The folly of MLB free agency
1:32 | MLB
The folly of MLB free agency
Thursday June 2nd, 2016

Wednesday was a day for snapping as far as the Padres were concerned. Executive chairman Ron Fowler blasted the underachieving team as "miserable failures" in a radio interview; Melvin Upton Jr. broke a bat across his knee in frustration; and the Padres, after being humiliated the day before by the Mariners to the point that two position players pitched in a 16–4 blowout, ended a four-game losing streak with a 14–6 win.

Let's start with Fowler, who took to the airwaves via San Diego's Mighty 1090 AM and delivered a Steinbrenner-esque rant, singling out Tuesday starter James Shields:

"It's been embarrassing. I don't know how else to put it. Our performance on the road trip, 1-7, was pathetic… To have a starter like [James] Shields perform as poorly as he did yesterday is an embarrassment to the team, an embarrassment to him. It's about as frustrating as it can get… In a normal environment, if you had performed as well as we have over the last three years, you'd probably be unemployed. But it's baseball, with guaranteed contracts. We've got to get beyond it."

"We've got great pitching in [2014] and what we're gonna do is add some offense to it. I thin we can take a run at it in [2015]. That was a miserable failure. We kept some of the key players intact. This year, we thought we'd be at least a .500 baseball team and we're anything but. I'd like to break through .400 and stay above .400 in terms of winning percentage. It's very frustrating, some days you want to stay in bed and pull the covers over your head, but that doesn't get it done. We've got a lot of people working very hard to make this come together. The other aspects of the team in terms of the ballpark and fan experience we've done well but as to the winning and losing, we've been miserable failures so far. There's no other way to describe it.”

..."It's on the player(s), but the organization has to accept responsibility for probably having the wrong players. We don't have a team out there right now that is competing effectively. We're doing everything we can going into the draft and looking at international signings to get some guys who can get us there.”

Said Shields (whose ERA rose from 3.06 to 4.28 with the pounding), “I guess I shouldn't have given up 10 runs; I guess I was the guy. I'm sure it was more about the frustration of our team losing. I'm frustrated myself.” Said Matt Kemp (who leads the team with 13 homers but is batting a lopsided .232/.242/.465 with a 52/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio), “I wish I could be playing better.... What we're doing as a team is not cutting it, but you have to play better.”

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In late August 2012, the current ownership group completed the sale of the franchise—which hasn't had a winning season since 2010—from former owner John Moores. Fowler fired general manger Josh Byrnes in June 2014 and hired former Rangers assistant GM A.J. Preller in August of that year. Preller undertook a whirlwind remake of the team that winter, trading for Kemp, Justin and Melvin Upton, Derek Norris, Wil Myers and Craig Kimbrel in a flurry of deals and signing Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract, the largest in franchise history. The deals didn't move the needle, however, as the Padres actually declined from 77 wins in 2014 to 74 last year and went from third place to fourth place in the NL West. Manager Bud Black, who had been on the job since 2007 but had failed to take the team to the postseason, was fired in mid-June when the team was 32–33, and the Padres actually played worse under interim manager Pat Murphy (42–54) thereafter.

In October, Preller hired 38-year-old Andy Green as manager, and while Fowler spoke highly of both him and the GM on Wednesday, the Padres have lost 12 of their last 16 games to fall to 21–33, last in the NL West and 11 1/2 games out of first place. Not that the season began auspiciously; they were drubbed 15–0 by the Dodgers on Opening Day, part of a 25–0 whitewashing during their three-game series. Overall, San Diego has fared worse than the rebuilding Phillies (26–27), Rockies (24–28) and Brewers (24–29).

Tuesday may have been the nadir, as the Padres fell behind 16–0 over the first five innings of their game at Safeco Field, with Shields surrendering eight hits, four walks and 10 runs in 2 2/3 innings. Backup catcher Christian Bethancourt, who began the game behind the plate and moved to leftfield in the fifth inning as part of a lineup switch, took the mound in the bottom of the eight. He reached 96 mph with a two-seam fastball in retiring Stefan Romero and dropped in a 53.9 mph eephus pitch (classified as a knuckleball by PITCHf/x but a batting practice fastball by his own admission) against Seth Smith.

Bethancourt retired two batters but issued two walks and eventually hit Smith to load the bases, whereupon he switched places with second baseman Alexi Amarista, who induced a groundout on his lone pitch. It was a lighthearted moment on an otherwise dismal afternoon.

On Wednesday, the Padres turned the tables, taking advantage of Felix Hernandez being scratched from his start and placed on the disabled list due to a calf strain by piling up six first-inning runs against emergency starter James Paxton, whose own throwing error led to five of the runs being unearned. Every position player in the lineup collected a hit save for Upton Jr., who after striking out for the third time of the night in the seventh inning broke out his Bo Jackson impression:

Despite the rough night, the 31-year-old Upton has actually been a reasonably productive player, hitting .249/.311/.397 for a 96 OPS+ and leading the team with 1.2 WAR thanks to good defense in leftfield. Among the regulars, only third baseman Brett Wallace (.219/.379/.381, 113 OPS+), Myers (.273/.309/.444, 107 OPS+) and Jon Jay (.286/.338/.399, 105 OPS+) have provided above-average offense, albeit rather unevenly, with part-timers Bethancourt (107 OPS) and Yangervis Solarte (183 OPS+) doing well in limited duty. Kemp, however, has continued to illustrate that he's far removed from his days of Dodgers stardom, and Norris and starting shortstop Alexi Ramirez are among the five players with an OPS+ of 74 or lower in at least 50 plate appearances.

As a unit, the Padres are dead last in on-base percentage (.287), 13th in batting average (.231) and 12th in slugging percentage (.374), though somehow they're 12th in the league in scoring (3.85 runs per game), ahead of the Mets as well as the Braves and Phillies. They've been worse on the run prevention side, surrendering 4.70 runs per game (11th in the league), with the starters ninth in ERA and 10th in FIP (4.19 and 4.25, respectively) and the bullpen 14th in ERA and 13th in FIP (4.69 and 4.48, respectively).

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Thus far, Drew Pomeranz (155 ERA+ in 11 starts) and Christian Friedrich (154 ERA+ in four starts) have been the only starters preventing runs at a better-than average clip. Shields has been touched for a 4.28 ERA (90 ERA+) and 1.2 home runs per nine with a strikeout rate (7.6 per nine) that's two whiffs per nine below last year. Andrew Cashner, once among the team's most desirable assets, is amid his second dreadful season in a row (4.79 ERA, 80 ERA+), and Colin Rea (4.47 ERA, 86 ERA+) was sent to Triple A El Paso on May 23 in order to manage his workload, though he's likely to be back due to the injured Cesar Vargas. Tyson Ross has made just one start this year due to shoulder inflammation and isn't expected back until the All-Star break, and Robbie Erlin underwent Tommy John surgery last month.

Among the relievers, closer Fernando Rodney has yet to allow an earned run in 19 innings and is 10 for 10 in save opportunities, but he hasn't recorded one since saving both ends of a doubleheader on May 11 against the Cubs. Lefty Ryan Buchter (0.77 ERA, 12.7 K/9) has been brilliant, but Luis Perdomo (10.04 ERA), Brandon Maurer (6.04 ERA) and others have been hit hard.

There's no quick turnaround in store. The team's farm system, which was torn apart by Preller in the winter of 2014–15, was ranked 25th by Baseball America this spring, down from sixth just two years ago; Baseball Prospectus placed them a more optimistic 18th. Aside from Rea and possibly Triple A rightfielder Hunter Renfroe, none of San Diego's top 10 prospects are likely to have a major league impact this year.

Fowler said of Preller, "This draft coming up and the international signing period will give us a far better view of A.J. I will say he has done a spectacular job of building the player-development area. I think the players we have in the farm system now as a group are stronger than they have been before."

Preller could be a busy man as the July 31 trading deadline approaches, with Rodney sure to move. Shields has drawn interest from several teams, with negotiations with the White Sox reported as having "significant momentum". He's making $21 million a year from 2016 to '18 but has an opt-out after this season. Given Fowler's ire, the 34-year-old righty is likely on his way out of town at some point, though the team could have to swallow some of his salary. The cost to ditch Kemp, who's owed $21.5 million per year through 2019 (of which just $3.5 million per year is being paid by the Dodgers), will be higher. Even with Upton's modest resurgence over the past season and a half, he's making $15.45 million this year and $16.45 million in 2017, which could make moving him a costly proposition. Cashner and Jay, both in their final years before free agency, appear likely to be dealt as well.

In other words, It's going to be a long summer in San Diego.

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