Give Buddy Black some credit. If patience is a virtue, he should be under consideration for canonization. He has dutifully stayed publicly protective while watching his Padres post the second worst record in the National league. But even saints have their breaking points, and after listlessly being swept by the visiting Mariners, lowering their MLB worst home record to 8-18, the skipper had a closed door meeting with his club.
By most reports, in typical Buddy fashion, it was not a spit flying, eye ball popping, food table tossing, out of control rant, but rather a no-nonsense, “Strong toned”, directive to start playing with a chip on your shoulder, and start beating somebody regardless of the opponent or the venue. Knowing Buddy, it was a pointed address without being condescending. Last year’s NL Manager Of The Year understands how easily a skipper can lose a team, especially when things are going South.
He’ll continue to try to keep guys positive and focused on what they need to get done, while juggling his lineup each night in an effort to put his players in the best possible situations to find some success.
Meanwhile, the chess pieces he has to strategize with need to change. It’s been almost two months now, and more than a fair amount of time has been given to this collection of players to prove whether they can win at this level or not. In some cases the extended window of opportunity has proven to have paid off. Brad Hawpe has emerged from his early season coma and has raised his average from .098 on April 24th up to .233 by batting .323 during May. Ryan Ludwick has also started to produce the way the Pads expected when they acquired him for the playoff run last year, hitting .300 with 4 HRs and a team leading 17 RBI since April ended. Chris Denorfia has made the most of his playing time this month as well, batting a team leading .370. Some nice personal stories, but the bottom line is this is MLB and it’s about winning. This team has been losing games, and looking bad doing it. Changes likely will be coming soon.
So the question becomes what changes, and for what purpose? Is there reason to try to salvage the remaining two-thirds of the 2011 campaign that lies ahead? As painful as it may be for Padres fans at this relatively early juncture of the season, history says probably not. Since 1966 when a team has a losing record as of June 1, only 9% of those teams have gone on to win 90 games, the number generally recognized as being needed to see post season play. That’s not to say it is impossible, and we are not at June 1 yet, but usually who you are as a team after 50 games is not going to change dramatically for the better if you get off to a slow start. If that is the case, then the changes the Pads make from here on will likely be with an eye towards 2012 and beyond.
The obvious name that jumps to the forefront for any padres fan is Anthony Rizzo, the highly touted left hand hitting first baseman acquired from Boston in the trade for Adrian Gonzalez. He continues to tear up the PCL batting .377 with 14 HRs and 56 RBI. The looming questions have been when will the front office feel he’s ready to step in to the Padres lineup prepared to handle MLB pitching, and the expectations being disproportionately placed on his shoulders, as well as when will he be safe from falling into the costly Super Two arbitration status?
As for his baseball readiness, there doesn’t appear to be much left for him to prove against AAA arms at this point (although I have not been privy to any manager’s reports that may reveal weaknesses still needing some work that are exploitable at the MLB level), but there is never a guarantee that a player is ready for MLB competition, and will immediately and permanently stick.
As for the service time issue, which can not be ignored for a most teams, unless a playoff run is at stake, that can also be a roll of the dice. A great example of this that is fresh in the Padres mind (and pocket book) is Chase Headley. This past off season Chase qualified as a Super Two arbitration eligible player (top 17% of players with service time more than 2 years, but less than 3 years) by one day, probably costing the Padres close to $2M. In 2010 the cut off date was 2 yrs/139 days, last year it was 2/122 (Chase had 123), and for 2012 it is guesstimated to be at about 2/146, so the magic line is floating every year. Given Chase was called up in 2007 on June 15th (season opener was April 3rd), it may be a safe bet to say the Padres will do whatever they can not to fall a costly one day short again on starting the service clock for young Rizzo, which could mean a mid to late June call up for him if all continues on the current path.
However, that does not mean that other young players may not be called up earlier. Yes their service clocks will start as well, and in some cases roster spots may need to be cleared, but it may give the Pads a chance to learn about these youngsters and make some determinations on their MLB future. It also may send a message to the big league club (kick it in because changes are being made), as well as your minor league players (keep pushing, you could be next), and the fan base (stick with us, better days are ahead), while showcasing them to other clubs with the trade season on the horizon. They can always be optioned back to AAA to stop their service clock if necessary, but if they play their way into the starting lineup it’s a nice problem to have.
I doubt there are any “untouchables” on the current roster, and veterans and arbitration eligible players will certainly be shopped over the next two months.
Jed Hoyer has been more than fair and patient with this collection of players pulled together during the off season. The time for change may be close at hand.