“I don’t want to spend my career at .500 or mired five games below.” – Mike Dee, 2013
As of today, the San Diego Padres are eight games under .500. Making the above quote from two years ago the perfect springboard to assess the Herculean task(s) in store for the CEO of a club that’s clearly one of the most disappointing stories in Major League Baseball this year.
Dee gave General Manager A.J. Preller the keys to the bank vault last winter, and for all the initial rave reviews and flourishing ticket sales that our “Rock Star GM” generated, we’re now seeing the complete opposite effect in September: scathing assessments from the press, and a fan base that can’t break out its San Diego Chargers gear fast enough (even with the threat of a move to Los Angeles in the balance).
While much of Padres Nation is busy debating what A.J. should – and shouldn’t – do in the offseason to fix this team, I’ve been wondering about things from Mike’s perspective. After all, while he’s historically a sports business guy who oversaw the naming rights of Sun Life Stadium for the Miami Dolphins and expanded the Red Sox’ business interests beyond Major League Baseball, he’s the one who hired A.J. and approved all of these moves that got us into this mess.
“There will be stuff we do wrong, but we’re going to have the ball swing back because we’re willing to take a risk.” That’s another Dee quote from 2013, and it’s taken on extra irony because the very “risk” he talked about taking then, now represents the bulk of “stuff” that the organization has done wrong of late. And that bulk is considerable.
From the coaching staff’s inability to get this team to focus on fundamentals; to the utter lack of consistency in hitting approaches, to the club’s head-scratching inactivity at the trade deadline, there are so many pressing issues that need to be addressed on this squad that it’s downright impossible to prioritize them. But hey, Mike’s gonna have to, so here’s my attempt to, as well.
“I think defense, ultimately is a way to reveal the character of your team, how you work at it,” said interim manager (emphasis on “interim”) Pat Murphy in a recent press conference. “It all works together.” Or it doesn’t work together – according to Fangraphs, which ranks the Padres 29th overall with a .984 FP. The team’s allowed 4.45 Runs per game with a .687 Defensive Efficiency, 80 errors to date and a -7.1 WAAP, 26th in the league per BaseballReference.com. It was a foregone conclusion that the team’s defense wouldn’t be as strong as it was last year, but any hopes that a mediocre corps could be bailed out by a stronger (on paper) offense died in May after the squad’s now-infamous 10-5 start. So this is both a coaching issue and and roster issue. Assuming that Justin Upton leaves, Kemp’s hustle and paths to the ball don’t improve (as noted by fellow author Santiago Haugen), and that Will Myers will always be a health risk (all safe assumptions), Dee needs to stabilize this outfield first, and then address some serious questions about the infield, including whether Jedd Gyorko is his 2016 shortstop; if Derek Norris is the dependable, clutch-hitting first baseman we’ve been lacking; and if Austin Hedges’ assignment to Leones del Escogido in Santo Domingo for Winter Ball will improve his hitting enough to warrant him becoming the team’s primary backstop.
Everyone loves Mark Kotsay – a career .276 hitter with 127 homers and a .737 OPS in 1,914 games who frequently had some of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in the league. “He’s the anti-Phil Plantier!” we all raved. And yet… the beleaguered hitting coach isn’t faring any better with this team than his long, colorful list of predecessors. The club has a .244 BA that ranks 27th in the league, a .300 OBA that ranks 30th, and a .386 SLG that’s 26th. Oh, and let’s not forget the 17 times they’ve been shutout this year – tops in the league. And this from a front office that purposefully “sacrificed defense for offense.” Solarte’s quietly impressive production – .270 BA, .428 SLG and .754 OPS – and Justin Upton’s 24 long balls have been a welcome footnote on this team – as has Matt Kemp’s post-All Star break “resurgence” at the plate. But Kemp’s numbers mask how horrible he was in the first half, and as mentioned before, Upton will likely be gone next year. So any consistent offensive production will have to fall on players we’re either not seeing on the current roster, or fall on ones – hello, Derek Norris – who started out hot but couldn’t sustain during the summer months. Keep in mind, too, the Padres chronic inability to bring guys home when they have “set the table.” Heck, Kemp, Gyorko and Yonder Alonso together have grounded into 38 double plays thus far. So we’re basically witnessing a toothless, predictable lineup that dozens of major league pitchers now master with alarming regularity. And a lame duck hitting coach who’s powerless to do anything about it. Those aren’t things anyone can blame on the “spacious confines of Petco Park.”
Long a Padres strength, especially during the Bud Black years, what looked like a formidable starting rotation and a lights-out bullpen on paper this spring has turned into an overworked, injury-plagued, shell-shocked group all summer long. As I noted in an article back in May, Darren Balsley must be shaking his head at the confluence of events that have turned him into the Sisyphus of pitching coaches, pushing boulders uphill only to see them crash back down on him: Who could ever have imagined that Andrew Cashner – with his 2.55 ERA in 2014 (granted, over 19 games) – would be staring at a 5-14 record, having given up 96 runs (74 earned) and 27 HRs? Or that James Shields would give up 75 ERs and 28 HRs? The issues go on and on: the ill-timed injuries to Brandon Morrow and Brandon Mauer; the wild inconsistencies of the Quackenbush/Thayer/Vincent triumvirate; even the spring-long shakiness of the formerly invincible Craig Kimbrell. All of these things combined to render a once confident and forceful staff too fragile and vulnerable now to compete at the level of a playoff-caliber staff.
This one is simple. Pat Murphy’s a great guy, tells amusing stories in interviews, and exhibits a genuine humility for the game and his own role in it. But he’s certainly not the Padres’ answer moving forward. The question is, what kind of manager is? Taking the helm of a team mired in a long-held sub-.500 mindset is hard enough. Doing so under the watch of a GM who’s now being second-guessed at every turn (or worse, called a “Teardown Artist” by RANY JAZAYERLI of “Grantland”), and for a front office that’s clearly irked by the ROI on its not-insignificant investment in payroll, is darn near impossible.
But hey, someone’s gotta do it. And odds are, there are going to be a plethora of viable candidates available come playoff time. Some of whom might even be interested in taking on this unenviable challenge.
That too, will be Mike Dee’s call.
The Padres’ lead investor Peter Seidler was quoted back in 2012 as saying, “I think Mike is the single most important move that we made. He has changed the culture of the organization.”
One can argue whether he’s really changed it that much or not. But you can’t argue that the single most important thing that Mike Dee has to do going forward is to change the trajectory of this organization.
Otherwise, he’ll go down as yet another Padres front office member who realized his worse fear: becoming the face of a sub-.500 ballclub.