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After the 2011 season, the Padres followed the lead of some other small-market teams and spent almost $60 million on three young players who had already succeeded in the big leagues but who were still under team control.
All three of the deals blew up miserably. And all three were good decisions the team should try to replicate.
The Padres payroll right now is $87 million, putting it near baseball’s lower third and last in the National League West. Ownership has made clear there’s a limit on how much it can spend that isn’t much more than that.
Toward that end, the Padres signed left-handed pitcher Corey Luebke, then 27, to an extension that could have been worth as much as $27.7 million over six years. He was coming off a 2011 season, his first as a regular starting pitcher at the big league level, in which he had an ERA of 3.29 and struck out more than a batter per inning. Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which measures a player’s overall contribution, said Luebke would produce two additional wins for a team that had him rather than a readily available replacement.
It hasn’t worked out.
Since signing the deal, Luebke has started five games, and that might well be it for him. He missed all last year after undergoing surgery to replace an elbow ligament; the team recently learned his body rejected the new ligament and he had to have the surgery again, so he’ll miss this year too.
In that same offseason, the team gave catcher Nick Hundley, then 28, a contract worth as much as $12 million through 2015. He was coming off a year in which he hit for a high average, got on base a lot and hit for power while playing a position that demands none of those things. He also played above-average defense. Altogether, that combination was expected to be worth three wins above replacement.
Hundley was healthy for one-third of the next season, and his production collapsed in every category, making him worse than a hypothetical replacement off the street. Last year he was mostly healthy, and his play improved some, but not up to his previous standard. He was nonetheless a valuable player, worth more than the team paid him.
The third player was a 23-year-old center fielder with power and speed who had just come off a season in which he finally put all of his tools together. That’s why the Padres gave him a five-year deal worth $25 million.
Cameron Maybin in 2011 stole 40 bases. He was an above-average hitter at a position where teams can live with bad offense if the player provides good defense. He played great defense. The package was worth four wins above replacement.
Maybin followed that up with a frustrating but acceptable 2012 and an injury-plagued and very bad 2013 in which he played only 14 games. He hurt himself again this weekend and will be out up to three months.
All of these things are very unfortunate. And it’d be very easy to say spending almost $60 million on these three players was a mistake.
It was not.
Stuck with a small-market payroll, the Padres cannot compete with bigger spending teams for known quantities in the free-agent market. To win, they’ll need to find a way to get a $60 million payroll to play like a $120 million payroll.
Doing so necessarily means identifying young, productive players and locking them into affordable contracts early.
That’s true if they’re buying out arbitration years — a detail in MLB’s setup that gives teams control of young players early in their career, but which sees their annual salary gradually escalate each year based on performance—to provide cost certainty. And it’s true if they’re buying out free-agent years — offering extensions that keep the player with the team when they otherwise could sign anywhere they want, and for more money than the Padres can pay.
That’s what the Padres did with Hundley, Maybin and Luebke.
And it’s worth it for those players too, because athletes play sports for a living and their health is not guaranteed, so guaranteed money is a nice thing to have even if it means losing out on potentially more money later.
But because the universe is complicated and because unlikely events are not impossible events, those decisions did not work out. But team-friendly extensions have worked for other teams, and they’re the best shot the Padres have in the future.
In fact, if today’s top young Padres — pitcher Andrew Cashner, short stop Everth Cabrera, second baseman Jedd Gyorko, for instance — are at all interested, the Padres should ignore the experience of 2011-2012 and try the strategy again.
Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the Padres current payroll.