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O’s Should Look to San Diego for Rebuilding Blueprint

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You could argue that the Orioles are at a bit of a crossroads right now. By that I mean, they need to decide when to bring young prospects up, when do they make key trades, key FA signings, etc.…Do they start this year?  Do they wait another year?  Can they allow 2022 to be another poor year because of a dwindling and disgruntled fan base?

Orioles GM Mike Elias came from Houston and everyone likes to point to Houston as some kind of proof that losing 100+ games for several years is some kind of guarantee of success later on. The reality is that isn’t true but it does seem to be a model that Elias is hanging onto at the moment. 

But what about the San Diego Padres? Let’s look at them, for both the good and the bad. They are a very interesting team to study because they did the “go for it” thing twice in a short period of time. In the offseason of 2014, the Padres were coming off a 3rd place finish and 77-win season. Their Pythagorean record called for 75 wins, so it wasn’t really fluky record.  They weren’t a good offensive team but they played good defense and had good pitching. Their farm system was ranked around #10, give or take, depending on what site you looked at. In that offseason, the team decided to go for it.  They signed James Shields to what was, at the time, the largest contract in franchise history, and made several trades. They moved one of their best offensive players in 2014, Seth Smith, for Brandon Maurer, a player that at the time was looked at a high upside reliever. They added Justin Upton in a trade where they dealt four players to Atlanta, led by Max Fried and Mallex Smith. They made a three-team trade where they dealt Trea Turner and others for Wil Myers and others. They also dealt Yasmani Grandal and others to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp. In the end, basically all of these decisions backfired on them. While attendance did see a rise of over 300K fans, the team’s record actually got worse, several of the guys they traded turned out to be really good and the guys they got weren’t anything special. They also compounded this mistake by giving Myers a contract that they definitely regret. Of course, the one great thing that came out of it was signing Shields and eventually trading him for Fernando Tatis Jr. (more on that later).

This is an example of what you don’t want to have happen and is certainly a cautionary tale for the Orioles and other rebuilding teams. San Diego traded several top 10 prospects for what they felt were good players that could put them over the top and instead, it ended up setting them back even more.  They decided that the offense needed help and they went out and added some bigger bats and traded “maybes” to get them.  I get the thought process and it’s not like they were dealing for guys well past their primes or something like that.  They just didn’t work out and that is always the risk, for any trade.

The Padres decided to start unloading from those mistakes in 2016. They decided that they needed to trade some players and attempt some kind of a reboot. They traded Kemp, Andrew Cashner, Drew Pomeranz, Upton, Fernando Rodney and Shields prior to the trade deadline. The only player they acquired that would turn out to be a contributor was Fernando Tatis Jr, who is arguably the best player in the NL and has a case for being the second best player in the sport, to Mike Trout.

The Padres had a payroll entering that 2015 season of over $108M. By the start of the 2017 season, they lowered it under $70M. As they got through the 2017 season, the Padres saw their farm system vault into the top five.  They were building towards something. They had some good young talent at the MLB level in guys like Myers, Manuel Margot and Dinelson Lamet.  Their farm system was close to producing a lot of talent and they decided that they needed a vet player who had a championship pedigree to help lead and augment their core, so they signed Eric Hosmer. They did it prior to the 2018 season, a season they didn’t believe they would contend in.  They thought it would help send a message to the fans, players and the league that they were ready to contend soon. It reminded me of the thought process a few years earlier when the Nationals signed Jayson Werth.

During that 2018 season, the Padres saw the MiLBers get better but the team still only won 66 games. They made a trade sending Brad Hand to Cleveland for Francisco Mejia, a player who was highly regarded at the time and was eventually used in the Blake Snell trade, this past offseason. The other major move they made was signing, of course, Manny Machado. In the span of two offseasons, they signed two players to two enormous deals and they still hadn’t started to sniff contention yet. However, they decided that these guys would be integral pieces to their rebuild and considering they had so many cheap, talented players about to come up, they decided to take advantage of those cheap deals (a la an NFL team with a very good QB on his rookie contract). In 2019, a year they weren’t contending, they brought up 20-year-old Tatis. He never played in AAA. Tatis amassed roughly 1500 at bats in the minors before coming up, however only 400 of those were in the upper minors. As a kid who played his first season in the minors at age 17 (and was traded during the season), he had a lot of at bats in the lower minors, as you would expect from a Int’l FA. At the time of the call up, he was regarded as one of, if not the best, prospect in baseball. 

Do you think SD made the wrong decision with respect to Tatis?

The Orioles find themselves in a similar situation. They have one of the best prospects in baseball and have to figure out (or let us fans know anyway) when to call him up. When does he start to get experience?  Adley Rutschman may not have the at bats Tatis has in the minors but he also is three years older, played at a high level of college and did have the camp last year, for whatever you think that is worth. 

What happened to the Padres and all of these decisions? 2020’s shortened season saw them make the playoffs and they are headed in a good direction this year as well. Now, they did trade some of their youth for Mike Cleavinger, who got hurt shortly after, and Snell is off to a rocky start so far but overall, things are progressing well for them. They also added Yu Darvish, who is off to a very good start, as is Joe Musgrove. They are viewed as one of the better teams in the NL, but they do have some injury issues.

You can look back and question if they made the right decisions with guys like Hosmer and Machado. Hosmer isn’t going to be worth his deal and I greatly question if Manny will be either. 

But does that mean it failed? Does that mean they made a mistake by signing them? 

Will the Orioles follow the type of things that SD did?  Will they sign/trade for FA’s before they are fully ready to contend? Will they bring up Rutschman before they are ready to contend? Will they follow the 2015 Padres and make mistakes? Or will they follow the current ones and win? 

I think the 2015 Padres didn’t have enough of a young, supporting cast, mainly because they traded so much of it away. This version of the Padres doesn’t have the same issue and I think the Orioles are closer to this version of the Padres than the 2015 version. How Elias handles things over the next month or so and this coming offseason will tell us a lot about where the team feels they are.

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