The San Diego Padres and the Viability of Small Market Success Stories
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“At some point, ownership has to lead the revenue. It doesn’t always occur where your players first start to win and then you start to build around it. Sometimes the ownership has to lead that first. There’s ancillary stuff that I probably know nothing about. I know sometimes that if you build it, fans will come. It doesn’t always have to work out the other way. You don’t always have to get guys at absolute steals in order to keep them.”
In this April quote, the former Stanford University business student and ex-Padre Gerut was tasked with answering the question of why the Padres should consider holding on to Adrian Gonzalez if they do not continue to win. The Padres are, quite literally, a single man offense. That man, Gonzalez, is one of the best players on any team, in any league. Right now, the Padres are 12th in runs scored per game in the National League, and last in the NL West, a division they lead. The Fangraph’s estimation of Gonzalez’ offense to date is about 15 runs above the average first baseman, and about 26 offensive runs above replacement. He also is playing his usually excellent defense, accounting for another four runs with his glove. Taking Gonzalez off of this team would drop their offensive rates below those of the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals, making them the 14th most powerful offense in the NL. Even the Astros, and their pathetic offense, are suffering from underperformance from veterans that probably aren’t old enough to be in severe decline — they’d be a better bet to outproduce the Padres offensively if Gonzalez is traded.
Adrian Gonzalez’ contract is great because the Padres made a “gamble” to buy out all of his arbitration years through 2011 at a total cost of 9 million dollars. That’s not really a gamble — $9 million doesn’t go that far in baseball, and that more than covers the cost of even a league average baseball player for his team controlled years. Gonzalez was certain to be average a long time ago in his development. The only problem for the Padres is that after the 2011 season, Gonzalez is free to sign with any team, and it’s going to be incredibly costly to keep him in the fold.
All of this is why it’s not so crazy that a team that has lead it’s division for the entire first half of the season might be tempted to trade their star. The Padres don’t really have the ability to trade for veteran help on the way to the playoffs (maybe relief help?), so they have to feel like they can continue to win with the team as is, or they will lose value in an Adrian Gonzalez trade as time passes.
I’m going to take the position in defense of the current Padres roster: they can sustain winning without adding help for Adrian Gonzalez. Furthermore, I’m going to offer a half-hearted support of Gerut’s argument: the Padres should not trade Adrian Gonzalez, even if they can’t get him to agree to a contract extension that makes sense for both parties. The cheap $5.5 million option year for Gonzalez’ 2011 season is worth a lot more to the Padres than it is to any other team in a trade. Currently, the Padres are where they are because they are as strong in pitching as they are deep, and playing their home games in PetCo Park in San Diego, they have faced an average OPS this year of…703. Not only can the Padres compete with that competition, but AAA and the waiver wire can produce players who can be acquired for no cost and can succeed in a place where a .320 on base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage is actually helping your team.
It’s fitting that in an offseason where every team that was buying tried to get better on defense — it’s a team that cut most of it’s payroll that leads all of baseball in UZR. Right now the difference between the Padres’ defense and the second place Dodgers’ defense is estimated at seven wins. In the standings, they are 3.5 games apart. I don’t see anyway the Dodgers can close that gap, they just aren’t better man for man on that roster anywhere but the starting rotation. It seems like only the Giants have more room for improvement from cheap talent than the Padres, and as a team that’s more than 5 expected wins ahead of the next team in that division, why change anything?
This is really the one opportunity that the Padres have to increase their attendance for 2012 and beyond, winning with Adrian Gonzalez (and a bunch of guys) this year, and marketing him next year. They have two 26 year old “prospects” in 3B Chase Headley and C Nick Hundley who are already contributing. Neither projects to be a star, but both could be forces in the second half of the season, the kind of contributors that would make all the difference if Gonzalez continues his tear (and why wouldn’t he?). The outfield is a defense-first group that isn’t particularly young, but is very deep, and between Scott Haiston, Will Venable, and Chris Denorfia, is going to produce just barely enough offense.
The Padres really could use a shortstop: Jerry Hairston has been passable, but he’s not really a shortstop, no matter how much time he spends there. No one is really willing to trade their shortstops though, so Hairston might have the job for the rest of the season. Alex Gonzalez and Cliff Pennington are potential targets in an acquisition.
The Padres are facing an uphill battle in trying to improve the quality of their market, and trading for veterans isn’t going to be productive towards that goal, meaning that outside of just one position, the best thing the Padres can do is be non-players at the deadline. The Giants are probably going to make some moves to close down this gap, and because of the size of their payroll, and the huge pitching advantage that they and the Dodgers both hold over the Padres, this is going to go right down to the wire. But because they play half of their games in an extreme pitching environment, and all of their games in a national league that is going to set some records for offensive ineptitude, the Padres are winning on the bases and with the glove, and you can market that to your fanbase no matter how large or small.
One other thing the Padres figure to market, should they hold Gonzalez: playoff tickets.