Padres should follow D-backs' lead with long-term deals
Front office needs to hang on to important players to turn franchise around
SAN DIEGO -- If the new owners of the Padres are looking for a model of how to run a franchise, they should look to the east at the club in the desert that has brought five National League West titles and a World Series championship to Phoenix in only 15 seasons.
It's a similar market size with comparable attendance and revenues, yet, unlike the Padres, the D-backs have made a habit of signing their own star players, at one time creating sizeable debt in the process.
"I think the two markets are very comparable, they're very similar," Kevin Towers said on Sunday before the Padres defeated the D-backs, 5-1, at Petco Park. "[The Padres] have a little better TV deal than we have right now. We have a little better radio deal, but I would say revenues are very comparable."
Towers should know. He was general manager of the Padres for 13 years, ending in 2009, and is in his third season doing the same job for the D-backs. He was gone from San Diego when Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell followed him out. Gonzalez was traded to the Red Sox and then to the Dodgers. Bell signed with the Marlins and is now pitching for the D-backs.
The story became germane this week when the current Padres owners said they want to keep Chase Headley, the third baseman who can become a free agent after the 2014 season. If history is precedence, the Padres may make a stab at it, but Headley will only stay if the club signs him to a market-value deal.
Bell didn't want to leave, and said on Sunday that he's still waiting for an offer.
"I wanted to stay. Adrian wanted to stay. I tried everything," Bell said. "My agent got mad at me when I said I would take a discount to stay.
"This is new ownership. It's hard for me to say anything because I didn't play for them. But I do believe you've got to keep at least your homegrown guys, because they're the ones your fans are hearing about and are watching develop in the big leagues."
Headley, of course, is one of those "homegrown guys," picked by Towers in the second round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. Towers also presided over the selections of Nick Hundley, Will Venable and Mat Latos, an 11th-round pick in 2006, since traded to the Reds by current Padres GM Josh Byrnes.
Byrnes was the previous D-backs GM, dismissed on July 1, 2010, and after taking over the Padres, he has signed Carlos Quentin, Huston Street and Chris Denorfia to long-term deals. That's the D-backs way.
Byrnes was the club's second general manager in Arizona, following Joe Garagiola Jr. The Padres have had five different groups run the franchise and a bevy of GMs.
In Phoenix, the D-backs have been under the same ownership structure since they expanded into the NL in 1998, with Ken Kendrick replacing Jerry Colangelo as managing general partner. Kendrick was an original general partner.
The D-backs tied up so many players who helped win the 2001 World Series in seven games over the Yankees to deferred contracts, and they've only recently paid off that debt. Even during that period, the D-backs signed homegrowns such as Brandon Webb, Stephen Drew, Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds to long-term deals, winning the 2007 division title with that core group and again in '11 with Drew and Upton.
And recently under Towers, the D-backs have locked up Aaron Hill, newcomers Martin Prado and Cody Ross, and Miguel Montero and Paul Goldschmidt, both youngsters who came out of their system.
"Ken and [president] Derrick [Hall] have done such an incredible job where we've had very little debt left," Towers said. "The good thing is they're very supportive. They try to run the business to where it's cash-neutral. They're not out to make money, but they don't want to lose money. They kind of look at it as a legacy investment for their kids, and want to keep our good players."
That's not to say that the new Padres owners aren't trying to do the same thing. But no one can rewrite the club's 44-year-history that includes just five division titles -- the last in 2006 -- and two NL pennants.
Under his auspices in San Diego, Towers continued a pattern of jettisoning stars that began when owners Ray and Joan Kroc wouldn't sign future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, turning that into a public flogging. Also under the Krocs, the Padres got rid of another future Hall of Famer, Ozzie Smith, and NL Cy Young Award winner Mark Davis because of contract disputes, and Jack McKeon traded the likes of John Kruk, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga, the latter pair to the Indians for Joe Carter.
When Tom Werner and his group of 15 bought the team, replacing McKeon with Joe McIlvaine, he immediately traded Carter and still another future Hall of Famer, Roberto Alomar, to Toronto for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. McIlvaine quit rather than dump McGriff and Fernandez, which was done by Randy Smith -- who got rid of Bruce Hurst and Gary Sheffield -- during the fire sale of 1993.
Two years later, John Moores bought the team. In 1996, Towers inherited the club that Smith rebuilt. Those Padres won that year's NL West title and were swept by the Yankees in the 1998 World Series. Upon the sweep, the bloodletting began again as Kevin Brown, Steve Finley and Ken Caminiti all left via free agency, and Greg Vaughn was traded to the Reds.
"We sat down afterward and I said, 'We had an incredible year, but we're old,'" Towers recalled. "I said that the worst thing we can do right now is invest heavily in these guys. They weren't going to keep getting better at the ages they were. The fans want us to do it, but from a business standpoint, bad decision."
The only player the Padres kept was Tony Gwynn, who was picked by McKeon in the third round of the 1981 draft, retired in 2001 with eight batting titles, a .338 lifetime average and 3,141 hits, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in '07.
After 16 seasons with San Diego, closer Trevor Hoffman finished his career in Milwaukee when then-Padres CEO Sandy Alderson offered the right-hander half of the money of his previous contract. Towers then traded starter Jake Peavy to the White Sox. Even manager Bruce Bochy was allowed to walk out on the last year of his contract after the 2006 season when the Giants offered him a three-year deal.
Hoffman finished with a second all-time-best 601 saves, and he is back working for the club as a special assistant to the president. Peavy, a 15th-round pick by Towers in 1999, was signed under Moores to an under-market $52 million extension because he was "the face of the franchise," Towers said. A year later, Jeff Moorad, who became the club's CEO, directed Towers to get rid of him.
Peavy is still effectively pitching for the White Sox. Bochy's Giants have won two of the past three World Series and went into Sunday tied for the division lead.
Moores, Moorad and Towers are gone. But if it's time for the Padres to break this pattern and sign their star players, just look east.
"I'd like to sign all our guys," Padres manager Bud Black said. "Does that make sense?"
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.