the starting rotation next year.

    I don’t see Kouz or Headley going anywhere if the team is cutting payroll and OG isn’t coming back. That would be a mistake in my opinion but I don’t decide to spend the money. That would give us a relatively young OF even with Gerut and Hairston. I don’t see too much change in the infield either with Antonelli or Rodriguez/Gonzalez at 2B (I hope it doesn’t come to that). It’d come down to how the bullpen will be shaping up and who’s on the bench.

    That team can potentially start out strong and fizzle out towards the end of the season. However, even if that is the case, I don’t see another miserable season like 2008. It’s unlikely but it can happen.

  4. Btw, it’s interesting to have just read about Haeger on Rany on the Royals and then, finding out the Padres got the knuckleballer. Was just wondering if it’s a good idea to try him out since we are trying everybody out.

    I hope he works out with either catchers we have. I sure hate to have to see Mirabelli’s mug again (not that it’s possible – it’s not, right?).

  5. Thanks for the kind words.

    I love the Haeger pickup. It can work if we’re rebuilding next year, because a knuckleballer can soak up innings without damaging his arm. Not so great for Haeger’s ERA, perhaps, but better than piling 200 innings on a typical youngster. It can also work if we’re competitive, for the same reason. Every fifth start you know you can get 7 or 8 innings from him, even if they’re not good innings. It’s not like a pitcher who needs 100 pitches to get through 4 frames; he can just keep tossing that thing up there. Maybe that kind of safety net will finally allow us not to carry 12 or 13 flippin’ pitchers when we play 81 games in a pitcher’s park.

  6. There is reason to hope that one or more of the Pads rookies will make significant strides next year. Headley has steadily improved this year and could break out with a whole season in the bigs. Hundley, Venable, and L-Rod have impressed me this year. With a little more seasoning, they could be ready. Unfortunately, I have not seen much pitching to bring me hope: LeBlanc, Geer, Reineke, Hayhurst, Banks, etc.

    Unlike some commenters, I like keeping Headley AND Kouzmanoff. For trade bait, I’d offer Khalil, Bard, and Hairston if either have any value. Bring in some solid pitching.

    I like the 2009 outfield of Headley, Gerut, Giles, and Venable as #4. I also like Kouz, L-Rod, and Adrian in the infield. Second base is a problem. I don’t think Antonelli is ready and Edgar is a better back-up than starter. Hundley could be the catcher, but I’m only excited if he can make the improvement that I mentioned earlier. Bard can’t throw and his hitting has been terrible. Barrett is done.

    Pitching is a problem. I think Young is overrated. I’d pencil him in as a #4 starter. If some other team thinks he’s a #2, then lets trade him for a real #2 who can stay healthy. Mike Adams and Taco Bell are not even close to Otsuka/Linebrink of a few years ago. Trevor is diminished. Cla’s trajectory is out of the bigs. If you want to blow something up and start over, go with the pitchers. Beyond Peavy, its all fair game.

  7. The Padres are kind of stuck at this point, because of Moores’ personal issues I dont think they can expand their payroll at this point and their farm system is really a good year or two before they can start re-building into a dominate team (guys like Kulbacki, Canham, Hunter, Latos, Inman, etc…) yes there have been a few call-ups that have worked out but they have all been guys that look to be role players more than anything else.

    I guess the sucsess of the 09 season will really be based on how many rabbits KT can pull out of his hat…if he can make a few trades like he did in 05 and 06 and get another set of guys like Adrian, Young, Bard and Cla then they will be right back on track if not then well the padres will be able to re-load their farm system though the draft once again…