Losing Doesn’t Matter When There is Direction


In 2010, Jed Hoyer was the General Manager of the San Diego Padres.  He had just taken over after former player-agent-turned new Padres part-owner Jeff Moorad ran Kevin Towers out of town.  Hoyer was highly regarded with a great deal of experience under Theo Epstein.  He was generally thought of as a man with a plan and the smarts necessary to execute the plan.  He knew he was walking into the front office of a perennial loser.  He knew the team was short on cash (allegedly) and would need to be rebuilt.  What he may not have expected was to compete in his first full season as the team’s GM.

Sporting News hit the nail on the head when Hoyer was hired when they said, “Hoyer will face the same obstacle Towers faced through the years; a payroll significantly smaller than baseball’s big hitters. The payroll for next season will probably be in the $40 million range.”

Despite the low payroll, the team was operating, in 2010, with one of the game’s best sluggers at first base on a contract that was soon to expire.  Adrian Gonzalez was one of the sole sources of offense for the Padres, and the team didn’t figure to be legitimate contenders to pay him when his contract ran out.  Hoyer’s first task as GM was to figure out how best to use Gonzalez while making sure the Padres got a big enough return on their All-Star.  Rather than trade him at the July 31st deadline, despite constant rumors, Hoyer held on to Gonzalez.  The move paid off in a sense.

Gonzalez went on to hit .298/.393/.511 with 31 home runs, and the Padres won 90 games.  This was not the expected outcome of Hoyer’s inaugural season with the small-market Friars.  Had Hoyer traded Gonzalez during the summer, would the Padres still have made their run and challenged for the National League West title?  It’s possible, but considering Gonzalez made up almost 24% (RBI + Runs – Home Runs) of the team’s runs-scored, it’s hard to imagine San Diego battling it out for first place with San Francisco in the final series of the year without him.

So the whiz-kid, Jed Hoyer, got the Padres tantalizingly close to the play-offs by holding on to Adrian Gonzalez a few months longer than most expected him to.  It was an exciting ride, but the team still fell short.  When Gonzalez was dealt to Boston, hopes for another run like fans saw in 2010 were dashed.  In addition, San Diego fell to the 25th pick in the 2011 draft by winning 90 games in 2010.  They had picked 9th in the 2010 draft.

And that brings us to one of the game’s biggest taboo topics.  Losing.  Did winning 90 games in 2010 help the Padres aside from making the fan base feel good for three or four months?  Some would argue it didn’t and that it actually hurt the club.  Unexpected runs to success, runs that do not end in a  play-off appearance and were not part of a designed plan, can truly set a ball club back.  In San Diego’s case it may have done just that.  There is very little difference between winning 65 games and 75 games in a season.  Draft slotting will not be too terribly affected, teams are not going to be making the play-offs with either of those records, and fans are not going to be happy.  However, there is a big difference between winning 90 games and winning 71 games.

San Diego’s 90-win season of 2010 was a failure.  They did not make the postseason, they lost out on draft positioning, and they fell back to earth with a deafening crash in 2011.  While Jed Hoyer may have had a plan in place, his plan certainly did not include the 2010 Padres winning 90 games.  How could it have?  San Diego had Adrian Gonzalez in 2009, and the team only won 75 games.  They had the superstar in 2008, and the Padres only won 63 games.  By holding on to Adrian Gonzalez and riding hope to a 90-win season, Jed Hoyer may have set San Diego back a few years on their rebuilding plan.

Losing leads to success if orchestrated properly.  This has been proven by teams like the Twins, the Rays, the Nationals, and the Reds.  Not all of these cities are in the same financial situation as the Padres, but they have all had to rebuild at one time or another.  What their general managers and front office personnel realized was that losing 100 games in a season didn’t matter if the team had a plan to go forward and win consistently.  That’s the key.  Consistent winning, not just a flash in the pan run to 90 wins.

These clubs stockpiled young talent, signed these players to extensions early in their careers, dealt excess prospects for known stars, and built clubs that can compete.  In an article by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter, he explains how the Nationals rose to success so far this year.

"While it required less scouting expertise to discern that Strasburg ought to be the Nationals’ pick at No. 1 overall in 2009 — there was no other conceivable choice — he is the product of another part of the plan: a willingness to lose, to a degree that most major league clubs would refuse to tolerate. “We felt it was important to not step out there and add a couple free agents, piecemeal, to make us an OK major league team,” says Rizzo."

As subtle as it may be, and as difficult as it may be to stomach, that quote by Mike Rizzo explains the Padres problems.  We like to believe Josh Byrnes has a master plan to get this club competitive.  I’ve written my praise for Byrnes’ offseason moves and the direction he is taking the club.  However, at some point, that plan needs to become clear.  If the Padres wanted to be competitive this season, their plan probably needed to have taken shape before Byrnes even got here.  It would have had to be in place when Jed Hoyer was, or even when Kevin Towers was, sitting in the GM chair.  Instead, the Padres may be doing exactly what Rizzo said most other teams do.

They traded for Carlos Quentin.  They traded for Huston Street.  They signed Mark Kotsay.  As I said, there may be a master plan developing in the background, but with the complete lack of success the Padres have shown this season, the moves seem like make-up designed to hide the blemishes of a bad team.  As Rizzo said in the SI article, the Padres look now as if they picked up these players to make themselves an OK major league team.  But that defeats the rebuilding process to a certain extent.

Fans will accept losing if there is direction.  Secretive plans for the future will never win over the fan base.  Hiding an inability to compete consistently with mediocre free agents and trades will serve no one but the egos in the locker room.  Fans do not care if the team loses 89 verse 95 games.  It just doesn’t matter.  A losing season is a losing season.  If San Diego’s front office knew this was a throw-away year on the path to building a competitive club, was there any real reason to go get Quentin and Street?

The answer to that question will come as the season pushes forward into July.  If San Diego chooses to deal either or both of those players, the team’s plan for the future may take shape.  The moves to bring them in could all make sense with a nice haul at the trade deadline that makes San Diego more competitive in the future.  But it has to be clear.  A trade of Carlos Quentin, after the Padres allowed him to eat up a large chunk of their payroll, that does not net the team an obvious route to future success makes no sense.

This summer, should the Padres’ struggles continue, will be the breaking point.  They have a farm system stocked full of talented players.  They have major league players who will command the attention of teams in the hunt.  San Diego’s plan for future, consistent success will need to take shape this year.  Whether it be in the form of trades, call-ups, or just plain losing and shifting players, the team is in dire need of clear direction.  The foundation for future success has been laid, but it’s time for the Padres to commit.  It’s time to pull the trigger, make the trades, get the talent necessary to win.

They must do so with a TV dispute, ownership in limbo, and debates about the right field dimensions hanging over them.  It will be no easy task, but no one ever said running a major league team was easy.

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