By the Padres own admission, they are going through a “building” process, or a “developmental” phase. What they mean to say is that the plan is to put together a winning team in San Diego down the road, not in 2017 or 2018.
With the team in a down year (again), it’s difficult to stay realistic about the future. While it’d be unreasonable to say “same old Padres” (the ownership and general manager aren’t the same ones who drafted Matt Bush and Donovan Tate or traded away Corey Kluber), it’s also unrealistic to expect that every lottery ticket the Padres have will pay out big time. Just because this is (in this writer’s opinion, and many others) the best route towards a championship, it doesn’t mean that everything is a lock. Prospects don’t always pan out and veterans can get hurt, and that’s without even taking into account the rise and fall of the other 29 teams. There are no guarantees that this will work.
However, there are examples of this strategy paying off. The poster boys for “tanking” are Theo Epstein’s Chicago Cubs, who won the World Series last year and have a young, exciting nucleus this year (though they’ve been far from dominant to this point in the season). However, the Padres don’t figure to do the same kind of spending that Chicago is able to do (they signed Jason Heyward for 8 years/$184 million, Ben Zobrist for 4 years/$56 million, and Jon Lester for 6 years/$155 million). While the Cubs still attribute much of their success to savvy trades, international dollars, and high draft picks, is there another, non-large market team that’s walked the same path the Padres find themselves on?
Yes, there is, as a matter of fact. And they’re currently one of the best teams in baseball: the Houston Astros. After three consecutive 100+ loss seasons from 2011-2013, the Astros find themselves with the best record in the majors after going 22-7 (.759 winning percentage) in the month of May.
Let’s take a look at Houston’s current 25-man roster and see what they’re made of, with the purpose of seeing what the makeup of the next great Padres team might look like.
DRAFT PICKS: 5
All that losing has certainly paid off for Houston, as five of their most pivotal players were taken in the draft, with four of those being first round picks. Dallas Keuchel was a steal with a 7th round selection, but Lance McCullers Jr., George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman were all first round gets, with Correa (first overall) and Bregman (second overall) coming at the top. You could put a minor league team around those five and have a pretty decent club.
To put it simply, the Astros realized that they lacked impact talent, gutted the roster, lost a ton of games, and had it pay off in the draft. Will that always pay off? In the case of Appel and Brady Aiken (first overall pick in 2014), the answer is definitely no. But does it up your chances of landing that impact player? Yes, yes it does.
“GUT THE TEAM”/MINOR TRADES: 5
I broke the trade acquisitions down two different ways. The first is trades that happened between 2011 and 2014, when the team was trading away valuable pieces to get prospects and “future” pieces. There are a few other “minor” trades in here that didn’t revolve around bigger names.
The players here are of much less impact than the previous section (but still valuable), and include outfielders Marwin Gonzalez and Jake Marisnick, and pitchers Chris Devenski, David Paulino, and Brad Peacock. Devenski, who has been lights out for Houston this year, was acquired from the Chicago White Sox in 2012 in the Brett Myers deal. Peacock came over from the Oakland A’s in the Jed Lowrie trade in 2013.
While it hurts watching the big names go (think Craig Kimbrel or Fernando Rodney, or if you weren’t paying much attention last year to their on-field performance, Matt Kemp and James Shields), realizing that you are looking towards the future makes the current talent more expendable. If any Astros fans were sad to see Myers leave five years ago, watching Devenski destroy hitters in 2017 (with a 13+ K/9 rate) has likely helped ease their pain.
“BUILD THE TEAM” TRADES: 5
The second type of trades I looked at were ones that have taken place since 2015, which were meant to help the team now. These are the trades they made when they looked at their team and thought “what do we need to improve to make a run this year?”
In 2015, the Astros acquired pitchers Mike Fiers, Ken Giles, and James Hoyt, as well as catcher Evan Gattis (there were more players involved, but this isn’t looking at the others who have already left or who are still in the minors). They had holes in the bullpen, their rotation, and behind the plate, and they filled them, uh… adequately? While they’ve all underperformed to a degree, such is the case with the “win now” trades (think of the Padres getting Ryan Ludwick in the middle of a playoff push). While they might have a need, it’s not always easy finding a team that matches up well.
But what did they give up for those four?
Wow. The Milwaukee Brewers got Josh Hader, Brett Phillips, Adrian Houser, and Domingo Santana. The Philadelphia Phillies got Mark Appel, Harold Arauz, Thomas Eshelman, Brett Oberholtzer, and Vince Velasquez. The Atlanta Braves got Andrew Thurman, Mike Foltynewicz, and Rio Ruiz.
While there are some names that are probably unknown to your average Padre fan, it suffices to say that in 2014, MLB.com had many of those ranked in the Astros top 20 Prospects: Appel (2nd), Santana (3rd), Velasquez (7th), Hader (8th), and Phillips (12th). Others are currently ranked in their current organizations top 30. What I mean to say is that when they believed they were close, they used their prospects as currency to bring in more immediate talent. The price was high, but the time to win was (or is) now.
INTERNATIONAL SIGNINGS: 4
While there are some less interesting names on this list, including Reymin Guduan and Michael Feliz, the big splashes in the international market come in the form of Yuli Gurriel and José Altuve. Gurriel was signed in 2016, and at age 33, looks to be about league average. Altuve, on the other hand, signed in 2007 and debuted in 2001, is a four-time All-Star and key cog in the Astros offense.
You’d be hard pressed to find a team as committed to the international market than the Padres were in 2016, and AJ Preller’s persistence overseas must continue. While lacking the cachet of Adrian Morejon or Jorge Oña, Franchy Cordero and Dinelson Lamet have made their way to the majors after being signed for a fraction of the cost. Despite the restrictions in the years ahead, there is still talent to be found.
FREE AGENTS/WAIVERS: 6
The Astros didn’t spend big big money like the Cubs did on Heyward/Lester/Zobrist, but they didn’t necessarily go cheap, either. In 2014, they signed former Friar Luke Gregerson to a 3 year/$18.5 million deal. Last offseason, with a comparatively weak free agent class, they signed Josh Reddick to a 4 year/$52 million contract, and 40-year-old Carlos Beltrán for one-year at $16 million.
Houston has also found success in making waiver claims. Tony Sipp was claimed from the Padres, and then signed as a free agent in 2014. Will Harris and Nori Aoki were also claimed off waivers in 2014 and 2016, respectively. While not quite the long shot that a Rule 5 pick is, they’ve taken a chance on these players and been rewarded for it.
It’s interesting to note that the Astros, who had one of the highest ranked farm systems in baseball for a while, only have five players on the big league squad who were taken by them in the MLB Draft, and just four international signees. Part of their formula for success was accumulating prospects, and then shipping off all but the absolute best (Correa, Springer, etc.) for talent that would help them this season.
Could we see the Padres following a similar pattern? It’s hard to imagine that only a handful of Preller’s draft picks would be on the next good Padres team, and if only four of the international signees they spent so much money on this past year pan out, it would be disappointing to some.
Still, those five draft picks are a huge part of the team with the best record in baseball, and mixed in with some sharp trades and free agent signings, there is a model of a team hitting rock bottom, and slowly but surely, rising to the top.