Coming into the season, the Padres, Diamondbacks, and Pirates all had opening day payrolls within $1.7M of each other ($98.2M for Diamondbacks, $99.2M for Padres, $99.9M for Pirates) and all three had designs on competing for a playoff spot. The Padres and Diamondbacks were moderately delusional about their franchise’s place on the win curve, with the Padres finally coming to grips by trading James Shields to the White Sox last weekend in a salary dump type of trade.
The Pirates have built this current run of playoff-contending teams through slow growth fueled by internal players and then carefully augmented by under-the-radar free agent signings and shrewd trades. The Padres and Diamondbacks have preferred to make splashy free agent signings and trades that have stripped their farm systems bare.
I’ve mentioned numerous times that I feel the Pirates are underfunding their Major League payroll by $10-20M (as even team President Frank Coonelly said in December that payroll would be $110M this season), but it’s hard to argue with the results. As we currently stand today, the pitching staff is a mess from almost top to bottom, but help is on the way in the form of Jameson Taillon and (soon) Tyler Glasnow. Pitchers will get re-aligned in the rotation and the bullpen, while the chaff will get sent back to Triple-A or DFA’ed.
But how did it go so bad for the Padres and the Diamondbacks and what can the Pirates and their fanbase learn from these experiences?
WHEN THE PADRES NEW GM CONVINCES OWNERSHIP TO ‘GO FOR IT’
A.J. Preller was hired by the Padres in August 2014 to be the new, young hotshot GM in the NL West. He was a lauded hire out of the Texas Rangers’ organization that was known for building a strong farm system, especially on the international front, even if his interpersonal skills were found to be a bit harsh at times (I can sympathize). Once the 2014 season was over, Preller proceeded to make a series of splashy moves that got a ton of headlines and buzz, but seemed to be head scratchers based on how the team ended up being constructed prior to the 2015 season.
The whole list of transactions is too meaty and complex to re-construe, but feel free to check out the transaction log at Baseball Reference (starting with December 2014 and running up to opening day 2015). Here’s the Cliffs Notes version:
- Preller willingly traded for Matt Kemp and the majority of his bloated salary and lack of defensive ability
- Gave away a ton of interesting prospects in various deals (Joe Ross, Trea Turner, Max Fried, Matt Wisler, Mallex Smith) for veterans that had serious flaws either offensively, defensively, with their health, or a combination of all three (Wil Myers, Derek Norris, Melvin Upton, Jr., Justin Upton)
- Signed then-33 year old James Shields to a 4 yr/$75M deal (with a 5th year option) that would pay him $21M/season from 2016-2018
- Traded for all-world closer Craig Kimbrel, but had to absorb Melvin Upton, Jr.’s albatross of a contract as part of the deal
After the dust settled, some people (me, included) thought they could contend for a Wild Card if everything broke right. It was a very top-heavy team with little depth and no quality players in the infield, but if their pitching carried them and their outfield of Upton-Upton-Kemp could hit, it might work.
It didn’t. After 2015’s abysmal 74-88 record left the future of this franchise in ashes, the direction slowly morphed into building for the future while also keeping one foot in the present to attempt to steal a Wild Card spot. That never works and it didn’t here.
The Padres traded setup man Joaquin Benoit to the Mariners for salary relief and closer Craig Kimbrel to the Red Sox for a nice haul of B+ prospects. They let Ian Kennedy and Justin Upton walk as free agents, while extending qualifying offers, to reap two extra 1st round picks in this year’s draft (they had chances to trade both last season, but resisted). They made some other small moves, but by and large they were hoping to eke out success with the same team as last year, minus most of their better players.
They’ve been terrible again this year, to the point that their incredulous Chairman, Ron Fowler, blasted the team for being embarrassing and pathetic in a rambling interview. It seems as if he either isn’t a good assessor of baseball talent or he had the wool completely pulled over his eyes by Preller. So here we sit and the embers of the impending Padres’ fire sale are starting to burn brighter. Just in time for the 2016 All-Star Game to be hosted at Petco Park, which I’m sure totally had nothing to do with ginning up interest in this moribund franchise in the first place.
WHEN THE DIAMONDBACKS THINK THEY ARE ONLY ONE OR TWO PIECES AWAY FROM CONTENTION
I suppose for a team based in the sand-strewn desert that it’s only natural the Diamondbacks fully embrace grit. Their current GM is noted anti-stats enthusiast, Dave Stewart, who was selected by noted old-school grit and lack of grace proponent, Tony LaRussa. From almost day one of the Stewart/LaRussa regime, the Diamondbacks have zigged when the industry zagged. Whether it was attaching a highly-touted prospect in Touki Toussaint to the dead money contract of Bronson Arroyo just to get the salary off the books, or the universally panned “Shelby Miller for 3 valuable assets of Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, and Aaron Blair” trade, the Diamondbacks are tone-deaf to the ways of how modern baseball is supposed to be.
Maybe the Diamondbacks front office looked around the NL West landscape last fall, at the outset of free agency, and saw the Padres and Rockies as not much of a threat. The Giants were getting long in the tooth and their rotation was a mess. The Diamondbacks liked the core of their team with Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. If they could sign Zack Greinke to a free agent deal, not only would it make them better, it would weaken their chief (perceived) rival. The companion move to trade for Shelby Miller would give them a formidable front of the rotation of Greinke-Miller-Patrick Corbin. They had young talent with high hopes to improve, as well.
Then the 2016 season started and things fizzled out right from the start. A.J. Pollock hurt his elbow pre-season and is presumed out until at least August, probably the whole year. Shelby Miller has been atrocious with a 7.09 ERA and is currently on a phantom DL stint to get his head straight. Greinke and his $30M+/year deal have been human this year and even Goldschmidt has been well off his usual standards. The team is comprised of a small group of stars and a whole bunch of scrubs. The Diamondbacks are 26-35 with no prospect capital or monetary capital to improve their situation in trades. This year is lost and there’s a question out there of where does this franchise go from here to improve.
WHAT THE PIRATES AND THEIR FANS CAN LEARN FROM THIS
If you’re reading TPOP, you are presumably a Pirate fan of some degree, so we all want the same thing — to win the World Series. But what the Padres and Diamondbacks have shown is that you can’t shortcut the process. Teams have to be assembled with a clear thru-line of purpose and you can’t neglect one area of a team (offense, defense, pitching) in favor of the others; there has to be a balance.
The risk-averse front office of the Pirates knows this. It’s practically tattooed on each employee when they’re hired. The Pirates have built a sustainable playoff-contending team, but are they willing to augment it to create a World Series-contending team? The 2015 Pirates were a very strong squad that had the grave misfortune of being a 98-win team in the same division as a 100-win team. That’s practically a statistical anomaly. As a result, they flamed out in the Wild Card game and we’ll never know how the 2015 Pirates may have done in the remainder of the playoffs.
This year’s team will make some moves around the trade deadline to shore up whatever areas of the team are deemed deficient. Today’s bullpen and back of the rotation may be resolved with the callups of Taillon and (presumably soon) Glasnow. Injuries may force a trade to fix an area we aren’t thinking about at all.
Should the Pirates gear up for a World Series run in 2017 if it is potentially the last year of Andrew McCutchen? What would that even look like in terms of offseason moves, especially in light of a terrible free agent market this coming offseason? It’s clear that the Pirates won’t go hog wild in free agency or start selling off all their top prospects, as they hope to keep the playoff contention train rolling, but one or two could be moved for the right piece.
Unlike the Padres and Diamondbacks, now is the right time on the win cycle for the Pirates to make moves to win.