Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Next Padres' GM will reap the fruits of Byrnes' labor

The Padres' season has not gone according to plan, to say the least.

After increasing payroll by 32 percent and beginning the 2014 campaign with Wild Card hopes, the team stumbled out of the gate and by the last week of June was mired in fourth place in the NL West with a 34-45 record, just 1.5 games ahead of the woeful cellar-dwelling Arizona Diamondbacks.

San Diego's anemic offense has been the primary culprit, as its .216 batting average (yes, .216) is MLB's worst since the 1910 White Sox, and only one regular with more than 200 plate appearances -- Seth Smith -- has an OPS higher than .617, which, on a park-adjusted basis, is 22 percent lower than the National League average.

And despite a respectable 3.38 ERA -- 5th best in the NL -- the Padres' pitching staff has not been without its disappointments.  Josh Johnson, signed as a free agent to be the ace of the staff, will not even take the mound in 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April.  Andrew Cashner, the team's de facto top gun, has already been on the disabled list twice this season due to elbow and shoulder soreness , and Ian Kennedy, the rotation's #2 arm and after Johnson its priciest, has a ballpark-adjusted ERA that's well above league average.

On another negative note, Byrnes & Co. have doled out several long-term contracts to several young players who simply haven't performed after signing on the dotted line.  The Maybin family was celebrating in March 2012 when Cameron inked a 5-year/$25 million deal, but he's posted a lethargic .241/.297/.353 slash line since then.  Byrnes, a former Red Sox executive, probably had visions of Dustin Pedroia when he signed 2B Jedd Gyorko to a 6-year/$36 million dollar contract prior to Opening Day, but Gyorko's .482 OPS has instead evoked memories of Larry Milbourne.  RHP Cory Luebke and C Nick Hundley have also regressed or been injured since signing extensions.

So what you have here is a hazardous concoction of a popgun offense, an underperforming pitching staff, and an ownership group convinced it hadn't realized a justifiable return on its investment.  The end result was the pink slip that landed on Josh Byrnes' desk on Saturday , a mere three-and-a-half years after he was hired.

Whether Byrnes deserved to be fired after such a short tenure is still up for debate.  Some national writers, such as Jon Heyman, argue that Byrnes' ouster was ill-advised, while others, like Keith Law (ESPN subscription required) and Anthony Castrovince, maintain that it was time for Byrnes to go.

However, what no one has discussed is the fact that San Diego's loaded farm system will give Byrnes' permanent replacement a tremendous competitive advantage when he moves into the corner office and starts to make his own mark on the organization.  At nearly every position on the field the Padres boast a top-tier prospect who ranks among the top 100 in the game.

Let's start with catcher, where 21-year-old Austin Hedges is one of the two best all-round backstops in the minor leagues (the Red Sox' Blake Swihart is the other).  Don't be fooled by Hedges' pedestrian numbers at Double A San Antonio, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the minors, and instead pay attention to his outstanding contact rates and burgeoning power.  On defense, Hedges has no peer.  His soft hands, agility, and strong, accurate arm should translate into multiple Gold Glove awards.

Hedges' new teammate, Hunter Renfroe, has raced through the system and reached Double A less than a year after signing as San Diego's 1st round pick out of Mississippi State.  Renfroe, 22, profiles as a classic power bat/rifle-armed right fielder a la Tim Salmon.  He has some swing-and-miss to his game but has made huge strides since starting his professional career.

At Low A Fort Wayne, first baseman Jake Bauers has done nothing but hit.  A 7th round pick last year, Bauers is shredding Midwest League pitching to the tune of .379/.453/.563 and at 18 is the youngest player is the circuit.  Though not a slugger in the classic sense, Bauers' smooth left-handed stroke and slick glove work evoke memories of Mark Grace.

Across the diamond from Bauers, third baseman Dustin Peterson has also drawn rave reviews from scouts and opposing managers.  Signed as a shortstop out of the Arizona prep ranks, the 19-year-old's above average range and cannon arm have enabled him to make a seamless transition to the hot corner.  At the plate, Peterson's short, compact swing should be good for at least a .270-.280 average and 20-25 home runs a year once he fills out.

Residents of Eugene, Oregon better hurry to PK Park if they want to catch a glimpse of Trea Turner before this year's 1st round pick gets promoted.  Turner is an electric shortstop who can transform a game with his bat, glove, and especially his legs.  In just eight games, Turner has swiped five bags without getting caught.

Admittedly, the Padres aren't as stacked in the pitching department, and attrition commonly claims more hurlers than it does hitters.  But San Diego does boast a number of talented, young arms capable of making an impact at the big league level.

Casey Kelly should already be in his second full major league season, Tommy John surgery in March 2013 derailed his plans.  When healthy, Kelly's best pitch is a 92-94 MPH power sinker that induces groundball after groundball.  The 24-year-old threw well in two rehab starts at AA, but remains sidelined after experiencing what the Padres described as minor elbow soreness.

Pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League has distorted Matt Wisler's numbers, but the 21-year-old has all the tools to develop into a legitimate #2 starter once he learns how to better put away left-handed hitters.  Wisler has exceptional control of a fastball he can dial up to the mid-90s, a sharp slider, and an average changeup.

20-year-old LHP Max Fried has been called "Clayton Kershaw light" and "another Cole Hamels" because of his mound moxie, projectability, and quality stuff.  However, the 20-year-old former 1st round selection hasn't pitched a single inning this year due to elbow soreness.  The team maintains that his arm is structurally sound and doesn't require surgery.  When right, Fried has more upside than any other pitcher in the organization, so it's imperative that he regain his health.

Hard-throwing RHPs Zack Eflin and Walker Weickel were selected in the same 2012 draft as Fried and have had mixed results as minor leaguers.  Eflin has progressed nicely through the system and had an excellent first two months in the hitter-friendly High Class A California League this season.  After a rocky 2013 in Low A, Weickel has repeated the assignment and continues to experience mechanical issues with his delivery.  However, scouts remain encouraged by his large, durable frame and above average 3-pitch repertoire.

The Padres may have pulled off the heist of last month's draft when RHP Zach Lemond fell to them in the 3rd round.  The big right-hander from Rice was having a terrific season after making the transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation, where he showcased an impressive 3-pitch mix that included a mid-90's heater, ridiculous mid-80's spike curveball, and effective fading changeup.  However, elbow inflammation and the poor injury history of former Rice pitchers scared teams away in the first two rounds.

Speaking of the draft, a continuation of their poor performance will guarantee the Padres a high pick next year (if the 2015 draft was held tomorrow San Diego would have the 5th pick), and give the organization the opportunity to add to its already impressive stockpile of premium talent.

1 comment:

Russ said...

Good read. Worth noting that Hedges was drafted under Hoyer regime.