While Chase Headley has grabbed the "Will he or Won't He" headlines, the Padres actually had a similar situation brewing with Luke Gregerson. Gregerson had been with the club since 2009 and only had one more season left before becoming a free agent. The team needed to decide if they wanted to stick with him in 2014 and let him go for nothing or if they wanted to see what they could get in return for 5 good years in the 'pen.
Today the Padres did make a deal. They traded Gregerson to the Oakland A's for OF Seth Smith. Possibly the first question that comes up after reading that and the introduction paragraph is "How long until Seth Smith is a free agent?" Welllll, actually, he will also be a free agent after 2014. So, the Padres didn't exactly cash in on Gregerson so much as they reshuffled the roster.
Seth Smith is a useful bat. Some may remember him from his time with the Rockies, but others probably do not since he was not a stand out player for the club with the purple dinosaur mascot. He was traded to the A's before the 2012 season for a couple of prospect arms. In both locations he provided the same sort of utility. He can get on base, he can hit righty pitching and there is a little pop in his bat. You might even say he is a bit like a left handed Chris Denorfia, but without the defensive abilities. He is going to get the at bats that Mark Kotsay got over the last two seasons and more thank likely that will be an upgrade (if only a small one) at the plate and defensively.
Gregerson's role with the club seemed much bigger than the one I just described for Smith. Luke was the 8th inning guy and sometimes filled in at closer when injuries arose. His slider is tough to hit so he takes pressure off the defense by getting strikeouts in key situations. He has been very healthy and has pitched in 45% of the team's games over the last 5 years. His success in the late innings has been crucial many of the Padres' wins over that half decade.
So, then why would the team give up one year of a player that has been so crucial for one year of part time position player. The first answer is simple: that part time position player role is important because the current Padres left fielder is also a part time player. By acquiring someone who can fill in for Quentin when he needs a rest versus a tough right hander or is on the disabled the Padres have given themselves an offensive upgrade. It frees up Will Venable and Chris Denorfia to platoon in RF or sub in for Cameron Maybin as needed without stretching the team to use someone like Jesus Guzman, Logan Forsythe or Alexi Amarista in the OF or relying on Kyle Blanks to stay healthy enough to fill in as needed. That's a win, but is it enough of a win?
Unfortunately I cannot answer that question with anything definitive. Truthfully, my gut tells me it is not. The team could have gambled on a free agent left handed bat that would jump at the chance for a role as big as the one that Quentin helps carve out for them. Someone like Kelly Johnson, Tyler Colvin, Juan Pierre, Sam Fuld, Ryan Kalish, Xavier Paul, Andre Torres or Garrett Jones would not break the bank and you could dream on one decent platoon season. However, they are all decidedly worse players in 2013 than Seth Smith (which was a down year for him). You have to assume that Josh Byrnes scoured other teams' rosters for players with a similar skill set that could be had for less cost, but came up short. But does that mean you still pull the trigger on letting Gregerson go just because this was best bat you could find to fill that role?
You pull the trigger if you are willing to bet on the players that can step up to fill Gregerson's place. You do it if somehow you have confidence that what you are losing can be replaced in house or some other cheap way. The team didn't save any money on this deal, so they are not going to spend their way out. Instead the backend of the bullpen will be Tim Stauffer, Dale Thayer, Nick Vincent and Huston Street. All have shown they can get the job done, but as each steps up someone else needs to take their innings as well. On top of Gregerson's departure the Padres have lost 4 guys that have been counted on in the past in Brad Brach, Miles Mikolas, Colt Hynes and Tommy Layne.
Left on the roster are only four other guys that have been used in the 'pen before: Brad Boxberger, Anthony Bass, Robbie Erlin and Burch Smith. Erlin and Smith however are still being looked at as starters although the latter is likely to end up in the bullpen eventually. The Padres do have some relievers in waiting that are close to breaking through, but aren't on the roster. Names like Kevin Quackenbush and Leonel Campos. Johnny Barbato has also been mentioned in the past as someone that might be ready sooner rather than later even though he was in High A last year.
There also may be a wild card in play. With the Padres seemingly set with 5 starters to begin the season (Cashner, Ross, Kennedy, Johnson and Stults), if Cory Luebke were healthy he could go to the bullpen where he was quite good in 2011. He could ease back from Tommy John surgery while hopefully providing some high quality innings. There is also the possibility of using other starting pitchers from the minors as bullpen guys in order to get their feet wet. Juan Pablo Oramas, Keyvius Sampson, Matt Andriese and maybe even Matt Wisler. If it feels like I am just naming off names, I am not. These are guys with major league projections who will all likely be Padres some day. They can get guys out up in the bigs. We just won't know to what extent until they try.
So, to answer the question of "Why do you make this move?" You do it because Seth Smith is the best OF partner you can get to pair with Carlos Quentin. You do it because he is also a useful lefty bat off the bench. You do it because even though Gregerson played a key role in the bullpen, you have guys that can either replace or come close to replacing him (at least in theory). Bullpens can be fungible that way and if you look at Gregerson's numbers (specifically his WAR) you can see that while he was a valuable player he was not a relief ace.