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.