Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Plan

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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Our Season

I'm sorry that I went radio silent for a few days there after responding to a handful of comments. In general, this is a very busy time of year for us, but throw in a family wedding and my wife's birthday and I fell behind more than I expected.

People often ask, "So what do you do when the season ends? Do you take a lot of time off?"

My first season in baseball was with the Cleveland Indians in 1996. The team dominated during the regular season (99-62), so the playoffs were never a question. The only question was how far we were going to go. Since the Indians had been to the World Series in 1995, we held lofty expectations.

We lost in the first round.

Nobody, including the intern (me), was ready for such a shock. As it happened, the fourth and final game was on a Sunday, and my parents had traveled to Cleveland for the weekend. In the midst of my post-game stupor, I remember saying to them, "What do you I think I do tomorrow? Do I show up for work at the same time? Do I wear the same attire? Is everyone going to take some time away?" Since I had started my job during spring training, I had never experienced an "off-season".

The next day I showed up at my normal time in my normal attire figuring that if anything I should err on the side of diligence. Somewhat to my surprise, everyone was there already busy at work. That afternoon, John Hart called us into his office, and we had a brief discussion regarding the upcoming months. John began by saying, "Today starts OUR season."

I remember thinking that I really needed a break.

Now, of course, I'm accustomed to the schedule, and John was absolutely right. This is our season, and we've been busy the last few weeks in preparation. The GM's meetings, which begin next week, are akin to Opening Day, so our "spring training" is nearly finished and we can't wait to get started.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Trading Peavy

Since I have been in Arizona all week, I haven't read the papers or listened to the radio, so I don't know what has been written or what has been said. What I do know, though, is what actually is happening.

We are looking to get better.

It's really that simple. We're not trying to trade certain players, and we're certainly not looking to move players just to move them. As with any off-season or trading deadline, we're assessing the market value for our players to see whether or not that value surpasses their value to the Padres. If you have something you value at one million dollars, it would be foolish to refuse to consider selling it for twenty million dollars. On the flip side, it would also be foolish to sell it for anything less than one million. The thing that makes the market work is that each player has a different value to virtually every Club.

Furthermore, no one player makes a great team. This has been proven time and time again in baseball. We don't need to look any further than the 2008 Padres that went 63-99 with Jake Peavy, but I will.

There have been a number of occasions in recent memory where teams have traded or lost one of their best players only to be as good or better... immediately:
  • The 2008 Indians were 37-51 when they traded CC Sabathia, and then went 43-30.
  • The 2007 Twins finished 79-83, traded Johan Santana and let Torii Hunter leave in free agency, and then went 88-75 in 2008.
  • The 2003 Rangers finished 71-91, traded Alex Rodriguez, and then went 89-73 in 2004.
  • The 1996 Giants finished 68-94, traded Matt Williams, and then went 90-72 in 1997.

There are many, many more, but here is my favorite string:

  • The 1998 Mariners traded Randy Johnson in the middle of a 76-85 season.
  • In 1999 the Mariners finished 79-83 without the Big Unit.
  • After 1999, the Mariners traded Ken Griffey, Jr and then went 91-71 in 2000.
  • After 2000, the Mariners lost Alex Rodriguez to free agency and went 116-46 in 2001.

That's three Hall-of-Famers in three successive seasons, and the Mariners improved each time. Baseball is a crazy game.

This, of course, doesn't mean that trading a star player ensures success. What it does show, however, is that trading a star player can buoy a team. That is what we're exploring.

As far as Jake's particular situation, we have him under contract for the next four years with an option for a fifth year. Our task, then, is to determine whether what we would receive in exchange for him would outweigh the benefits of having him for those five years (presumably some player(s) we would get in return could be of service for more than five years, so that needs to be factored in as well). Make no mistake, however - we place tremendous value on Jake's presence here. That is why any offers for him in past years and every day up until this writing have been rejected.

Come to think of it, though, it's really not about Jake's particular situation at all. There was a very good comment in my last post asking about our process as it pertains to Brian Giles. Why would we be unwilling to trade him before the deadline, possibly willing to after the deadline, and then plan on picking up his option? The answer is rather straightforward - it all depends on the return. The return wasn't sufficient in any deal before the deadline, but was sufficient in the proposed deal after the dealine.

In short, we are charged with fielding the best possible team in both the short and long terms. Believe me, we wish we could put together a dynamic team comprised of players who would remain as Padres for the duration of their careers. On a personal level, we don't enjoy trading players. I don't know any executive who does. However, that just isn't the reality of today's game. Because of that fact, the best organizations out there can't really believe in the concept of "untouchable", because one can lose great opportunities with such blinders.

So, to answer the most basic question: are we going to trade Jake Peavy? We'll see if someone offers us a compelling deal that makes us better.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Instructional League

Sorry for the absence the last few days. I have been in Peoria, Arizona attending our annual scouting meetings at our Fall Instructional League. Though we're not at the St. Regis enjoying golf, the spa, and blowout dinners, it's always a good time.

We've been spending the mornings in meetings going over the 2008 draft - what we did well, what we did poorly, and what we learned - as well as doing some early prep for 2009. More importantly, we're all back together, scouts and player development personnel, for a few days to break down players, share ideas, and talk baseball.

The afternoons have been very valuable, because we've been watching our Instructional League games. Like most organizations, our FIL roster is diverse. We have players from AA to the Dominican Summer League all on the same team. Some are here to work on specific parts of their game, some are trying a position change, and others are here to get more at-bats and detailed instruction. The best part for us, front office and scouts included, is that we get to see all of these guys playing together.

During the spring scouting season comparisons are critically important and terribly difficult. You may have seen one player for two games back in March and another for three at-bats in late May (as well as 100 other players in between), and you have to be able to rank those players with some sound reasoning as the backbone. At Instructional League we get to see these players literally right next to each other, which helps tremendously to reinforce our thought process or to expose a shortcoming.

With both Fall Instructional League and the Arizona Fall League, this is a great time of year to be in Arizona. Though the crowds don't extend beyond friends and family, there are future big leaguers all over the place.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Claiming Travis Denker

Today we claimed 23-year old 2B Travis Denker from the San Francisco Giants.

A native of Southern California, Travis went to Brea Linda HS before the Dodgers drafted him in the 21st round in 2003. There wasn't much of an adjustment to pro ball for Travis as he hit .311/.372/.556 in about 250 pa's during that first summer in rookie ball. Given that performance, Travis made the jump the following season to full-season A ball in Columbus, the South Atlantic League affiliate of the Dodgers. He didn't slow down there going .310/.417/.556 before moving up to the High-A Florida State League.

In 2006 Travis split time in multiple ways - between Low-A and High-A and between 2B and 3B. Given the standard he had set, it was a down year for him offensively, but he still managed a .375 obp and actually walked more than he struck out. Travis then stuck in High-A (and at 2B) in 2007 putting up a nice year in the Florida State League before being traded to the Giants late in the year. The move to the Cal League was fortuitous for the San Jose Giants, as Travis hit .400 the rest of the way.

The Giants moved Travis aggressively in 2008, as he spent about half the year in AAA and finished his season in the big leagues hitting .243/.333/.486 in 42 Major League plate appearances.

There aren't many advantages to having a season like we did in 2008, but it does put us near the front of the waiver line for the next six months which helps in situations like this one.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Pitching Prospects

There have been a number of comments over the past few months regarding our pitching philosophy. Generally, there has been some disdain that we tend to focus on command pitchers as opposed to power pitchers with specific mention of Petco Park and guys like Geer, Ramos, and LeBlanc since they are all on the cusp of the big leagues.

First and foremost, as a matter of practice, we do not target command over velocity. Every pitcher is a unique blend of skills - athleticism, delivery, repertoire, command, movement, velocity, durability, etc. Though it may appear that we have a particular preference, it is the balance of all of these factors and more that drives our decisions.

For instance, let's go back to draft day and discuss the trio of "command" pitchers listed above. Cesar Ramos was drafted in the compensation round of 2005 out of Long Beach St (I wasn't here at the time or in 2006, but I had seen all of these guys pitch, so the following perspective is just mine). Ramos is left-handed and he was always a very good strikethrower. The knock was that he didn't strike enough guys out, but it wasn't because of his fastball. Cesar routinely touches 92 mph and regularly pitches at 90-91, which for a left-hander is considered above average (or borderline above average). In this instance, the Padres took a left-hander with average to plus velocity and above average strike throwing ability. If nothing else changes, that's probably good enough to pitch at the back of a rotation or in the pen. If something more clicks, though, there is real upside. In fact, after striking out 4.5 per nine innings in A ball and 4.9 per nine innings in AA, Cesar this year struck out 6.3 per nine innings in AAA. I like the way this trend is going.

Josh Geer is a very different case. At Rice Josh had a fastball that sat at 91 and ranged from 88-93. Fast forward three years and Josh now pitches between 85 and 91 and throws more strikes than he ever did in college (3.2 walks per nine in college and 1.9 walks per nine as a pro). Sometimes this is a matter of becoming more consistent in one's effort level and delivery. Other times it's simply a matter of the pro workload - pitching every fifth day as opposed to once a week like in high school or college.

Wade LeBlanc was a guy in college who had a devastating out-pitch in his changeup, and that continues to be the case. His velocity in college was mainly 86-88, which has been his standard as a pro. He pitched a little below that in the big leagues, but that is likely because it was the first time he had pitched in Major League camp and September, which added two months to his season. With that velocity, however, Wade has struck out 8.8 per nine in A ball, 8.6 per nine in AA, and 9.0 per nine in AAA. The point is that velocity doesn't always equal strikeouts (though there is a correlation - I can't deny that). So basically, Wade continues to be the same successful pitcher that he was at Alabama with very consistent performance and stuff. In fact, Chris Young is another good example of this. Chris doesn't throw particularly hard, but batters have a decidedly difficult time against him, so his velocity alone does not dictate his place in the rotation.

The three examples above simply show that what we get on draft day isn't always what the guys look like three or four years later - one is striking more guys out, one is striking fewer guys out, and one guy is basically the same - so there hasn't necessarily been a focus on guys who don't throw particularly hard. In fact, the Padres took Cesar Carrillo in the first round of 2005 who threw hard with command - the combination that all teams want.

Fortunately, the Padres have a growing stable of these pitchers - guys who throw hard with command. Matt Latos, Wynn Pelzer, Drew Miller, and Jeremy McBryde are just some of the names that fit this mold. All of these guys were signed for above slot money in the draft, but just like the three mentioned above, they don't necesssarily have the same characteristics as on the day they signed. Furthermore, there are also many, many more whom we targeted in the draft but didn't get to select for one reason or another.

We've also been aggressive with our Latin American signings. Long before we signed Adis Portillo out of Venezuela in July, we signed Ernesto Frieri, Wilton Lopez, Simon Castro, Jackson Quezada, Alexis Lara, and Pascual Juan. Both Frieri and Lopez are on the 40-man roster, and all of these pitchers top out at least 94 mph. In fact, in the draft this year we also took a handful of guys, like Bass, Bagley, and Poynter to name a few, with above average fastballs, so our lower levels boast a large group of power arms.

The important takeaway here is that pitching is very difficult to predict and all different types of pitchers have success, so we draft and sign all different types of pitchers.

Back in 2005, the Padres' system was a little thin, so drafting polished college pitchers made sense - there was a need to build some pitching inventory in general - but those guys don't always turn out the way you'd expect. Fortunately, the farm system is much healthier now, and we're hopeful that we have created enough of a foundation across the spectrum of pitching to have a number of Major League contributors with all sorts of different repertoires and abilities.