James Shields and the Value of Relevance by Dave Cameron February 9, 2015 Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, and now James Shields. No team has had a splashier off-season than the San Diego Padres, as new GM A.J. Preller overhauled the team’s roster to ensure that the 2015 Padres would actually be able to score some runs. This team now has an unmistakable identity — they might as well call themselves the San Diego Right-Handed Sluggers — and nearly as much star power as any team in the league. The organization is now a far cry from one whose best players were Rene Rivera and Seth Smith. The Padres are now undoubtedly interesting. Are they going to be good, though? I remain a bit skeptical. As Mike noted this morning, their infield is still kind of dreadful, and while their outfield will hit a lot of home runs, they’re primarily one dimensional players who aren’t as valuable as their reputations. The pitching staff is deep — especially if Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson figure out how to stay healthy — but not as strong up front as the other contenders in the NL. Mostly, I see a lot of solid contributors, but very few players who are likely to be among the best players in the league. The Padres have imported three big names (and a former big time prospect) but I’m not sure any of them are going to perform like All-Stars in 2015. Given what Petco Park is likely to do to the raw numbers of Upton and Kemp, Joaquin Benoit might actually still be the team’s most likely All-Star representative. From a strictly on-field perspective, I’m not sure how good the Padres are going to be next year. Our current projections have them as a .500 team, essentially. Baseball Prospectus has them slightly better, at 83 wins before signing Shields, so maybe push that to 85 wins now. On the other end of the spectrum, Clay Davenport has them at 75 wins pre-Shields, and while we don’t have ZIPS’ standings yet, the individual player forecasts weren’t very optimistic. Regardless of which methodology you prefer, the numbers come to a pretty consistent conclusion; the Padres are probably going to be decent, but they’re likely the third best team in their own division and a long way from catching the Dodgers. They’ve improved a good amount in one winter, but they were starting from a base roster that BaseRuns had as a 72 win team last year, and it’s tough to move the needle from that position to strong contender in one winter. So, against that backdrop, I think many of the Padres moves this winter could be viewed as mistakes. They’ve traded a lot of future value — both in terms of prospect depth and financial commitments — in exchange for short-term upgrades, only it’s not entirely clear that those upgrades are going to result in a legitimate contender next year. If the Padres end up as a .500ish team, and then have to pay the piper in future years when Upton leaves as a free agent while Shields and Kemp absorb one-third of the team’s payroll, this experiment could easily be viewed as an expensive failure. But while I believe that those statements are all true, I also made basically that exact same argument the last time James Shields changed teams. But that might be enough to make them an 80 win team instead of a 70 win team. Without Myers, they’re now stuck with a replacement level right fielder. They don’t really have a second baseman. Eric Hosmer has to take a huge step forward to just not be horrible. And even at positions like center field, shortstop, and third base, the in-house options are more interesting future pieces than impact present options. The Royals offense is basically Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and a lot of hopes and prayers. This is just not a team that was a couple of pitchers away from the postseason. This was a team that was a couple of pitchers away from not picking in the top 10 in next year’s draft. If you squint hard enough, you can see the possibility of the Royals winning 90 games next year. If Hosmer takes a huge step forward, and Santana rebounds to 2011 form, and everyone stays healthy, and they win all 19 games they play against the Twins, but you can do that with 20 to 25 of the teams in Major League Baseball in any given year. It’s not impossible for the Royals to challenge the Tigers for the AL Central title in 2013, but it’s not likely either. There’s a difference between not agreeing to lose on purpose and giving up a huge chunk of your farm system in an ill-fated attempt to push up your timeline to win. The Royals have just done the latter. The Royals, of course, just went to the World Series, and the Rays just decided that Wil Myers maybe isn’t as good as they thought he would be. And the response to Kansas City’s playoff run forced me to re-evaluate some things. But while I think I can defend my analysis of the Royals talent level, that doesn’t make the overall argument correct. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen essentially unparalleled parity in MLB, and this year, we have a World Series match-up between two teams who made the playoffs via the Wild Card. In 2012, the Tigers got to the World Series with 88 regular season wins; in 2011, the Cardinals won it all after winning just 90 games. While better teams are still more likely to win out in the postseason, the structure of the playoffs gives a real chance to every team who simply qualifies, even if they sneak in via the Wild Card. So maybe I underestimated the potentially positive returns from being on the good side of mediocre. … I think it’s possible or even likely that I’ve been underestimating the potential rewards for being decent enough to have things break your way, especially for teams who haven’t been good for a long time. This playoff run is going to pay dividends for the Royals for years to come. It likely created fans for life out of kids in Kansas City who didn’t care at all about the Royals before a few months ago. The long-term benefits of this kind of run are substantial, and the Royals are likely going to generate more in future revenue from this playoff run than they would have saved by underpaying Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for the next half decade. In other sports, where the value of a top draft pick is so much higher than it is in MLB, the correct decision is often to either be great or terrible, with mediocrity as the awful middle ground. Perhaps too much of that sentiment crept into my own thinking about the upside of building an 85 win team, because in today’s baseball world, 85 wins and a little bit of luck can turn a franchise around. I’ve argued against losing on purpose, but perhaps I’ve argued too strongly for wins in the 88-95 range and not strongly enough for wins in the 80-88 range. The win curve is a real thing, and some wins are more valuable than others, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve correctly evaluated the marginal benefit of pushing yourself from 82 to 86 wins. Like with the Royals acquisition of Shields, I think there was probably a better path forward for the Padres than taking Kemp’s contract, trading for a rent-an-Upton, and hoping that outfield defense doesn’t matter before signing an aging pitcher whose strikeout rate is quickly going the wrong way. But the 2014 Padres were completely irrelevant in a way that the 2015 Padres have little chance to be, and we can’t ignore that side of the equation either. I think this experiment is likely to fail, but we have to capture the magnitude of the value of success to fully evaluate the decision to go for it. Even if it’s 80-85 percent likely that the Padres don’t make the playoffs this year, the rewards from simply being relevant are perhaps high enough to justify the risks. This is baseball’s equivalent of throwing a 50 yard bomb in football; you don’t expect it to work that often, but you still run high risk/high reward plays, since the value of one or two catches outweighs the cost of seven or eight incompletions. The Padres have put themselves in a position to potentially be the 2014 Royals or 2013 Pirates. They’ll need some things to break their way, but if a few things click, they could be playing meaningful baseball in September and maybe even October. That matters, especially to an organization that just gave their fans an offense that averaged 3.3 runs per game. The Padres don’t have to win the World Series for these moves to justify the long-term cost; they mostly just have to win their fans back. And they certainly have a better shot at doing that sooner with this roster than they would have by staying the course of hoping their prospects develop. There’s an obvious downside, and I spent the first half of this post laying out the reasons why I think failure is probably still more likely than success. But the Padres have put themselves in a position where the upside of everything going right is now exponentially higher than it was a few months ago, and that’s not a thing to be simply tossed aside because it’s not the most likely outcome. On the roughly one-in-six chance this works, the reward of going for it will make the cost of surrendering some prospects and accepting a chunk of dead-money in future contracts pale in comparison. Even with Shields, I still think the Padres are something like the seventh best team in the National League. But the seventh best team in the American League just went to the World Series. Baseball isn’t about building behemoths anymore. The Padres aren’t going to be great, but they might be good enough.