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To Compete Or Not To Compete

The Savior: Run Producin'. That's part of being a winner. (Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE)
The Savior: Run Producin'. That's part of being a winner. (Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE)

In the ever growing medium of baseball commentary, one of the ideas that has grown in popularity is that teams at the bottom need to be in or go into a rebuilding mode until they have themselves a window to compete. Padres fans might come across this line of thinking when entering discussions about the Carlos Quentin and Huston Street contract extensions. Some will argue that the team is still far away from contention and spending money on veterans is a waste since they have proven they are not enough to make the team a contender. This is particularly true with regards to Street since closers are at their most valuable when they are saving games that mean the difference between going to the playoffs and staying home.

Helping this rebuilding mode idea along are articles like this one, written by Nate Silver for Baseball Prospectus in 2005. For those that don't speak baseball nerd or don't want to read the whole thing, I can summarize. If you know approximately how many wins you can attain with the club you have, you then can have an idea of how active you should be in the offseason when building the club for the next season. For instance, the Padres went into last offseason looking like they would probably win fewer than 82 games. According to Silver's research, the Padres should have been sellers. The optimum strategy is to rebuild by trading your best short term assets for quality long term assets. In other words, trade veterans for prospects. Trading Mat Latos also works in that the team gave up one quality long term asset for multiple quality long term assets.

However, a couple weeks ago Sam Miller, also writing for Baseball Prospectus, came up with a counter argument for that part of Silver's work. He used the 2012 Oakland A's as an example. I like that example partially because I remember in Spring Training and early in the season a couple people asking me about why the A's would bring in Bartolo Colon, Manny Ramirez, Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith, re-sign Coco Crisp, plus sign Yoenis Cespedes for big money after trading away two of their best young pitchers in Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez. What I had argued, and what Sam Miller analyzes, is that because the A's still had a decent group of young players (and had acquired a bunch more in those Cahill and Gonzalez deals) they have to account for the possibility that enough of those young players could translate their talent into big league results and that a little veteran help could push them into contention. For now, that seems to be what is happening as Oakland is currently in the wild card race and somewhat within striking distance of the division title.

The problem with Silver's analysis, is that you have to know how your current roster would perform in the short term. You can't possibly know this. You can guess at a likely outcome, but you don't know for sure. It also assumes that you are looking to build a team that has big window for contention year in and year out, but what if there's a small window that will surprise you?

Padres fans can also relate to being a surprise contender with a short window. Just two years ago the 2010 Padres jumped from being a team coming off back-to-back sub .500 seasons to a 90 game winner. Like this years A's, that team had young talent and the front office was savvy enough to spend on some veteran players (Jon Garland, Yorvit Torrealba, Jerry Hairston, Scott Hairston, David Eckstein, Matt Stairs) that not only filled holes on the roster, but also didn't break the bank with burdensome long term deals. That combination works well: find holes on the roster that young players can't fill and spend within your means to fill them with useful veteran players.

This sort of thinking would also seem to build a more fan friendly product. Many fans will still see these types of teams as likely bottom dwellers, but the idea that they are prepared just in case some lucky breaks start happening is a nice one to have. It provides hope. Which brings us back to the 2012 Padres, or maybe more accurately the 2013 Padres. Extending Quentin and Street while retaining Chase Headley provides the team with the stability they need in order to give hope a chance. A team in full rebuilding mode will need so many things to go right that hope is pretty much lost. Sure, trading their short term value for prospects that have possible long term value may make for a potentially better future talent base to compete for a World Series, but it's still a guessing game as to when that talent turns to results. Is it really so important to keep trying to build an elite team that you give up on the possibility that if things break right you could have a pretty good team next year? That's something for the fans to debate and the GM's to gamble on.