Five years have passed since Padres general manager Josh Byrnes pulled the trigger on what already goes down as one of the worst trades in team history. Barely two months into his tenure, Byrnes sent hard-hitting 22-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo to his predecessor, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, who had a long history with Rizzo. Not only had Hoyer acquired Rizzo for the Padres in the late-2010 trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Boston, he was previously instrumental in the Red Sox selecting Rizzo in the sixth round of the 2007 draft, back during Hoyer's first stint serving under Theo Epstein. In exchange for Rizzo and the Padres' 2010 third-rounder, starting pitcher Zach Cates, San Diego received 25-year-old relief pitcher Andrew Cashner and slap-hitting A-ball outfielder Kyung-Min Na. History will recall the deal as a one-for-one swap, and essentially it was; both Cates and Na retired without having reached the majors.
Unlike most trades, which are only determined to be fleecings years after the fact, this deal was nearly universally panned by both media and fans the day it happened. Rarer still, most of the concerns given for disliking the trade turned out to be prescient and in line with the reality that played out. Immediately after the trade was made public, this site posted a poll asking readers which team won the trade. Out of 746 respondents, 74% gave Chicago the nod. The results were nearly the same later in the day when 72% of the 327 voters declared the deal "rotten".
Both players started and ended the 2012 season as expected, with Cashner beginning in the Padres' bullpen before getting stretched out into a starter by year's end, and Rizzo starting out in AAA Iowa for more seasoning before eventually coming up and wresting the starting first base job from Bryan LaHair. Cashner, who had pitched in just seven games for the Cubs in 2011 after coming out of the bullpen 53 times in his rookie season of 2010, was adequate as he adapted, while Rizzo immediately put up impressive numbers in a little over half of a season. In 368 trips to the plate over 87 games, Rizzo hit .285/ .342/ .463 (.805) with 15 doubles and 15 homers.
It was little surprise that Rizzo blossomed as he did, since very few questioned whether he could become a successful major league hitter, only whether he could do so while playing half his games at then-cavernous Petco Park, which skewed much more in favor of pitchers than it does now. In just eight seasons as the Padres' home field, Petco was already notorious for neutering power hitters, starting with Ryan Klesko and the more vocal Phil Nevin from Day One, and on through Ryan Ludwick, whose honesty I have always admired for the refreshingly non-macho move of publicly admitting that the park got in his head during the 365 days he spent in navy and sand between the trade deadlines of 2010 and '11.
In addition to the evening marine layer acting in concert with the sheer vastness of the playing field to turn what would be no-doubt home runs elsewhere into routine fly balls, The Petco Effect took a toll on once-powerful Padres when they were on the road. When a professional hitter isn't getting the results he desires, he makes adjustments and adapts as best he can; the instinct and ability to do so is a large part of what allowed them to get to the highest level. In doing so, players occasionally abandon their strongest skillset in favor of the best approach for the field they're given. As this is not something that can be flipped on and off like a light switch, this would of course put a dent in road numbers as well. Some players were able to successfully retool their approach - Brian Giles hit over 35 home runs in each of the four seasons before the Padres traded for him, but hit just 23 in Petco's inaugural season, and progressively fewer each year through his 2009 swan song, all while doubling more than ever and continuing to rank among the league leaders in OBP even as he was pushing 40 - but such victories were by far the exception rather than the rule.
That said, it's understandable why one would have more faith in a singles-and-doubles line-drive-hitter's chances to flourish with the Padres in the days of Petco yore, and that was Josh Byrnes's reasoning in sticking with newly-acquired Yonder Alonso over Rizzo as San Diego's first baseman going forward. Rizzo prospering with the Cubs was decidedly unshocking - although nobody could have predicted with certainty the level of success he has had - and we have no way of knowing whether Petco Park would have broken him down before he could break out, or whether his extremely poor numbers in 49 games for the Padres in 2011 were the product of a rookie outmatched by his opposition or his surroundings.
After proving himself worthy of the job by the end of 2012, Rizzo took over as the Cubs' starting first baseman in 2013, Cashner's first full year in the Padres' rotation. Both had good years as they settled in, and the question of who won the trade could still be argued at year's end. By the time 2014 came to a close, some could say the jury was still out, but Rizzo was making it difficult for them to say with a straight face. Cashner put up very good rate numbers, posting personal bests in ERA with 2.55 and WHIP with 1.127, but missed nearly half the season due to injuries. Meanwhile Rizzo stayed healthy and surpassed 30 home runs for the first time, a feat he has continued to repeat each of the two years that followed, along with being named to the All-Star team all three years. Along with Rizzo's emergence as a superstar, Cashner did his part to cement the trade's legacy by pitching below replacement level in 2015 and 2016.
Adding insult to injury, the Cubs were able to sign Rizzo to a team-friendly contract extension in early 2013 which is looking friendlier to the team by the minute, locking him up through at least his age-29 season of 2019 for an average of less than six million dollars. Chicago rolled the dice and got a bargain on all three of his arbitration years and what would have been his first year after free agency; they also hold two option years worth $16.5 million a pop, well below half of what he'd demand on the open market if he continues to perform at this level. For just over $12 million to date, Chicago has received 21.7 WAR from Rizzo; in the same time, San Diego paid Cashner over $14 million for just 3.1 WAR.
In addition to the Padres getting the raw end of the deal itself in every way possible, Yonder Alonso never did turn out to be the perfect Petco Park hitter that Byrnes dreamed he would become, or even anything close to that. Like Cashner, he showed promise in 2012 when he finished eighth in the league with 39 doubles while hitting .273/ .348/ .393 (.741), but injuries and disappointment dominated his final three years in San Diego. He accrued just 2.9 WAR over those three years before he was sent to Oakland with lefty reliever Marc Rzepczinski in a trade that was a definite win for the Padres. The Friars acquired the rights to Rule 5 pick Jabari Blash, relief prospect Jose Torres, and project arm Drew Pomeranz. Torres excelled, climbing from Single-A to MLB over the course of the season, and Pomeranz became an unlikely All-Star and was sent to Boston for their top pitching prospect, Anderson Espinoza.
The Rizzo-for-Cashner trade is not entirely doom and gloom for Padres fans, as the team did manage to wring some potential value from Cashner by trading him to the Marlins this past July, a few months before he was set to become a free agent. In return for him and faded pitching prospect Tayron Guerrero, they got starting pitcher Jarred Cosart, along with reliever Carter Capps - who was on the mend from Tommy John surgery - and Miami's second-ranked prospect, 19-year-old Josh Naylor, who just happens to be a powerful left-handed first baseman. Starting pitcher Colin Rea originally went along with Cashner and Guerrero, with prospect Luis Castillo coming to the Padres organization, but the two were swapped back to their original clubs after Rea suffered a season-ending injury which had a hand in blowing open the Padres' medical records scandal.
While the trade tree still has three active branches on the Padres' side, the sting and the indignity of sending Rizzo away in a head-scratcher will remain forever, regardless of what becomes of Cosart, Capps, and Naylor. Even if the absolute best case scenario plays out across the board with Cosart and Capps being valuable contributors for all six of their combined years of team control, and Naylor defies the odds and becomes a star of Rizzo's caliber, that's more along the lines of what Bob Ross would call "a happy little accident". There is nothing that will put the toothpaste back in the tube and prevent the Rizzo-for-Cashner trade from being discussed as one of the worst of all time for decades to come.