This has been a weird off-season. Because the gap between the end of the World Series and the start of the winter meetings was shorter than usual, we ended up with a pretty slow start, as teams ended up waiting until December to really kick the market into gear, and even then, most of the money ended up getting thrown at the available pitchers. The market for hitters dragged out, leaving guys like Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, and Ian Desmond looking for long-term deals in January. And teams who should be looking to upgrade their rosters have largely sat out free agency, leaving the big spending to teams who aren’t traditionally players at the top of the market.
But maybe the weirdest part of the entire off-season is how rarely we’ve said A.J. Preller’s name. Last winter, the first-year GM dominated the news cycle like Donald Trump is now, making headlines with a frenetic series of moves to revamp his team’s roster and try to put together a contender. In the span of a week, he traded for Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton; a few months later, he’d also sign James Shields and trade for Craig Kimbrel. The always-boring Padres were anything but boring.
Of course, the net effect of all those moves was to put the organization in a far worse place than they’d been if they’d taken the boring approach, as the Kemp deal saddled them with a disaster of a contract for a mediocre player, the Myers deal cost them Trea Turner and Joe Ross, the Upton deal thinned out their farm system for a rental, and Kimbrel showed that even an elite closer doesn’t move the needle much on a bad team. The Padres stumbled to a 74-88 record, and without much in the way of prospects or a young core to build around, it became pretty clear that Preller was going to have to start over.
And as the off-season began, the Padres seemed to acknowledge that. They made a fantastic trade in sending Kimbrel to Boston for more than they gave up to get him a year ago, then shipped Joaquin Benoit to Seattle for a couple of low-level prospects, acknowledging that they didn’t really have a strong need for aging relievers. But since then, they’ve been oddly silent.
December brought the Yonder Alonso/Drew Pomeranz swap and the deal that sent Jedd Gyorko to St. Louis for Jon Jay, and then they made their crowded catching situation even more crowded by dealing for Christian Bethancourt. January has brought depth signings in Carlos Villanueva and Alexei Ramirez, a couple of stop-gap guys who make more sense for a contender trying to raise their floor than a rebuilding team looking towards the future, but as we get to a point where we’re about a month away from the start of Spring Training, the 2016 Padres roster looks an awful lot like the 2015 Padres roster. And that doesn’t make any sense.
The projections think that this roster, as constructed, is going to stink again. We currently have them forecast for the same 74-88 record as they put up a year ago, the fifth worst projected total in baseball, and that might even go down once the ZIPS projections — which hated the Padres even more than Steamer does — are incorporated into the projected standings. And it’s not even easy to see where there’s much upside to beat these by a significant amount, other than just getting lucky on sequencing. Sure, Wil Myers could break out, and maybe Kemp rejuvenates his career again, but most of the rest of the roster is filled with guys with limited abilities.
Most perplexingly, the Padres actually have a couple of highly desirable assets in Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner, and in a winter where the price for starting pitching was shockingly high, both of them remain in San Diego. It is especially weird that the team has yet to deal Cashner, a free agent at season’s end.
With a guy like Ross, you can make a pretty good case for holding him until the trade deadline, when prices are higher due to reduced supply. He’s got two years of team control remaining, so the Padres could market him to a contender as more than a rental, and a team trading for him could expect to offset their acquisition cost by making him a qualifying offer after the 2017 season, if that’s still a thing in the next CBA. Ross could very well be the best pitcher available this summer, and if he pitches well for the first few months of 2016, the team could get a huge haul for a year and a half of his services. Keeping him until June or July is probably rational.
With Cashner, though? If you keep him past Opening Day, the acquiring team loses the chance to recoup a draft pick when he leaves, so his price might actually be higher now than it will be in the summer, when a team is only acquiring half a season of his services. And Cashner’s track record of poor health makes him significantly more likely to lose all of his trade value early in the season; he’s exactly the kind of guy whose trade value could go to zero on any given pitch. Sure, he’s coming off a superficially poor season by ERA, but a lot of teams are smart enough to look past ERA at this point; the Jeff Samardzija contract shows that the market isn’t going to punish good arms who had poor recent seasons if it’s reasonable to expect a bounce back, as it is with Cashner.
Cashner and Samardzija have a lot in common, in fact, as both have better stuff than performance records, but still manage to be above average starters even if they aren’t as good as you might expect based on how hard they throw. In a winter where Samardzija got $90 million guaranteed, it’s reasonable to think there’d be a robust trade market for a one year commitment to Cashner at an arbitration salary of $7.2 million. For a budget-limited team like the Pirates, Cashner would be a very nice fit, especially given how much emphasis they put on velocity. But yet, it’s January 21st, and Cashner is still a Padre.
Obviously, we can’t know what kinds of offers the Padres have received this winter, and maybe no one’s shown enough interest in order to justify moving him now. But given the absurd prices some teams have paid for free agent pitching — you don’t think the Royals would have rather traded for Cashner than pony up $70 million for Ian Kennedy? — it seems hard to imagine that there hasn’t been real interest in acquiring an above-average 29 year old, especially one a one-year deal at the kind of salary that gets you a decent middle reliever these days. And while not trading Cashner yet doesn’t mean they can’t trade him eventually, it’s probably a less than ideal situation to be trying to trade Cashner, Ross, and Shields during the season; at some point, you’re oversupplying the market and making it more difficult for get fair value for each piece when you’re selling them all at the same time.
Last winter, A.J. Preller couldn’t stop making trades, even ones that didn’t really make sense for his team. This winter, in one of the best times to be selling pitching in recent history, the Padres have yet to move one of the most obvious pieces of trade bait in the game. Perhaps there’s still a deal to be made, and maybe they’ll find a team willing to pay more in Spring Training after one of their starters goes down, but given Cashner’s track record, they better hope that Cashner isn’t one of those guys who develops early-March arm soreness. For a team that desperately needs to add some young talent to the organization after last winter’s ill-advised attempt to contend, losing out on the potential return that Cashner could bring back would be another disaster.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.