This is my third article in an occasional series in which I look at the way that a franchise has filled a single position over the course of time: stars and stopgaps, free agents and trades, hot prospects and positional conversions. My previous columns covered Atlanta Braves center fielders and New York Mets second basemen. This week, I’ll look at another up-the-middle position from another National League team, as I take a look at the way the San Diego Padres have filled shortstop.
While the Braves’ center field featured two superstars and a motley assortment of players obtained in trade, and the Mets’ keystone featured a few high-profile busts and a number of other players who played second while moving across the diamond, the Padres’ shortstop has been a revolving door, haunted by one of the most unfortunate trades in team history. The Padres have never really gotten over trading away Ozzie Smith 30 years ago.
Here is who has manned short for the Friars over the last three decades:
|1978-1981||Ozzie Smith||(1981 AS)|
|1982-1990||Garry Templeton||(1985 AS)|
|1991-1992||Tony Fernandez||(1992 AS)|
|1996||Chris Gomez, some Andujar Cedeno|
|1999-2000||Damian Jackson, some Chris Gomez|
|2001||D’Angelo Jimenez, some Chris Gomez and Donaldo Mendez|
|2002||Deivi Cruz, some D’Angelo Jimenez|
|2003||Ramon Vazquez, some Donaldo Mendez and Khalil Greene|
|2008||Khalil Greene, some Luis Rodriguez|
|2010||Miguel Tejada, Jerry Hairston, Everth Cabrera|
|2012||Everth Cabrera, some Andy Parrino, and Jason Bartlett|
|2013||Everth Cabrera||(2013 AS)|
The first three players on that list are the best, unfortunately. Ozzie didn’t quite look like a future Hall of Famer when he was in San Diego; he was a brilliant defender but wretched with the stick. Still, he was an All-Star in 1981 on defense alone (and a five-win player in 1980), so the Padres knew that they were giving up a valuable player. The man they got back, Garry Templeton, wasn’t as good as Ozzie, but he was younger, and a better hitter, and still a pretty good defender, and he became an All-Star for the Padres in his own right.
Amazingly, the Padres got their next shortstop by trading another future Hall of Famer, sending Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter to Toronto for Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff. As it happened, Tony Fernandez performed well, making the All-Star team in 1992, his second and last season in San Diego. The Padres traded Fernandez to the Mets for Raul Casanova, D.J. Dozier, and Wally Whitehurst that offseason, setting off the infamous 1993 firesale when the Padres also ridded themselves of McGriff and Gary Sheffield. (Dozier was a two-way player; he played parts of five seasons in the NFL, but only 25 games in the majors, all with the Mets. None with the Padres.)
After the Fernandez trade, shortstop was a pretty miserable revolving door. Ricky Gutierrez, Andujar Cedeno, Chris Gomez, Deivi Cruz, and Donaldo Mendez all struggled to stay above replacement level. Damian Jackson, D’Angelo Jimenez, and Ramon Vazquez were slightly better, but not by much.
Like many of the Braves’ center fielders, the Padres often obtained these shortstops in trades involving other shortstops. For example, the Padres got Gutierrez in a trade for closer Craig Lefferts, then packaged him in a huge trade to Houston that included Cedeno. They then included Cedeno in a trade with the Tigers that returned them Chris Gomez.
The eight interim shortstops were young: with the exception of the 29-year old Cruz, all of the others were between 23 and 25 when the Padres acquired them. (Cruz was also the only one of the above shortstops who was signed as a free agent; the others were obtained via trade, except for Mendez, who was a Rule 5 pick.) The Padres may have targeted young shortstops in the hopes of capitalizing on upside. But their need for major-league ready shortstops demonstrates that, for more than a decade, they didn’t have any prospects capable of doing the job.
Then Khalil Greene came along. He was by far the best Padres shortstop since Fernandez — Geoff Young called him “the best shortstop in club history” — but now he’s remembered more as a tragedy than a prodigy. He played good defense and had great power, but struggled to get on base and to stay healthy, and his career eventually ended before he turned 30 as he battled Social Anxiety Disorder. The player whom the Padres hoped could be their franchise shortstop only played 659 games in a San Diego uniform.
So the Padres went back to the drawing board. They called up the young, speedy Everth Cabrera, who like Mendez was a Rule 5 pick. But Cabrera was awfully error-prone and the team wasn’t sure that he could hold down the position full-time — which seems strange in retrospect, considering all of the replacement-level players who manned the position between Fernandez and Greene, but that’s what happened. Cabrera became the starter in 2009, but the team traded for a past-their-prime Miguel Tejada and Jason Bartlett for 2010 and 2011.
Finally, Everth Cabrera got the job back. And he was pretty good, leading the NL in steals in 2012 and being selected as the Padres’ lone All-Star in 2013. And then, because he’s a Padres shortstop, the news couldn’t stay good: MLB targeted Everth in connection with the Biogenesis investigation, and he accepted a 50-game suspension. Cabrera enters the 2014 season as the Padres’ presumptive answer at shortstop, but if history is any guide, the road may remain bumpy.
In the past 35 years, only four Padre draftees have logged significant time at shortstop in San Diego, either as a starter or as a backup: Ozzie Smith, Khalil Greene, Jason Bartlett, and Andy Parrino. And Bartlett only played in San Diego at the end of his career; they traded him away as a prospect and reacquired him in his early 30’s after he had been a productive player in Minnesota and Tampa Bay. That is a strikingly bad track record. For a small market team to achieve success, the team will need to be able to fill key positions from within. There is perhaps no position on the diamond more important than shortstop, and the Padres’ habitual punting of shortstop has not yielded good results on the field.
In my mind, this case study yields two main lessons.
First, don’t trade away Hall of Famers. In the course of a decade, the Padres traded at least two, with two others who are borderline: Smith, Alomar, Sheffield, and McGriff. Transcendent talent is hard to come by, as the Padres themselves demonstrate.
Second, it is imperative to be able to draft and develop position players. The Padres talent evaluation may have let them down both in the draft and in trades, but due to information asymmetry, it’s harder to fleece another team than it is to evaluate and develop internal talent. The Padres have employed just three homegrown shortstops since the Carter administration. If the Padres could have done a better job of drafting and development, they might have had more than that.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.