Olney: Archer? Thor? What the heck are the Padres thinking?

ByBuster Olney ESPN logo
Thursday, July 26, 2018

Over the next five days, deals based in logic will continue to go down. The Dodgers, having already added Manny Machado to plug the hole created by the Corey Seager injury, will add another reliever. The Red Sox will probably add bullpen help and could discuss second-base options, after trading for Nathan Eovaldi. The Brewers, contending for a playoff spot, will do something. The Phillies will do something. The Blue Jays will sell; the Yankees will buy.

But then there is this: Rival evaluators report the Padres are searching for an experienced starter with a few years of team control remaining before free agency -- someone like the Mets'Noah Syndergaard, Toronto's Marcus Stroman, or the Rays' Chris Archer, who will be working under a team-friendly contract for 3 more seasons.

Which makes no sense, for one of the many reasons the Padres' big-money signing of first baseman Eric Hosmer last winter made no sense to other teams -- the timing is all wrong.

Paying the enormous price for Archer or Jacob deGrom or some other big-time starting pitcher in the current market is something worth executing when your team is close to contention. The Astros' trade for Gerrit Cole, for example, was perfectly timed, because Houston won the World Series last year and could win again this year, and might next year, even after Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton hit free agency.

But the Padres are not close. San Diego has the worst record in the National League, with the second-worst run differential, and the Padres are 15 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. Their hitters are dead last in the majors in OPS, at .662, and the team is 20th in ERA. The most effective aspect has been the bullpen, and the Padres just traded two of their best relievers, closer Brad Hand and setup man Adam Cimber, for minor league catcher Francisco Mejia, who can hit. "I don't think they're a year away," said one evaluator this week. "I think they're a few years away."

Which is the course the Padres set after their disastrous all-in season of 2015, when San Diego expended just about all of its minor league resources and available cash to add Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, James Shields, Craig Kimbrel and others. To facilitate those moves, the Padres traded young catcher Yasmani Grandalandminor leaguers Trea Turner, Jake Bauers and others. Those 2015 Padres had no viable middle infielders and no true center fielder, and they were lousy, again, winning 74 games.

After that season, the focus of GM A.J. Preller shifted to adding really great and really young talent, and he made some excellent trades for teenage ballplayers. In the summer of 2016, he moved Shields to the White Sox and landed the 17-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. -- who has quickly developed into one of the best shortstop prospects in the game. Kimbrel was flipped to Boston, for outfielder Manuel Margot and pitcher Logan Allen; Margot is in the majors, and Allen has become a high-end pitching prospect. In 2016, Preller traded closer Fernando Rodney to the Marlins for pitcher Chris Paddack, an excellent deal for the Padres; Paddack is now regarded as one of MLB's best 100 prospects. Whether you want to call it rebuilding or tanking, the Padres slashed their payroll dramatically, lost a lot of games in 2016 and picked MacKenzie Gore with the third pick in the 2017 draft, and he looks like a monster.

San Diego has a wave of prospects on the way. That plan Preller executed after the 2015 mess has created a strong farm system. But while more time is needed for Gore and others to develop, there have been increasing signs of impatience. The signing of Wil Myers to a deal worth $83 million in the spring of 2017 was the first head-scratcher, because Myers had never really put together a monster season -- in fact, he still hasn't had a full season in which his OPS reached .800 -- and the rest of the industry had started to shy away from the first base/corner outfield investments.

Then, last winter, at a time when the market was saturated with first-base options, the Padres doled out a $144 million contract to respected veteran Hosmer, despite many analytic red flags about his performance. There was a lot of talk at his introductory news conference about Hosmer's leadership, something most teams don't really pay for anymore. So far, the concerns about paying big money for Hosmer are manifesting: Among 161 players qualified for the batting title, he currently ranks 155th in WAR; he's hitting .245, with a .310 on-base percentage.

This is Year 1 of his contract, and whenever the Padres start to turn the corner competitively -- if that young talent is given a chance to develop -- it stands to reason Hosmer will be on the downslope of his career.

The same could be true of Archer or another controllable starter if the Padres follow through on their recent search for a rotation anchor. Archer, 29, is making $6.25 million this year and will earn $8.25 million next year, and his deal includes club options for 2020 and 2021. There is absolutely no risk in that contract, which augments its value, and so the Rays have set a high price and are waiting for somebody to say yes. When the Twins were interested in Archer last year, the Rays asked for Byron Buxton and others in return. If San Diego pays the sticker price for Archer, whatever it is, it's going to be enormous. It's going to really hurt.

And in Archer's first months with the team, in 2018, he will have no chance of being a difference-maker. If the projections of rival evaluators are right -- if the Padres are still a few years away -- he'd have no chance next year, either, carrying the inherent and growing risk of injury all the while as he moved past his 30th birthday.

If the Padres are willing to pay a big price in prospects for a high-end starting pitcher, there will always be options; in two or three years, there will be some other good and experienced pitcher available for anybody willing to pay sticker price, as San Diego might do for Archer.

But the Padres should wait until the rest of the team is better. They need to wait.

San Diego hasn't had a winning season since 2010 -- and in fact, it hasn't really been even close to .500 in that time. But if the Padres' ownership or front office tries to accelerate the current rebuild before the players are ready, as they seemed to do with the Hosmer signing, the Padres will run the risk of squandering even more resources and setting back the organizational timeline again.