Sunday, June 22, 2014
Firing Byrnes reflects Padres' expectations
By Christina Kahrl
Just like that, the San Diego Padres have canned Josh Byrnes, their general manager for less than three seasons. That’s noteworthy because honchos get handed their heads so infrequently these days. Byrnes is the first GM to be canned since the Houston Astros axed Ed Wade after the 2011 season.
But firing your general manager after less than three full seasons is especially extraordinary in this day and age because of how much gets invested in picking the right guy and then anticipating that he’ll have five or six years to show you something. Usually, the people who own and operate franchises can also afford to take the long view, and want to see what a GM has achieved on the player development side of the slate before you write him off altogether. And considering that the Padres ranked in the top 10 in Keith Law’s farm system rankings, you can’t really blame Byrnes for anything amiss on that front.
Instead, firing a guy inside of three seasons speaks to something else, something more than a fundamental disagreement over goals and means or something similarly antiseptic and corporate. It’s a “Boss” move taken from the pages of George Steinbrenner’s ugly 1980s because you expected big results fast. Or it’s a somewhat embarrassing public admission that you might have hired the wrong guy. Which would be incorrect: Byrnes was promoted from within when the Padres lost GM Jed Hoyer to the Cubs, having hired already Byrnes as assistant GM the year before. They knew who they had.
The question you have to ask yourself is what stakes Byrnes was playing for at the major league level, and what the people he was collecting paychecks from thought he might win. The Padres added nearly $23 million to their payroll this offseason, moving up to an effective tie with the Royals for the 21st-largest payroll in the game -- still in the bottom third, but obviously an expense made with a sense that, even in a division with the Dodgers and Giants in it, that extra wild-card slot might be in reach if a few things broke the Padres’ way. Byrnes spent $15.5 million on Joaquin Benoit -- money you spend on a set-up man if you think you’re going places. The Padres are paying people more money than the Rays or A’s are, but to less point. They're spending more than the Indians and Pirates are shelling out on their paydays, and those two teams both went to the postseason last year.
In the broadest strokes, you can see where Byrnes thought he might have been breaking that cycle of small goals narrowly missed, but that’s because there was usually some plausible amount of upside in many of his moves. Trading for Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross and even Andrew Cashner -- despite giving up Anthony Rizzo -- could all be understood at the time as bets that this was a young pitcher who could do better with a change of scenery. Then again, taking young, talented arms from other organizations and setting them loose in the best pitcher’s park in baseball often has a way of working out.
But in his days with the Pad people, Byrnes seemed to reliably lose on his biggest bets. Like banking on the idea that reliably fragile slugger Carlos Quentin was worthy of a four-year, $37 million deal. Or risking $8 million on the proposition that Josh Johnson would be healthy this year. And in the deal that he will perhaps never be allowed to forget in San Diego, two months into his tenure he dealt Mat Latos to the Reds for four guys who won’t add up to any amount of time spent employing Mat Latos -- equally disappointing prospects Yasmani Grandal and Yonder Alonso, reliever Brad Boxberger and Edinson Volquez. That wasn't a money-driven deal, but a bet that they'd added franchise-level talents. Instead, it wound up becoming a classic blunder to rank with going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line: Overvaluing other people's prospects.
On some level, you can sympathize with Byrnes. He was operating a franchise that hasn’t built up and fielded a real contender since the late ’90s, when they made their last World Series appearance (and got squashed by the Yankees in the most boring Series ever). The back-to-back division titles they eked out in 2005-06 were the product of a weak division, with the Padres making the most out of their limited talent and opportunity -- they played .500 baseball and earned the right to be somebody else’s first-round speed bump. Two short-season squashings later, and skipper Bruce Bochy skipped town to play for real money and real stakes in San Francisco.
For Byrnes’ sake, you can hope he’ll find better fortune elsewhere as well. But having already gotten opportunities with the Diamondbacks and the Padres, he may well join fellow former wunderkind GM Paul DePodesta on the list of smart guys in the game who don’t get another top job soon.
As for the Padres, the question they’ll have to confront is whether or not to double down on the expectations they came into this season with, or whether they’ll want to start from scratch. Having Omar Minaya in the mix in the search for finding a replacement strikes me as telling -- the same man who was a wheeler-dealer with the Expos and Mets might have an opportunity to pull the trigger on some of the same kinds of moves to fulfill those expectations in San Diego.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.