3 Up: How Quickly Should the Padres Hope to Contend?


There is a lot of excitement among Padres fans. New General Manager A.J. Preller has promised that he will build a team that can win the World Series, and San Diego fans, starved for a winner, are chomping at the bit, anxiously waiting to see if Preller can deliver on his promise in 2015. But given the current state of the Padres and this year’s free agent market, this doesn’t seem like the best plan.

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Would the Padres be better off working on a 2-3 year plan before breaking the bank trying to win?

I say it’s better to wait just a bit longer. And here’s why:

First, there are too many holes in the lineup to fix in one year.

One recent article here at Friars on Base suggested that the team needs help at: 1) third base 2) shortstop 3) first base 4) catcher 5) left field and 6) right field. A simpler way to put that is “everywhere but second base and center field”.

But in fact, the only reason those two positions aren’t on the list is that the incumbents, Jedd Gyorko and Cameron Maybin, are carrying contracts that are paying them more than their current market value. Maybin is injury-prone and can’t get on base enough to make his speed a factor on offense, and Gyorko spent the first half of 2014 with the worst OPS in the majors. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Jerk Store and think Maybin still has potential to be an adequate major league center fielder if he can stay healthy. But their current level of play isn’t going to get the Padres to the World Series.

So, with nearly an entire offense to replace, Preller isn’t going to be able to put a contending offense on the field all at once. Even with an unlimited budget, he’d be unlikely to be able to bring in enough impact players to be a major contender. And that brings us to reason number two to wait another year before releasing the high-spending kraken.

The free agent market doesn’t have enough good offensive players.

There are some good pitchers out there, to be sure. Scherzer, Lester, Shields. All will be great additions to whatever team they end up on. But the position players, after the first few, are not difference-makers.  The top position players available are Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Nelson Cruz, Russell Martin, Melky Cabrera, Nick Markakis, Adam LaRoche, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Chase Headley.

That seems like a good place to stop.

Ramirez, Sandoval, and Cruz are the only impact players on that list, the kind of players you can build a team around. And at 34 years old, Cruz seems a better fit for a team ready to win immediately. Martin is not enough of an improvement over Rene Rivera to shell out $64 million over four years. What about Melky? I don’t know – it seems unlikely that the Padres would bid heavily to bring in a second player named Cabrera with PED issues.

I’ve never been a Markakis fan, primarily because he’s always a mediocre fantasy baseball player, and he plays in the wrong league on the wrong side of the country for me to get to see him play. But he might be a good addition to this team in this first year of rebuilding. A consistent .290 hitter with mid-teens home run power who never misses a game. He’s not going to win you a championship by himself, but as the Padres work their 2-3 year plan toward postseason relevance, he might be just the kind of affordable pickup (4 years, $50 million) they need to focus on this year.

Of the two remaining impact offensive free agents, Ramirez is the kind of hitter who can carry a team, if he can stay on the field, but Sandoval is by far the guy you’d most want in the clubhouse, and he is clearly a player who thrives in October. Both will likely command about $18 million a year, and the Padres signing either star would instantly put Preller, and the Padres, on the map.

Signing Markakis (or LaRoche) and either Sandoval or Ramirez would run about $30 million a year for the next four years or so. That’s pretty manageable for a team that has stated that it fully intends to spend at least the league average on player salaries.

And then next year’s free agent pool has Justin Upton, Ian Desmond, Mike Napoli, Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward, among others. Another $30 million or so a year might add Zobrist and Upton. How are you liking a lineup with Zobrist, Ramirez, Upton, LaRoche, and Gyorko, at 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6? Maybe add Hunter Renfroe in the 7 hole? At a payroll of $140 million?  Then we start thinking things like “we could use a better leadoff hitter” instead of “this might be the worst offense in history.”

After nearly a decade without a playoff berth, we are on the verge of changing the way we, and the rest of the country’s baseball fans, think about the Padres. I think I can wait another 2-3 years to get there. How about you?