With the GM's meetings around the corner, I thought it appropriate to share the general parameters of our "plan". The Padres launched this plan approximately 3 1/2 years ago, which was about a year before I was here, so I'll do my best in terms of accuracy.
Informally, the plan has four stages. At the beginning, each stage was sequential, which is to say that we couldn't implement Stage Three before successfully navigating Stages One and Two. However, once in place, all four stages continue indefinitely. We never officially "finish" any stage.
Stage One - Procure Players
Simple enough, right? However, looking back a few years, the Padres were in a tough spot organizationally. In 2004 Baseball America ranked the Padres' system 25th out of 30. In 2005 that dropped to 27th. In 2006 it bottomed out at 29th. In order to become competitive there had to be a laser-like focus on acquiring talent. Unlike the NFL or the NBA, however, the MLB draft takes time to produce Major League players, so this wasn't going to be a quick fix, especially considering we were picking somewhere in the 20's every year in the first round as opposed to the top five or ten.
In order to accomplish this goal we amassed a number of compensation picks in the draft, signed some top end draft-and-follow players, traded for a number of minor league prospects, and became very aggressive in Latin America (in part by constructing the state-of-the-art complex in the Dominican Republic). In fact, going back to 2004 and continuing through 2008, the Padres rank 6th in all of baseball in signing bonus dollars allocated to domestic and international amateurs, a ranking which belies our market size.
Spending the money, though, is only a piece of the equation. You also have to spend it wisely. Bill Gayton, our Scouting Director, and Randy Smith, our International Scouting Director, accomplished this balance, and the results began to show in 2008 as our system rocketed from 29th to 12th according to BA. These were drastic measures, and they were undertaken to expedite a normally lengthy process, which leads me to Stage Two...
Stage Two - Develop Players
Again, very simple in theory, but very difficult in practice. Once you sign all of these players, you have to move them through your system in a productive manner. Fortunately, our player development staff (field staff, strength coaches, trainers, etc) has done an unbelievable job of adopting and implementing Grady Fuson's systematic approach to development. We're not where we want to be yet, but we're well ahead of where we were. At the conclusion of this season we actually had six classification All-Stars as well as 11 players named to the Top 20 prospect list of their respective leagues. From an organizational perspective, we ranked in the top ten in OBP (1st), K/BB (1st), Runs Scored (2nd), BB/9 allowed (3rd), OPS (4th), Average (6th), K/9 (6th), and WHIP (8th).
Enough about prospects, though...
Stage Three - Produce Major League Players
A few years ago Chuck Lamar, the former GM of the Rays, infamously said, "The only thing that keeps this organization from being recognized as one of the finest in baseball is wins and losses at the Major League level." There's obviously a cheap laugh in there, but Chuck's point was that the foundation they had built in Tampa was strong, which was a necessary step, and that it was only a matter of time before that foundation led to Major League success. At the same time, Chuck acknowledged that the only thing that counts at the end of the day is winning Major League games. Everyone - front office execs, field staff, fans, you name it - likes to know that they have good young players in the system, but they really want pennants.
Unfortunately, the attrition rate is gruesome. Out of the entire pool of drafted and signed players, only about 18% of them ever get even one day in the big leagues, and only about 7% of them actually accumulate three years in the Major Leagues. It's even scarier if you examine the rounds - fewer than 50% of 1st round picks get three years in the big leagues, and from rounds two through five that number drops to about 15%. After that it plummets to the low single digits. In short, it's very difficult to scout, draft, sign, and develop Major Leaguers, so having a plan to do so isn't enough.
That's why the 2008 season, despite the trauma, was exciting for us at the end.
Chase Headley, Nick Hundley, Will Venable, Josh Geer, Wade LeBlanc, and Matt Antonelli, all players drafted in 2005 and 2006, became Major Leaguers. That is a rapid and successful ascent and a significant step in the organizational plan.
This doesn't mean that all of the above are now locked in as Major Leaguers and are guaranteed to make it to the three year mark and beyond, but just getting here is a big step. The next stage, however, is the most important one...
Stage Four - Produce Championship Players
This is the most elusive stage of all. After all, just getting guys to the big leagues isn't enough - we need to win. Like all of the other stages, this takes time and plenty of patience. It is the rare player who rises to the big leagues and doesn't miss a beat. More often it literally takes years for a player to realize his potential at the highest level. There are constant adjustments and refinements to a player's game that unfortunately can't be accelerated.
Now that we've managed to reach the Stage Three/going on Stage Four area, however, we're incredibly excited about what that means going forward. Not only will these players be fighting to solidify their Stage Four status, but also right behind this first wave are additional waves of talent currently climbing through Stage Two. I guarantee that it won't be seamless, and not everyone is going to make it through, but the journey is going to be both entertaining and meaningful.
The aspect that has made this plan all the more difficult is that while building this pipeline we were absolutely committed to competing for a Championship at the Major League level. Rebuild and contend simultaneously - that was the goal.
This is akin to undergoing a major remodel at your house, but deciding to live there at the same time... and having a dinner party for all of your friends every week.
The Padres managed this balance for a number of years, effectively hiding the construction, especially in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, however, we failed on the Major League side. There is no other way to describe it. Trying to do everything at once spreads an organization pretty thin, and this season that was exposed. Fortunately, however, our system has caught up just in time with the realization of the beginning of Stage Three.
What does all of this mean for 2009 and beyond? You can expect us to remain committed to our plan.
For us to compete on a consistent basis, we need to: 1) produce our own players and 2) rely heavily, though not exclusively, on youth. Both our process and execution get better with each year, so we continue to strengthen the early stages of the plan even as we continue to push forward toward Stage Four. We believe in the players in our system and, most importantly, we have a chance in the near future to expand our foundation at the Major League level to include some of these players.
I don't know exactly which players going to make it to Stage Four (I wish I did), but I'm confident that enough of them will in varying degrees to put us back competing for a Championship year-in and year-out, which is exactly where we want to be.