Image credit: (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler’s big league team had just finished its ninth straight losing season when some of the Padres’ most devout fans sidled up to him at Petco Park.
The organization’s two-day prospect showcase, now an annual event, served as the backdrop for a gathering with the Padres’ most active followers on social media a day after the end of the 2019 season, but the present state of the big league product tugged at Fowler’s patience.
A second manager under his watch had been fired just nine days earlier. The off-the-cuff stream of consciousness that poured out of Fowler that last day in September—“heads will roll, beginning with mine”—echoed the frustration he relayed years earlier on a radio program while criticizing pitcher James Shields. That served as the prelude to using a chunk of money owed to the team’s highest-paid pitcher to acquire Fernando Tatis Jr., then a 17-year-old shortstop who had not yet made his pro debut.
Yes, general manager A.J. Preller was still arranging a future built around youngsters like Tatis, Chris Paddack and a wave of talent still on the rise, but no one ever said the waiting game was easy to see through to the end.
“The fact that we played (.347) baseball after the All-Star Game was absolutely unacceptable,” Fowler said on Halloween at new manager Jayce Tingler’s introductory press conference. “I watched the team on the field. You saw the team on the field. We were an embarrassment the last three or four weeks of the season and we’re not going to do that.
“If we don’t perform better in 2020 and 2021, we will make changes. That’s absolutely it. A.J. knows that and is comfortable with it and I think so is (Tingler).
“We have to win—and we have to win now. That’s the expectation.”
The plan, of course, had been re-routed a time or two following the teardown of Preller’s first attempt to build a winner via the additions of Shields, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and Craig Kimbrel before 2015.
Only Myers—who signed a six-year, $83 million extension after his 2016 all-star campaign—remains from that initial push.
The Padres, instead, invested heavily in amateur talent, spending north of $80 million in the 2016-17 international class, collecting high first-round picks as the big league team sunk in the standings and flipping what big league assets they could for prospects.
The Padres’ trades fetched Tatis (for Shields), Paddack (for Fernando Rodney), Anderson Espinoza (for Drew Pomeranz) and Francisco Mejia (for Brad Hand).
The draft brought in Stanford righthander Cal Quantrill (No. 8 overall in 2016) and high school lefthanders MacKenzie Gore (No. 3 in 2017) and Ryan Weathers (No. 7 in 2018).
The money San Diego spent overseas netted, among others, lefthander Adrian Morejon ($11 million), outfielder Jorge Oña ($7 million) and righthanders Michel Baez ($3 million), Ronald Bolaños ($2.25 million) and Luis Patiño ($120,000).
The first significant big league addition didn’t arrive until spring 2018, when first baseman Eric Hosmer was still sitting on the market as camps opened.
Armed with the arguably the deepest farm system in the game, Preller convinced ownership to add Hosmer for a franchise-record $144 million. The circumstances weren’t entirely dissimilar last spring when that total was more than doubled to add Manny Machado, at a time when Tatis and Paddack began to state their cases that they could impact the major leagues in 2019.
A traditionally cash-strapped organization suddenly wasn’t so concerned about saving potentially millions of dollars by delaying Tatis’ debut a few weeks. He and Paddack both made the Opening Day roster, future service time considerations be damned.
The time to win was near, and San Diego—starved for a winner—wasn’t about to wait idly by.
“He’s not going to get to those free agent years,” Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman, a senior advisor in baseball operations, said last March. “Who cares about those 15 days? Who cares that he’ll be a year sooner to free agency? If he does what he does, the Padres will make sure he’s in uniform much longer than six years.”
For his part, Tatis lived up to expectations, slashing .327/.393/.620 through the all-star break despite missing roughly a month to a hamstring injury. Paddack flashed ace-like results while the Padres managed his workload in his second full season removed from Tommy John surgery.
Slugging corner outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Franmil Reyes emerged as legitimate power threats. Kirby Yates continued his transformation into one of the best closers in the game.
With Machado and Hosmer at least serving as steadying presences, the Padres penned their first .500 first half since 2010, coincidently their last winning season.
It didn’t last.
The front office seemingly didn’t even suspect it to, signaled by their decision to trade away Reyes and young lefthander Logan Allen at the deadline for outfield prospect Taylor Trammell. Renfroe’s numbers sagged as he played through injuries.
The rotation that out-pitched early expectations came back to earth. Tatis went on the injured list for a second time in mid-August, this time for good with a back injury. And neither Machado (109 OPS+), Hosmer (93) nor Myers (95) picked up enough slack.
The growing pains that followed cost manager Andy Green his job.
“With the young team we have, it’s a great experience to go through that,” said Machado, who hit .231/.331/.410 over his final 40 games of the season. “Speaking with a number of players throughout the offseason, everybody is hungry. We have that little taste in our months of letting it slip out of our hands (after the) break and we don’t want that to happen again . . .
“We’re not going to forget how bad we played in the second half. We’re going to use that as motivation.”
Even with ownership turning down the temperature on Fowler’s immediate postseason remarks, the front office appears equally motivated to fast forward the rebuild into the win-now phase.
They moved second base prospect Luis Urias and 2016 first-round lefty Eric Lauer to the Brewers to add experience to the rotation (Zach Davies) and a center fielder with better on-base skills (Trent Grisham).
They used Renfroe and second base prospect Xavier Edwards to acquire veteran outfielder Tommy Pham from the Rays. They seriously pursued both Francisco Lindor and Mookie Betts, though their restraint in both trade talks demonstrated a commitment to blueprints largely drawn around homegrown talent and a semblance of fiscal responsibility.
The likes of Gore, Patiño and 2019 first-round shortstop CJ Abrams—three of the game’s top prospects at their positions—headline their untouchables. The Padres would like to move the disappointing Myers but are unwilling to eat too much of a bad contract. They might be more inclined to give up the farm to add an ace or impact bat if they weren’t so confident in a young core contributing to a winning formula in the not-too-distant future.
Maybe that starts with Tatis—who needed just half a season to lead all Padres with 4.2 wins above replacement—staying on the field. A deeper lineup (Pham, Grisham and Jurickson Profar) will certainly take the pressure off Machado, Hosmer and Myers. The bullpen, with the additions of Drew Pomeranz and Emilio Pagan, is positioned to be the strength of the club, and the farm system remains poised to supplement the big league team.
Trammell, for instance, might be a half-season away from contributing somewhere in the outfield. Cather Luis Campusano was co-MVP of the high Class A California League and looks like he will force his way into catching conversation along with Austin Hedges and Mejia before too long. The organization’s most impressive arms (Gore and Patiño) could find themselves in the rotation alongside Paddack before the end of the 2020 season.
Win now? The Padres? For real this time?
It may just be about time.
“I think this is a plan,” Preller said in December, “that really started four years ago in terms of looking at this as getting to a point in time—honestly, probably at the 2020 season—that we had put together enough talent and started to have those talented players get to the big leagues together . . .
“I think everybody’s anxious to start to see that and start to see us move up the standings.”
Preller added: “(We’re) going to start playing some very meaningful baseball here.”