Jed Hoyer and Tom Garfinkel’s worst dream has come true. The Padres are leading their division at the All Star break despite having a rotation that is anchored by a 22 year-old pitcher in Mat Latos and manages to score just enough runs to win as opposing teams continually pitch around All Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Players all over the roster are overachieving in an incredible way. As we all know, all good things must come to an end but the questions is, in this case, what outcome do the Padres truly wish to see? The truth will be revealed in the next two weeks or so.
To begin, lets review the current situation, then explore three options that the Padres front office has.
With so many inexperienced and journeyman players filling the lineup every night in San Diego, one must acknowledge that regression will occur throughout the batting order, rotation and bullpen. It would be foolish to assume that a team that ranks third to last in the NL in batting average and fifth to last in runs scored could continue to lead a division where its three closest competitors rank second (Dodgers), third (Rockies) and fifth (Giants) in average and both the Rockies (2nd) and the Dodgers (3rd) are amongst NL leaders in runs scored. Scott Hairston is not a cleanup hitter and neither are catchers Nick Hundley or Yorvit Torrealba. Shortstop Everth Cabrera can’t hit at all and the Padres aren’t getting the on-base percentage they need in the leadoff spot from Jerry Hairston Jr. (.294). The lack of offense will have to give at some point as the pitching staff cannot be asked to continue to carry the burden of the entire team.
Journeyman John Garland has exceeded all expectations in the first half by keeping his WHIP relatively low despite walking almost four batters per nine innings. Simply put, he’s done a good job of avoiding trouble although he frequently puts himself in sticky situations. Kevin Correia has been disappointing this season after winning 12 games and posting a 3.91 ERA last season. 26 year-old Clayton Richard and the aforementioned Mat Latos have anchored the staff. Neither was expected to achieve nearly the level of success that we’ve seen from them thus far in 2010. Wade LeBlanc has a nice ERA (3.30) but hasn’t had much success to show for it while going 4-7 on the year. Closer Heath Bell and the rest of the bullpen have been fantastic. Edward Mujica, Luke Gregerson, Tim Stauffer and Joe Thatcher all have paper thin WHIPs, low ERAs, low walk rates and high strikeout rates. In case you haven’t noticed, the Padres bullpen has been slamming the door all season on opponents, which is critical considering the team does not often create big leads. The margin of error for the Padres is constantly low and the entire pitching staff has been sharp to keep San Diego in games. Expecting them to continue to dominate in this fashion for the rest of the season, however, is not exactly feasible.
So, what can the Padres do?
Options #1: Add pieces to make a run at the division title.
If the Padres organization is serious about contending then they must look themselves in the mirror and realize that they’ve been considerably lucky this season. Teams with this level of an anemic offense don’t usually contend but the Padres aren’t just contending, their leading. They absolutely have to add offense before the trade deadline if they want to stay in first place. The Dodgers are unlikely to be buyers because of financial issues (read: the McCourt divorce) while Tulo will eventually be back for the Rockies and the Giants are exploring offensive upgrades as we speak. I would suggest selling high on a reliever and/or a starter to acquire a bat that can adequately protect Gonzalez, maybe Corey Hart or Josh Willingham, and moving a couple prospects for a shortstop that can bat in the leadoff spot, perhaps Ryan Theriot. Willingham would be a strong upgrade over any of the current cleanup hitters that the Padres throw out there while Theriot could be just the spark plug the Padres need. They could afford to lose a guy with upside like LeBlanc or an established guy like Correia and one of their young relievers like Thatcher or Gregerson. A package like this should be able to net them a respectably outfield bat.
This proposition would allow the Padres to contend for the rest of the season (barring unforeseen events like injuries of suspensions) but we have to wonder if this is really what the Padres want. Of course they say they want to win this thing but they are going to have to put their money where their mouth is before the trade deadline. The organization has been long criticized for making large profits by keeping salaries down and putting a respectable product on the field. Now that the product is more than just respectable, will they do what they must to go for it all?
Option #2: Trade Adrian Gonzalez and/or Heath Bell.
Many teams have coveted first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, most notably the Red Sox. He is perhaps the best hitter that could potentially be available before the deadline and, in fact, most expected him to be wearing something other than a Padres uniform by this point in the season. He would net the Padres a large return, probably one major league ready player and a handful of plus-level prospects. Heath Bell is one of the better closers in baseball and could also bring in a nice haul for the Padres if moved. Together, they would reign in some major talent for the Padres to develop and use in the future. The fanbase, however, may revolt if the powers that be resort to their old tricks of trading legit talent for cheap prospects. The front office may recognize that many of their players have overachieved this season and are likely to falter down the stretch, prompting them to sell off their best pieces before the team succumbs to its own pressure. While it would probably be an unpopular decision, San Diego could win big in the long run by moving Gonzalez and/or Bell.
Option #3: Do nothing and try to hold off the Dodgers, Rockies and Giants.
Perhaps the biggest roll of the dice would be to gamble on the team’s roster of unproven overachievers in an attempt to hold off the offensively superior teams in the division who are already knocking on the door. If they aren’t up to the task of winning the division, however, the Padres would likely be ciriticized for not making the moves necessary to win the division or at least getting a haul of young talent in exchange for its top (and most expensive) players. The Padres are one or two injuries away from being in big trouble and standing pat would expose them to such a possibility. Or perhaps the team has the magic to win the division on its own, although I’m not betting on it.
If it were up to me I would choose option one. The Padres need to realize that they are a roster move or two away from being in good shape to hold off the more talented Dodgers, Rockies and Giants. It would be good for baseball to see San Diego succeed and their loyal fans deserve to see the franchise make the most of this situation. If they decide to not be buyers as the trade deadline approaches, they should opt for option two. They need to get something in return for their most expensive pieces if the front office ultimately decides that they cannot afford Gonzalez and/or Bell. Option three should really not be considered an option at all. It would be an epic failure to get nothing in return for the organization’s best talent and still lose the division by a couple of games.
So how badly to the Padres want to win? Will a franchise known for being frugal pony up the dough to make a run at the division it currently leads at the halfway point? Will they back down from the division race and sell off their best pieces? Will they stand pat and risk the consequences of inaction? The next few weeks will show us all just how badly the Padres really want to win.