Whoever replaces Josh Byrnes will be the Padres fourth general manager in six years, and the fact that Kevin Towers and Jed Hoyer are running the Diamondbacks and Cubs, respectively, speaks for the instability of ownership for a franchise whose historic winning percentage is the worst of any National League team.
To state that the firing, particularly the way it was handled, was the subject of industry-wide disdain is a vast understatement. “These are the people who showed disrespect and contempt for their scouts and entire baseball operations people by forcing Josh to draft Johnny Manziel,” said one NL General Manager. The Manziel idea may have been a way to get a live shot on the 5 pm news. So was having Roseanne Barr sing the National Anthem.
One of the bright, young executives whose name has been linked to the search for Byrnes’ successor Tuesday said, “This can be a good job. Josh left good pitching, a great manager, a stocked farm system. There are a lot of pieces to move, especially relievers. It’s a great place to live.”
So while the Padres have been an inert offensive team with an on base percentage that would be the worst ever, the situation is rebuildable. Byrnes sounded relieved Sunday when CEO Mike Dee made the announcement of the publically oft-threatened firing. “Josh loves the pure elements of the game,” says Mark Shapiro, who, like Byrnes, was part of the John Hart School in Cleveland. “He loves the game, he loves the players and the scouting and all that makes all of us love it. He does what he does for what the game is, not the attention and the trappings of the job”.
Which is why whoever is next in line—be he Mike Hazen of the Red Sox, Damon Oppenheimer of the Yankees, John Coppolella of the Braves, David Forst or Farhan Zaidi of the Athletics, Chris Gwynn of the Mariners, et al—will have to ask exactly what owner Ron Fowler and Dee envision as the future for the franchise. Dee was a very successful power in the current Red Sox ownership’s business, was offered the Dodgers’ CEO job by Frank McCourt only to remain with the master teacher Larry Lucchino, and eventually ended up in an unfortunate situation with the Miami Dolphins. He is very smart, he has been a career guide to some brilliant people in Boston. But he needs to study the modest, quiet leadership of Ben Cherington and Dee’s former assistant, Sam Kennedy, both of whom have learned from Lucchino that when things go wrong, the right thing to do is not to jump in front of cameras and assign blame, but talk it out. Together.
Byrnes is one of the most inherently civil, respectful persons one could meet. In the end, he will be blamed for a Mat Latos deal that brought him back two players whose careers were misguided by Performance Enhancing Drugs. He probably overspent on the oft-injured Carlos Quentin and Josh Johnson, and Cameron Maybin never hit the way they hoped while gambling on his defense and athleticism in a pitcher’s park. The decision to hold on to Chase Headley after he finished fifth in the MVP voting in 2012 turned into an albatross because of Headley’s back. Jedd Gyorko hit 22 home runs last year, and fell off the 2014 earth.
He had a ton of bad luck, some of which was handed down by Jed Hoyer. Casey Kelly, Cory Luebke, Robbie Erlin, Max Fried and Rymer Liriano all got hurt, after Yasmani Grandal tested positive. But he also traded for three good starting pitchers in Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy. Jesse Hahn appears to be the real deal.
Now Omar Minaya and A.J. Hinch can market Chris Denorfia, Will Venable, Huston Street, Joaquin Benoit and Yonder Alonso. The farm system is deep with Austin Hedges, Max Fried, Hunter Renfroe, Matt Wisler, Rymer Liriano, and Trea Turner.
But whoever eventually gets the job full-time will have to make it clear to Dee and Fowler that this is not an easy teardown rotisserie project. A Mike Trout comes along once a generation, and most of the best young players—and Xander Bogaerts and Manny Machado are good examples—go through painful transitions.
Jeff Luhnow understands that in Houston. Luhnow is cursed by being the Sabermetricians dream, whose worlds often do not grasp the importance of veteran area scouts and the combined wisdom of academics, experienced vision and human understanding. Luhnow has experienced misfortune in the form of Carlos Correa’s season-ending injury; now, Correa will be back next year and should be a star with the makeup, athleticism and exceptional intelligence.
But the first pick in the 2013 draft, Stanford righthanded pitcher Mark Appel, is two weeks from his 23rd birthday and 13 months after being the first pick has a career professional record of 3-4, 6.27, and that doesn’t include a trip back to extended spring training. His 2014 record in the California League is 22 1/3 innings, 39 hits, 28 runs… Appel has faced issues adjusting to the professional life. Now, should the Astros have been prepared for this? Maybe, but that’s hindsight. Luhnow is working diligently on the project, and the fact that Appel has a 20-6 strikeout-walk ratio in recent starts is a step forward. “He’ll probably finish the season on double-A and move forward,” says Luhnow. It’s just never as easy as targeting 2017 as the year for the Astros’ first world championship because they have a lot of analytics experts.
Billy Beane has been successful because he is so intellectually flexible. “The A’s are the Ellis Island of Baseball,” Beane says. “Give us your poor, your hungry, and we’ll provide the opportunity.” Oakland has the best record in the game with three players they drafted and developed—Sonny Gray, Yoenis Cespedes and Sean Doolittle, and before Doolittle became the best reliever in the game with the 55-1 strikeout-walk rate (remember, he walked a Ray on May 20) he was drafted as a first baseman.
Their pitchers lead the league in ERA and quality starts—after Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin went down with Tommy John Surgery in spring training. Two years ago Scott Kazmir was pitching in Independent Ball. Jesse Chavez has been in pro ball since 2002, was a 2012 waiver claim from the Jays, had two starts in his major league career going into the season and is sixth in the league with a 2.71 ERA.
Hey, even money doesn’t guarantee success, in case you haven’t noticed that the Red Sox and Yankees are in the bottom 30% in runs scored this season. There is no one way to any success, and when the Padres ownership made their statement with the public execution of Josh Byrnes, the statement throughout the industry was that they do not now understand baseball. Now they have to prove that they care for the game and its business as much as Josh Byrnes cares.