The Padres and Unrealistic Expectations

Last week, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Padres could be getting ready to clean house. On Sunday, the Padres fired General Manager Josh Byrnes.

Ron Fowler, executive chairman of the Padres, bristled a bit Sunday when he was asked if the dismissal of Josh Byrnes as general manager was a step back for the organization.

“This is a reset,” Fowler said. “This is not a step back. We’re doing this so that we could move forward. We expect continuous improvement from the organization. We’re getting it in other areas. We are not getting it on the baseball field.”

There’s nothing controversial about this statement. At 32-44, the Padres have the third-worst record in baseball, and they’ll have to play better than .500 baseball the rest of the way just to finish with the same 76-86 record that they’ve recorded the last two years. While there are some individual success stories, this team is not any better than the mediocrity that they’ve been for several years now. But this isn’t necessarily just about not seeing improvement.

There had been rumblings and rumors locally that the team was considering changes, either up top with Byrnes or possibly manager Bud Black. Mike Dee, team president and CEO of the Padres, said the Padres will keep Black at least through the end of the season.

“This was a decision that was not made in a day or two or a week or two. The last couple months, we’ve seen a team we had high expectations for. Those expectations have not been reached,” said Dee.

It’s understandable to say that the Padres have not been good this year, and even that they’ve played worse than expected. But I guess my question would be this: if the management team had “high expectations” for this roster, isn’t that their fault? Because I can’t find anyone else who thought this team was any good.

On March 31st, our Playoff Odds projections had the Padres finishing 80-82. Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections had them finishing 76-86. Clay Davenport’s forecast had the Padres finishing with 83 wins. The mathematical models all saw this as roughly a .500 team.

What about the human consensus, though? After all, the models aren’t perfect, and maybe individual observers saw something that the forecasts weren’t seeing?

Nearly 50 ESPN commentators: 1 had SD winning NL West, 2 had them making wild card.

Sports Illustrated’s five commentators: Zero predicted playoff appearances.

Yahoo’s five contributors: No higher than 81 wins or third place finish, no playoff appearances.

FanGraphs readers: 2% predicted NL West victory, 8% predicted any playoff appearance

The human consensus matches the numerical perspective. This team wasn’t supposed to be atrocious, but unless “high expectations” means that the executive team thought they would win and lose in equal proportion, it seems like this may be an issue where poor internal projections led to unrealistic expectations. This team is underperforming, but should we really be surprised that they aren’t particularly good?

Sure, you can point to guys like Jedd Gyorko, Chase Headley, and Will Venable, each of whom is performing far below what would have been expected based on their track record. But on the other hand, there’s Seth Smith with a .399 wOBA and Ian Kennedy posting the highest strikeout rate of his career. Things break both ways for most teams, and while more things have broken against the Padres than for them, it isn’t like everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Andrew Cashner has been mostly healthy. Tyson Ross has pitched very well. Huston Street has an ERA under 1.00. This isn’t the Rays, where the entire roster has basically collapsed together.

Of course, arguing that the Padres weren’t actually very good to begin with doesn’t let Josh Byrnes off the hook, since he put this mediocre roster together. Part of a General Manager’s job is to manage ownership expectations so that they aren’t blindsided when their team turns out to not be particularly good. Perhaps, in asking for the $22 million payroll increase that the Padres instituted this year, Brynes didn’t adequately convey to the executive team that the increase was more of a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses increase than a we-are-ready-to-win-now surge. It is a bit understandable that ownership would be unhappy with the team’s performance after increasing payroll by over 30%, and it isn’t like the money was invested in the team’s long-term future.

The Padres two notable free agent signings over the winter were Josh Johnson and Joaquin Benoit. Johnson’s deal was only for one year, so even if it worked out — it didn’t, of course — he was only ever going to be a rental. And Benoit is an aging reliever, who while effective, isn’t exactly a core piece of the team’s future. Those two will make $14 million between them this season, contributing +1 to +2 WAR and perhaps fetching a decent prospect at the deadline when they trade Benoit away. For a team with a $90 million payroll, that’s the kind of return on investment that they can’t afford.

In this instance, the Padres probably do need a new direction. They weren’t really rebuilding, spending money and assets on older players and short-term additions, but they never got all that close to creating a roster that was a serious contender either. While some have pointed to Byrnes’ superior record during his tenure to what Jeff Luhnow has done in Houston, the Astros have a clear plan in place, and it doesn’t involve maximizing short-term wins. The Padres are bad now and not building for the future, which is the kind of thing that rightfully gets GMs fired.

But this really shouldn’t have come as some huge surprise to the Padres ownership. This team just wasn’t very good. The Padres shouldn’t have been motivated to change GMs due to disappointment in how this season was going; they should have been motivated to change GMs because this isn’t really that much of a disappointment.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Matthew Tobin
9 years ago

If anyone deserved to be fired and take the blame, it was the trainer. The front office has been quit smart and put a solid team together and have a loaded farm system. But they have suffered a ton of injuries.

9 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Tobin

Many of those players have had a history of being injury-prone, even before joining the Padres. Taking chances on these players is a two-edged sword.

Dayton Moore can tell you a little about having a good farm system but not a good major league club.

9 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Tobin

That loaded farm system was Hoyer’s doing. They’ve slid down the rankings in every year of Byrnes’ tenure.