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Josh Byrnes fired as Padres GM, but San Diego's problems run deep

Leadership, to borrow from Miami Heat president Pat Riley, is the courage to define reality for your team. Such leadership got Josh Byrnes fired as general manager of the Padres.

The Padres are not a very good team and just about no one expected them to be a very good team – except the people who own the club. Byrnes’ days were numbered when the Padres were sold in August 2012 to a group led by Ron Fowler, a local beer distributor who became the fifth majority owner of the club in the past 25 years. Eleven months later, Fowler hired Miami Dolphins executive Mike Dee to “become the face and voice of this organization.” Dee is an accomplished sales guy, with an impressive background in marketing, business and political operations.

Most teams would prefer that a star player be the “face and voice” of the organization. The Padres have none, which has been the case since Adrian Gonzalez was traded after the 2010 season. In other cases, a manager or general manager – somebody actually connected to the baseball side - is the “face and voice” of the organization. Not San Diego.

So Byrnes is gone. The Padres, in an unusually frank disassociation, went out of their way in their official release to point out that Byrnes “was hired by then owner Jeff Moorad in December of 2010.”

Now Fowler and Dee can find “their guy” to be GM, maybe even somebody who thinks you should contend instantly without ever spending more than $15.5 million on a free agent, as the Padres have done for the past eight years.

“The fans in San Diego are really outstanding,” Byrnes told me on Monday, his 44th birthday. “It’s a great place to work. Everybody there is committed to winning a championship. The baseball ops people are some of the best people in the game.

“As far as the decision, there’s been a lot of change in recent years. I have a total history of preparedness. My nature is to always establish who we are and what we want to be. The inability to get on the same page [with ownership] in that respect ultimately led to this.”

Fowler’s group paid $800 million for the Padres and a 20 percent stake in Fox Sports San Diego. Only the Cubs and Dodgers fetched a higher sale price. And this year, the owners bumped the payroll from $68 million to $90 million. (Of course, their new local TV deal nets them an average annual increase of $38 million.) And so they expect to win and to win now, the way someone who just dumped a boatload of money into a mutual fund checks the next morning for the riches to pour in immediately. There are two problems with that expectation: The Padres still don’t have enough talent on the field, and they still aren’t paying enough to add to it.

Byrnes tried to spell it out for them – quite literally. He graduated from Haverford College with a degree in English. He loves to write. He is thorough. He works as hard as any GM in the game. Last fall, he prepared a “state-of-the-team” 15-page report in which he supplied context to the club’s limitations in talent and payroll. (The Padres, despite the bump in payroll, still rank 22nd in payroll; Oakland is the only club that spends less and still fields a winning team.)

Then, this spring, Byrnes crafted a PowerPoint presentation with further evidence of the team’s standing. It included at least half a dozen computer projection systems that forecast the Padres to score just about as many runs as they allowed – in other words, they had the talent to be a .500 team. They could be a little better if pitcher Josh Johnson and outfielder Carlos Quentin stayed healthy, or a little worse with some bad luck with injuries. The owners didn’t want to hear such talk. They planned to contend. They wanted to rush into contract extensions for young players, the flavor-of-the-month among the “smart” crowd.

Then Johnson and Quentin did break down – as they often do – and a rash of other injuries and underperformance by key offensive players (Jedd Gyorko, Yasmani Grandal, Chase Headley, Yonder Alonso, etc.) sent the team reeling to the wrong side of .500. The run of injuries in San Diego, especially to pitchers, has been among the worst in baseball over the past three years.

The Padres simply weren’t as good as the owners expected, their gaze clouded by their recent entry into the exclusive club of baseball ownership. You buy a new car and you want to show it off. The problem here is that despite the sticker price, the model they bought was underpowered.

In a baseball world in which run prevention methodologies have reduced offense to its lowest levels in almost three decades, playing in a vast pitcher’s haven like San Diego's Petco Park exacerbates the difficulty of scoring runs. With a .214 batting average, these Padres are the worst hitting group in franchise history – worse than the 110-loss outfit of 1969 (.225). Their on-base percentage and OPS also are franchise lows. They are challenging the 1910 White Sox (.210) as the worst hitting team since 1900.

Playing in Petco presents an inverse problem of playing in Denver's Coors Field. Since the park opened in 2004, San Diego has never finished higher than ninth in the league in runs scored. It has been a bottom-five offensive team for seven consecutive years. It hasn't finished in the top-five in 17 years.

What have the Padres done to generate offense? Not much. The franchise has developed only two homegrown 30-home run hitters in its history: Dave Winfield (1979) and Headley (2012). Hunter Renfroe, Byrnes’ 2013 first-round pick, is showing power in the minors and could be the long-awaited impact player. Renfroe, 22, leads the San Diego organization with 17 home runs between Class A and AA. The top power hitters after that? Two former 30-something Braves kicking around in Triple A: Brooks Conrad and Jeff Francouer.

You might think the Padres would spend money to find help, but no, that hasn’t happened, either. Over the past eight years, San Diego has spent just $93.9 million on free agents, or just $11.9 million per year. Cleveland spent more than that in 2012 alone. The decline under the last years of John Moores’ ownership and the awkwardness of the brief run by Moorad still casts a shadow on the club.

Since 2006, the Padres have signed only two free agents to multi-year deals, and both of those players signed for only two years: Reliever Joaquin Benoit ($15.5 million) and second baseman Orlando Hudson ($11.5 million). In his three winters as GM, Byrnes had just $28.75 million to spend on free agents – or less than what the Royals gave just Omar Infante last year.

And this is how ownership expects to contend in a division with two of the six biggest payrolls in baseball, the Dodgers and Giants? Like any GM, Byrnes had his hits and misses, but the hits, especially given the payroll restrictions, outweighed the misses. He traded for 60 percent of a big-league rotation and a closer (Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner and Huston Street) while giving up essentially one chip of major league value (Anthony Rizzo). He did miss on the trade of Mat Latos to Cincinnati, with Edinson Volquez flopping, Grandal becoming a PED has-been and Alonso looking like a platoon first baseman with no power who is regressing.

(Reminder memo to GMs: When you trade an established major leaguer next month, go for quality over quantity. Get the one best prospect you can find, and forget about hedging your bets.)

In an age of unprecedented mediocrity, the Padres found a way to play themselves out of contention before June was even over, something Fowler and Dee must have found unimaginable with their sights set on running down the Dodgers and their $239 million payroll. Worse still, the Padres are remarkably boring, without a single star player and the most run-starved team of a run-starved era.

Fowler and Dee put the blame on Byrnes for the state of the franchise. It’s misplaced blame, but this is what happens with new ownership. They are eager for quick success and they want their own hand-picked GM. So now they will look for a replacement, and it will likely be a young one on his or her first GM job who will report to Dee, who calls the franchise a “midmarket team,” not a small market team. The owners want to hear that the Padres are on the verge of becoming the upgraded version of the Oakland Athletics – you know, that team that since 2006 has outspent San Diego on the free agent market by $80 million, or 85 percent.

One baseball source said the Padres are expected to look at Billy Eppler of the Yankees, David Forst and Farhan Zaidi of Oakland and Mike Hazen of Boston. All of them are very smart executives – smart enough to know this team deserves every bit of its record this year.