Anyone following the Padres over the last month knows they are in a sort of limbo. They are a team that was built to win now, yet didn't win enough in the early goings to be a contender, but yet are winning just enough now to make selling a bit tough to swallow. Some have argued that the team is so built for the now that no matter how slim the possibility of playoffs are, they should just go for it. Others, especially locally, wonder what message the team should send to fans at the deadline. What these varying perspectives mean is there a number of defensible directions the Padres could go in.
This seems simple, but the Padres just need to pick a direction and run with it. If they are going to try to make the best of this season, then they should buy. Some favor this because of the message it sends to the fans -- it says the team is trying to win now. However, it only sends that message to those focused on the surface. To others it sends the message that the front office is obtuse, and that they will stubbornly stick to their guns even when the reasons for doing so are gone. Also, what would it mean in a few years when the team is in trouble because of the effort it put into a mostly lost cause this year? I think there are some reasonable alternatives.
If the front office instead is a big believer in this team, but feels things didn't break their way this season, then the team can start to look towards the future with a core of players. The first thing to be done is to look for homes for all the impending free agents, which is normal for a seller. The only way those players can help your future is if you acquire players with more team control when you trade them. For those that need a refresher, the players who have contracts expiring in October are: Justin Upton, Will Venable, Ian Kennedy and Shawn Kelley (as well as Clint Barmes and Joaquin Benoit who have 2016 option years). Many selling clubs would stop there and that would be fine, but the Padres might have more up their collective sleeves.
There's no question that after the Padres lose those players, the 2016 roster will look less talented than the 2015 one. Moreover, raises for a handful of players in 2016 will equal the payroll shed by the players that are leaving. This is, of course, as true now as it was when the season started. However, one of the lessons learned from this season was that the roster wasn't balanced. It was missing left handed bats, it was missing a SS, it was missing a CF for the future, and it probably had too much money invested in the bullpen. Some of the rumors you have heard lately (whether it's a Craig Kimbrel deal, a James Shields trade or a Tyson Ross exchange) might be deals to better balance that 2016 roster. There's a good chance these aren't just sell-offs to trim payroll and get younger, but instead they are ways to give a contender what they need while also balancing out future rosters. They don't need to make these deals now and can wait until the offseason, but people are looking to deal now so why not explore? One of the downsides to this strategy is that the message to the fans is a little fuzzy. You have to understand the nuances of the trades to know where the team is going. On the surface some will want to use the "fire sale" phrase (they love that phrase), but it's a strategic course correction rather than a tear down.
The other option would be to tear it all down. This would require the front office to tacitly admit that they made a mistake this offseason, and that the players they acquired were fool's gold with flashy names instead of a championship core. Like the course adjustment strategy in the previous paragraph, the moves don't have to be made now, but all options can be explored. This plan requires a full commitment to a rebuild. The farm system has been stripped so much this past offseason that you can't do this halfway, if you do it at all. Selling off one or two of the major league assets for prospects just won't cut it. You don't want an aforementioned "fire sale", but you want to sell as many parts as you can when they have value. For some pieces that might be right now, for some it could be the offseason, and for some it would be next trading deadline. The message here is clear: that there is little reason to be excited about the near term and that fans should effectively ignore the results at the major league level for the next few years. That's a tough sell for all parties involved and makes this sort of strategy very unlikely.
However, whatever it is the Padres organization figures they need to do, then they should do it. So far, we haven't seen anything, which is fine for the time being, but the clock is ticking. The team is still plodding along with mostly the same players it started the season with and the outlook for 2016 looks like a diminished version of the 2015 team. That has to change and the front office just needs to go out and execute a plan. The plan doesn't have to end when the deadline comes, but it needs to be started by then.