Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Pirates pulled off an extra-innings, walk-off win thanks in part to a home run from recently returned utility player and fan favorite Sean Rodriguez. As the Pirates gathered around home plate to welcome their most recent hero home, the team and its fanbase was feeling the thrill of a possible playoff run. The Padres walked off the field to lick their wounds from a bitter loss, but there may be some signs that we can read in the tea leaves to see where the Padres may be heading.
The Pirates were buyers at the deadline. They want to compete this year, next year, and for years after that.
The Pirates were faced with a decision this season. All offseason their franchise player, Andrew McCutchen, was surrounded by trade rumors. Early in the season, their five-tool MVP candidate Starling Marte was busted for PEDs and suspended for 50 games. Just a month ago, it looked like the rebuild they were near completing was starting to falter as they were seven games back in the NL Central. It was looking bleak. Then they went to an unlikely six-game winning streak and all of a sudden, it didn’t feel like they were all that far out of this race. As the trade deadline approached, they had to make a decision: do they sell their movable players, or do they buy to build toward a potential playoff run? Well, they bought, as they brought in a familiar face: Sean Rodriguez. The Pirates’ roster is balanced in many ways: righty/lefty platoon mix, power/speed, youth/veterans, and their farm system has a depth of talent both in pitching and in position players to support what they hope to be a perenially competitive organization. They have been just that, as they were in the playoffs from 2013-2015 and are recovering from a disappointing 2016 season, but their roster is still an example of how a smaller market can build a competitive team that has staying power. They are where the Padres want to be in the not-too-distant future... but how distant could that future realistically be?
Using the Pirates roster to frame the opening of the Padres’ window of contention
The Pirates team that the Padres faced yesterday was mostly built from within. They’re a team of home-grown talent, mixed with young kids acquired via trade, and supplemented by some key veterans. As you look up and down their roster, there are a handful of 25-year-olds, but most of the key players are around age 30. McCutchen and Marte have been around the longest, beginning their professional careers in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Using McCutchen as an anchoring point, that’s ten years of development from the longest-tenured key player. The equivalent pieces on the Padres roster could be Austin Hedges and Hunter Renfroe, who were drafted in 2011 and 2013. If the Padres see competitive success in Hedges’ tenth year since his draft, that would take us to 2021. Hedges and Renfroe will be 29 years old, as will Carlos Asuaje. Manuel Margot will be 27. Wil Myers will be in his age-30 season and should have two years left on his contract.
The front end of the Pirates rotation is comprised of two 26-year-olds: Garrett Cole and Jameson Taillon. Both were first-round picks, and they were drafted in 2010 and 2011. The Padres selected pitchers in the first rounds of this year’s and last year’s drafts in Cal Quantrill and MacKenzie Gore. They’re 18 and (almost) 22 right now, but we would be remiss to exclude Adrian Morejon (18), Anderson Espinoza (19) and Jacob Nix (21) in the mix of potential top-end rotation arms in the Padres system. Garrett Cole has three years of MLB service time, and Cal Quantrill may begin his service time clock toward the end of the 2018 season, with the rest likely to follow a year or two later. By 2021, Quantrill would have two or three years of MLB service time, and the others who make it up should be maybe a year or two into their careers. In 2021, Quantrill will be 26, Nix will be 25, and the kids will be 22 or 23 years old. Other pitchers currently in the Padres’ system who will be 26 in 2021: Miguel Diaz, Eric Lauer, Enyel de los Santos, and Michel Baez. The point here is that the swell of pitching talent that has come into the system in the last two years should be just starting to hit their prime approximately when Austin Hedges is reaching his tenth year as a pro.
What could the Padres’ talent pool look like in 2021?
It’s silly to look four years into the future and try to build a roster with current organizational pieces, but I feel like getting a little weird here. With what the Padres have on their rosters, here’s a pool of players that could potentially be in play in four years, with their year-2021 ages:
- Catchers: Austin Hedges(29), Austin Allen(27), Marcus Greene, Jr.(27)
- First Base: Wil Myers(30), Brad Zunica(25), Josh Naylor(24)
- Second/Third Base: Cory Spangenberg(30), Carlos Asuaje(29), Luis Urias(24), Ruddy Giron(24), Esteury Ruiz(22)
- Shortstop: Jose Rondon(27), Allen Cordoba(25), Fernando Tatis, Jr.(22)
- Outfielders: Manuel Margot(27), Hunter Renfroe(29), Franchy Cordero(27), Nick Torres(28), Franmil Reyes(26), Michael Gettys(26), Jorge Ona(24)
- Starting Pitchers: Matt Strahm(29), Dinelson Lamet(29), Luis Perdomo(28), Walker Lockett(27), Cal Quantrill(26), Jacob Nix(26), Brett Kennedy(27), Eric Lauer(26), Joey Lucchesi(28), Enyel de los Santos(26), Miguel Diaz(26), Anderson Espinoza(23), Logan Allen(24), Chris Paddack(25), Adrian Morejon (22), Michel Baez(25), Pedro Avila(24), Hansel Rodriguez(24), Mason Thompson(23), Austin Smith(25), Reggie Lawson(24), Roland Bolanos(25), MacKenzie Gore(22), Henry Henry(22)
- Relief Pitchers: Phil Maton(28), Trey Wingenter(27), Jose Ruiz(26), Jose Castillo(25), Mark Zimmerman(27)
Okay, it’s time for a cold shower. How should we realistically approach the coming years?
It’s hopelessly optimistic to assume that the majority of the talent in the Padres’ organization will stay healthy and will progress toward the upper percentile of their projections. In reality, we know that many of these kids will get hurt, wash out, and maybe even move to another organization before finding their success. The point here is that the swell of talent that AJ Preller has gathered isn’t designed to start winning in 2018, or 2019, or maybe even 2020. It could be a rough road along the way. Yeah, a group of guys may surprise us like the 2010 Padres or the 2015 Houston Astros, but what Padres fans need to understand is that the process in place requires patience to gut out some ugly seasons in the hopes that we get to enjoy an organization that is successful from the ground up.
Past management regimes didn’t have the long-term vision that the current group seems to have, and as a result we lost out on the development of players that went on to have All-Star careers with other organizations. By going “all-in” on the international market last year, AJ Preller and his staff are demonstrating that they want to cultivate talent from within, which is the most reasonable way to build a successful franchise, regardless of market size. From the Royals up to the Yankees, the teams that have had successful multi-year runs of competitive baseball have built around a core of homegrown talent, filling in the gaps with trades and free agent signings. In 2021, the Padres organization should have a healthy pool of talent that is playing mainly on pre-arbitration or arbitration contracts, with the financial flexibility to supplement the roster as needed. Jumping the gun and selling future prospects for a short-sighted playoff push could be disastrous to the long-term plan. As fans, we need to trust the process and root for these kids to learn and develop. We need to understand that wins and losses right now don’t mean much for the long-term success of the organization right, but growth and the lessons learned along the way may set the foundation for a successful franchise.