Starting pitcher Cory Luebke of the San Diego Padres delivers against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
After slashing payroll and failing to produce players worth keeping, the Padres are spending money and locking up a young core.
In 2008, the San Diego Padres had an Opening Day payroll of nearly $74 million. It wasn't a particularly lofty team salary, but it ranked 19th in the majors, six spots ahead of their 2007 season, and was just $5 million shy of the median payroll.* That season marks the last time the Padres were over not just $70 million, but even $50 million, as the next three seasons saw Opening Day payrolls of just $44M, $38M, and $46M.
The Padres dropped from right around the middle to second-to-last in payroll in just one year. It wasn't a surprise, either, as there were reports from the summer of 2008 that change was coming, and it was going to involve slashing prices:
As part of a pitch to get Brian Giles to accept a trade to the Red Sox this past week, a Padres executive painted a stark fiscal picture for 2009, saying club owner John Moores might shrink the payroll to $40 million.
They didn't slash all the way to $40 million, but they came close, and little effort was made to boost payroll when Jeff Moorad and his group attempted to purchase the team from Moores: the Padres maintained the second-to-last rank in 2010, and moved to fourth-lowest for 2011. It's not clear where they sit in 2012, but after a winter with more spending than San Diego has become accustomed to, the payroll isn't just starting with a five, it's nearing $60 million.
They lost Heath Bell to free agency, but rather than just promoting internally and saving money, they traded for Huston Street's $7.5 million 2012 season and his 2013 option. Unsure if they would get what they wanted out of the inconsistent and now 25-year-old Kyle Blanks in the outfield, they dealt for Carlos Quentin and his $7 million salary. While the Mat Latos deal could be seen as shedding future payroll before they have to commit it to him, the prospect package they got in return tells you that they weren't just selling Latos for the sake of a sale.
These Padres aren't quite ready to compete with the rest of the National League's elite, but there is a distinct change in philosophy since Kevin Towers left and John Moores stopped ordering payroll to be cut. Rather than shedding salaries and attempting to work under a light budget, the Padres have started to bring money on board in trades, through signings, and when they do shed, it's in order to fatten up a farm system that has often been neglected. Most importantly -- and most telling -- they have even begun to lock up their own young core. Rather than trying to stay afloat with mostly inexpensive kids, the Padres now appear to be combining their prospects with their better young players by signing them up to timely extensions.
It's something the Indians used to do in the 1990s, and the Rays are famous for it now thanks to players like Matt Moore and Evan Longoria. The Padres haven't made that level of splash yet, but they're taking steps to get there. Cameron Maybin signed a five-year, $25 million extension just one season after his breakout campaign. Nick Hundley signed a contract that bought out his arbitration years, and put an option on his first year of free agency. Last week, Cory Luebke, arguably the team's most productive starter, inked a four-year contract for $12 million that covers his arbitration years, and gives the Padres the option to buy out his first year of free agency as well.
Maybin was acquired before the 2011 season from the Marlins, who had grown tired of waiting for him to develop as he was expected. They gave him all of 557 plate appearances over three years to prove himself, burning up all of his options in the process. The Padres kept him in the majors from start to finish in 2011, and 568 plate appearances and a .264/.323/.393 line later, he was signed to an extension that keeps him in San Diego until he's nearly 30.
That line might not look that impressive, but you can say that about anyone who spends half their time at Petco. On the road, Maybin hit .294/.349/.457, and coupled that with impressive defense in center. For an average value of $5 million a year, the Padres answered their center field question with an above-average -- and still improving -- player.
Hundley has come a long way on both sides of the ball since debuting in 2008 as a 24-year-old. He hit .288/.347/.477 for the Padres in 2011, a great showing from a catcher even without taking his home park into account, and threw out a career-high 36 percent of baserunners. The Padres have worked on his throwing action the last few seasons, as he wasn't quick enough in the past, and it's paid off. As with catchers in general, more experience handling a staff has worked out. Hundley's former bench coach, big-league backstop Ted Simmons, said that you need 500 games caught or 1,500 plate appearances to know whether a catcher is a starter or a backup. Hundley is short, but close, on both accounts, but it appears the Padres have already seen enough to make a decision.
Luebke is a credit to the Padres' scouting and front office, as he was never considered a high-impact prospect. He's worked to be more than just a pitcher with stellar command -- that type of arm will almost always find more success in the minors than in the majors. In 2011, that work paid off with 139 innings split between the rotation and bullpen, and just under 10 strikeouts per nine. Luebke is just 27 years old, with impressive numbers in both the high minors and the majors, and now the Padres have him locked up at a team-friendly price through at least 2017.
These three players aren't enough to win on their own, but they are part of a young core that's now in place for a large window of opportunity in the NL West. With loads of prospects coming in, money to spend for the first time in awhile thanks to a new television contract, and this core, the Padres are likely to make everyone forget about their brush with poverty very soon.