Hoyer Learning to Love the Sludge

Jed Hoyer’s predecessor, Kevin Towers, was known as “The Sludge Merchant” for his ability (born out of necessity) to pick up discarded scraps and turn them into functioning parts. Claiming Scott Linebrink off waivers and flipping him for Joe Thatcher after five great seasons, stealing Heath Bell from the Mets, signing Brian Sikorski from Japan and trading him for Mike Adams are but a few examples of Towers’ creativity in player personnel moves.

Towers had this down to an art. And like many artists, he excelled by embracing the constraints placed upon him by circumstance. Rather than complain about the color of his paint, he set out to make something beautiful with what he had. He is doing it again this year in Arizona, as Hoyer did last year in San Diego.

This year, Hoyer’s moves haven’t worked so well. Where Jerry Hairston Jr. and Yorvit Torrealba became surprisingly useful cogs in a surprisingly productive machine, Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu did nothing… or worse.

Still, not everything Hoyer touched has turned to lead. The acquisition of Cameron Maybin was a fleecing — not on the order of the trade that brought Adrian Gonzalez to San Diego, but a fleecing nonetheless. On a smaller scale, Chad Qualls — despite occasional implosions — has done a nice impersonation of Edward Mujica (whom the Padres surrendered in the Maybin deal):

Pitcher Year  G   IP ERA+
Mujica  2010 59 69.2 102
Qualls  2011 68 66.0 105

Mujica has gone onto greater things in Miami. Good for him, but as Qualls has demonstrated, Mujica was replaceable.

More importantly, we have reached a point in the season where the Padres must focus on making evaluations for next year. It’s audition time in San Diego, and Hoyer is bringing in as many warm bodies as possible to fill the available roles.

While fans have largely lost whatever hope/interest they may have had, Hoyer continues to watch for and pick up discarded scraps. Within the past week, he has claimed outfielder Jeremy Hermida (Reds), right-hander Jeff Fulchino (Astros), and right-hander Andrew Carpenter (Phillies) off waivers in the hope that one or more of them turns out to be a big-league player.

And while Fulchino seems closer to Ricky Stone than to Linebrink, and Long Beach State alum Carpenter’s greatest claim to fame lies in providing the Phillies with a daily reminder that they should have ventured further south with their second-round pick in 2006 (Vista HS right-hander Trevor Cahill went to the A’s with the next pick, while SDSU right-hander Justin Masterson went to the Red Sox five picks after Cahill), Hermida might be something. Despite having made his big-league debut in 2005, the former 11th pick overall (2002) is still just 27 years old — he was born 4 1/2 months before Jesus Guzman.

It is possible that Hermida peaked at age 23, when he hit .296/.369/.501 (125 OPS+) for the Marlins in 2007. He followed that with a couple of decent showings (.253/.335/.400, 92 OPS+ in 2008 and 2009 combined) before seeing his game completely deteriorate. Over the past two years, with four different teams, Hermida has hit .208/.260/.340 (61 OPS+). That represents a total of 269 plate appearances and is hardly conclusive, but it doesn’t look good.

Still, once upon a time, Hermida had skills. At age 21, he hit .293/.457/.518 in Double-A. Baseball America rated him the no. 18 prospect before that 2005 campaign, moving him up to no. 4 afterward. (BA‘s 2006 list provides a sobering reminder of how susceptible player development is to any number of seen and unseen forces — the prospects ahead of Hermida were Brandon Wood, Justin Upton, and Delmon Young.)

From the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2004:

Some scouts called Hermida the best high school hitter since Eric Chavez. Others saw a young Andy Van Slyke or Paul O’Neill. Hermida himself identified more with Shawn Green. Whichever comparison you prefer, there’s no denying his polished hitting approach and advanced maturity.

Similar comments appear in the 2003, 2005, and 2006 versions. Hermida was an elite prospect, and although Sean Burroughs and Ruben Rivera remind us that this guarantees nothing, I can think of worse guys to take a flier on than someone who hit with power at age 23 in an environment that stifles offense.

Hermida might not be anything. In fact, there’s a good chance that he isn’t, that his best years are behind him. But you never know. Phil Nevin was older than Hermida when Towers acquired Nevin from the Tigers Angels for Andy Sheets in March 1999. If Hermida suddenly remembers how to crush baseballs, great; if not, the Padres gave up nothing to get him. Either way, it’s encouraging to know that Hoyer is still paying attention even when many of us no longer are.

* * *

Speaking of Towers, his Diamondbacks are slithering toward the NL West title. One of the reasons for his club’s success this year, which I consider in my latest at Baseball Prospectus ($), is its domination of weak teams.

Through Sunday’s games, Arizona owned a 60-34 record against sub-.500 teams, while San Francisco checked in at 47-45. If the Giants fail to defend their World Series title, an inability to beat the clubs they were supposed to beat (they have an aggregate losing record against the five worst teams in the league) will have been a large part of the reason why.

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18 Responses »

  1. Does Qualls really count as sludge merchandise when we’re paying him $2.55M?

  2. @Ray: It’s below the average MLB salary by several hundred K.

  3. I would add Hudson and Bartlett to the list of moves that didn’t work out too well.

  4. @Pat & Ray: the cost would have to be Qualls + Maybin vs. Webb & Mujica wrt their performances, no?

  5. is Heath Bell ever going to pitch again?
    i’m guessing it’s audition time for everybody but really shouldn’t Bell be pitching every now and then?

    LeBlanc just cannot locate his change-ups lately. I don’t see him with the Padres as a SP next season. Looks like time has caught up with Gregerson.
    I can’t wait for Darnell to hit…tonight isn’t his night.

    sheesh! why can’t the Padres beat Los Gigantes this year?

  6. I’d like to see a trade for Al Albuquerque, for the name if nothing else.

  7. My concern wtih Hoyer is that while understanding the buy low/sell high concept does not mean he is actually good at it. I believe the deciding factor in Hoyer vs. keeping Towers was that Hoyer was going to lead a better player drafting and development plan that was going to allow us sustained competitiveness. I think that is extremely hard to do given the salary inequities (including signing money) across teams, but time will only tell on that. His ability to be a sludge merchant is mixed indeed, and he is replacing a master.

    I doubt he will be as good at finding good relievers or fleecing other teams as Towers was; I cannot think of anyone better. We can only hope his eye for prospects and draftees compensates for the difference.

  8. One additional note, with the cavaet that I have not been watching the recent games that closely, is, I wonder how demoralizing having this quasi-spring training replacements is for the team? It sends the message, to me anyway, “these games do not matter that much so we are going to use it as a test period”. I get the logic, but I would say that if winning does not matter that much, it will discourage player effort. All teams do it to some extent, but seems like we are pushing the limits a bit. Or it may just be that I tune in and see some player I have never heard of getting lots of innings or time (more the new relievers than Hermida), it says we have given up on trying to win. Or that it is clearly secondary.

  9. @Jay

    The opposite seemed to happen in late 2009, after we traded the best pitcher in team history and went to a full youth movement.

    It’s definitely no fun to watch, but when players are fighting for their future employment, as most of this team is, it should tend to increase their effort, not decrease it. You think Will Venable doesn’t want an arbitration deal instead of being non-tendered and forced to take a minor-league deal over the winter? Or that Kyle Blanks isn’t trying to prove that Rizzo ought to be traded? That Jesus Guzman doesn’t want to prove everybody who ever called him a 4A player wrong?

    I could see the veterans coasting a bit, but we just don’t have that many of them. Hudson and Bartlett are the only vets on the field regularly, and they haven’t been too good for most of the season.

  10. @Tom

    All valid, but wondering the net effect when are playing a reasonably tight game and in comes “sludge merchant” reliever for a try out. Yes, you keep focused for yourself, but if there is any collective impact on people’s motivation, I would have to say that is discouraging. But you point out the individual motivators are still there. But if there is any “whole greater than the parts” of “team chemistry” of whatever (not sure there is), that has to be hurt by this.

    Definitely de-motivating for fans, unless “see what the new guys got” > “let’s try to win this game”.

  11. I’m not sure there’s anyone on this team who’s really in a position to judge. With the exception of Maybin and Headley, every player is either under performing or fighting for a spot.

  12. With Balsley and Black, I can see why Hoyer would want to take a flyer on some pitchers to see what they are all about. You have two of the best pitching coaches in baseball to evaluate them….no real risk in taking a look. If Black and/or Balsley notice something that could turn these guys into Heath Bell or Mike Adams(let’s not forget they were basically discarded by their former employeers) then great, if not then oh well nothing really lost. I see this as more of sound strategy than of being a sludge merchant, use the resources you do have – and Balsley and Black are two of the best.

  13. @Ray

    Totally agree. More than half the team faces the chance of starting next year in the minors, either with the Padres or after being cut loose and signing a free agent deal that guarantees them spring training meal money. That doesn’t promote a laissez-faire attitude.


    Balsley being one of the best pitching coaches in baseball is a common claim but probably unprovable. Towers, and now Hoyer, have identified relievers with good strikeout numbers and flyball pitchers. It might for an interesting study, how many players came in and actually improved their performance under the tutelage of the Bs, as opposed to players who finally got an extended chance to play in the majors or who only looked better in a Padre uni because of Petco.

    If they’re really such superlative coaches, do we suffer through August and September 2010, or do they identify the LeBlanc / Correia problem sooner and go with the superior Stauffer and Luebke options?

  14. You slipped! Phil Nevin was traded from the Angels (not the Tigers) to the Padres. He was on the Tigers the year before. Though he played many positions for Detroit, he played almost exclusively at catcher for the Angels. He played a number of positions in ’99 for San Diego before playing exclusively at 3B in ’00.

  15. @Tom- I don’t disagree with you on the Correia issue last year. That is more an issue of a bad decision rather than identifying with the abilities of an individual.

    Latos also started to decline. Stauffer has started to decline late this year. I think these young pitchers are not yet accustomed to pitching the # of innings needed of a playoff caliber team. Latos may be getting over that hump and hopefully Stauffer will fare better a full season next year now that he has started for a full year the first time in his career.

    How many pitchers leave San Diego and pitch better for other teams, outside of Petco even? I bet I can come up with far more examples of pitchers over the last 10 years that came to the Padres and performed better(even if you factor out Petco) than pitchers that performed better when leaving. Extended chance or not, those pitchers were looked at by the clubs that had them and apparantly decided they were not worthy of a 40 man roster. If the Padres are giving them a longer look, it is for a reason… someone sees something in them. I don’t believe the Padres are looking at these types of pitchers because they lack relief talent on the 40 man roster, quite the contrary. Some teams turn over stones and see no gold and discard them. The Padres take the time to examine the stone carefully and use Balsleys X-ray vision superpower to see what is really inside. Thats my story.

  16. I question how much of the credit goes to Balsley and Black and how much of it goes to PETCO.

    Which isn’t to say that those two don’t know pitching, but it’s not hard to get a good season out of a less than good pitcher when everything he gives up gets knocked down by the environment.

  17. @PF

    The past ten years goes back past Balsley, so there’s that. And under his watch the Padres have had some bad starting pitching, which should be at least 65% of the pitching coach’s concern. We’re suffering from it again this year. It’s a lot easier to turn a high strikeout pitcher into a quality reliever than to fix a starter who’s short on talent.

    Using this year, for example, you might give him a + for Luebke, who has increased his strikeout rate in the majors. Latos and Stauffer have workload issues, as you mentioned, which shouldn’t be pinned on the coach. Richard showed no forward progress before the injury. Spence and Hamren continued striking guys out like they had in the minors, we can’t expect that Balsley did anything there. The data is way too random and sketchy for me to think we have a real competitive advantage in our coaching staff.

    It’s not that I think he’s a bad coach in any way, only that I question how much coaching can do with these guys after they’re in the majors. Leo Mazzone lost his coaching effectiveness after he left the Braves for the Orioles, and I doubt he left his brain or his techniques behind in Atlanta. He just no longer had the pipeline of talent to work with. I’m all for evaluating some waiver wire pickups, but I don’t think our evaluation is going to be much different from what the pitching coach of most other teams would see. Not all, but most.

  18. @Ray: Relative to market, Qualls is cheap.

    @parlo: I originally had Bartlett in the article but swapped him out for Cantu because I wanted to focus on “bit players” (a la Hairston and Torrealba) rather than guys brought in to be full-time starters. As for Hudson, he has been surprisingly effective (.258/.333/.417) since the All-Star break. He is basically duplicating his 2010 production and is no worse than David Eckstein was for the Padres last year.

    @Didi: Gregerson, sad to say, appears to be going the way of Cla Meredith.

    @FBR: Totally down with that, for the name and because he is good.

    @jay: “I doubt he will be as good at finding good relievers or fleecing other teams as Towers was; I cannot think of anyone better. We can only hope his eye for prospects and draftees compensates for the difference.” Well said.

    I also happen to believe that “see what the new guys got” is greater than “let’s try to win this game” when you’re 20 games out with 19 to play. Not everyone shares this opinion, but I have a hard time getting too worked up over losses at this point.

    @PF @TW: Several years ago, J.C. Bradbury studied Leo Mazzone’s impact on Braves pitchers. It would be interesting, if time-consuming, to do something like this for Balsley.

    @Mike: For as much as I’ve written about the Nevin trade over the years, that is a stupid mistake to make. Thanks for the catch; it’s been fixed.