Over the last couple of years, the Padres have done some weird things. Despite being a lower revenue club, they spent a decent amount of money to have Huston Street close games, and then spent a decent amount more money to have Joaquin Benoit pitch in front of Huston Street. Instead of either extending or trading Chase Headley, they’ve done neither, and are now primed to either sell when his value is lowest or just let him leave as a free agent. They acquired and then extended Carlos Quentin, despite his health problems and their inability to offer him a designated hitter role.
All the way through, it has appeared as if the team couldn’t decide whether they were building for the future or trying to win now. They planted one foot firmly in both camps and ended up going nowhere, which is why they just fired Josh Byrnes and are looking for a new GM to provide direction to a franchise that has been swimming upstream for a while now.
Generally, firing your GM mid-season is a pretty good sign that you’re not a contender. And the Padres certainly are not. Despite having acting-GMs in place, they have a large for sale sign in the yard, and will likely be one of the more active sellers in July. But despite all this, the Padres are apparently not done being weird.
Today, the Padres signed Seth Smith to a two year, $13 million contract extension, and it’s very likely that Smith was also promised that he would not be traded over the next month if he signed the contract. Had he not agreed to the deal, he almost certainly would have been traded, as he was headed for free agency at the end of the season, but it seems that the Padres prefer to keep him rather than move him for younger talent.
But it is basically incomprehensible to think that Seth Smith’s value will ever be higher than it is right now. He’s in the midst of the best season of his career, posting a 155 wRC+ that dwarfs the 113 mark he’s posted over the entirety of his career. Coming into this season, Smith had 2,300 career plate appearances and a 108 wRC+, which is fine but nothing special. He’s basically a platoon guy who doesn’t offer a ton of defensive value, so even with his strong recent performance, he projects as roughly an average player going forward.
In a vacuum, signing an average player for $6 million a year would be a nifty little move. He almost certainly would have gotten more than that as a free agent this winter, and so Smith took a discount to stay in San Diego. This contract isn’t going to be any kind of financial hardship on the Padres, and he’ll likely outperform the deal even if he regresses back towards his career norms.
But the Padres are not a good team, and they’re not going to be a good team by the team Seth Smith is done being a productive big league player. Their horizon for contention needs to be measured in years, not months, and while keeping Smith around will make a bad team less bad, it won’t make them good. The salary is low enough that the contract won’t be a problem, but there’s an opportunity cost involved with not trading Smith that a rebuilding team shouldn’t be looking to pay.
Sure, Smith wasn’t going to bring back a top prospect. Teams will see the career numbers and limited upside just as we can, and their offers would have reflected that. But rebuilding teams need to throw as many darts as they can, because once in a while, trading away a few months of a decent but unspectacular rent-a-veteran gets you Jake Arrieta in return. Whatever prospect Smith would have brought back in return would have been likely to fail, but you get enough of these likely-to-fail prospects and one or two of them will make it. And when they do, now you have a nice young core player to build around.
Passing on one of those lottery tickets won’t kill the Padres, and hey, maybe they’ll just end up keeping Smith for another year and flipping him for a similar lottery ticket next year. After all, it’s unlikely that he got full no-trade protection for the length of the deal, and the new GM might well feel okay with trading him in 12 months without feeling like the organization is breaking any promises. There are enough possible ways for this to work out for San Diego that this isn’t any kind of disaster.
But it’s just weird. A rebuilding team without a GM extending an aging, limited player over a timeline in which they won’t win anyway doesn’t really fit the idea that the Padres do understand that they need a new direction. Hopefully, for their sake, the new General Manager is given enough free reign to make the kinds of decisions that will push the Padres forward eventually. Keeping the status quo of making lateral moves just isn’t going to lead the team to the promised land.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.