For the Padres and Blue Jays, winning isn't always the best thing
San Diego and Toronto need to rebuild their teams for long-term success
The Padres are surprisingly in first place in the National League West
The Blue Jays also need to gut their team to compete in the AL East
In last year's The Damned United, a terrific film adaptation of an even better novel about Brian Clough, the Billy Martin of English soccer, there is a scene in which Sam Longson, chairman of Derby County, points out right before a league game against archrival Leeds that Clough's side is days away from a far more important match against Juventus in the semifinals of the European Cup. In so many words, he asks whether the good players should sit and rest.
"I'm going to pretend," Clough sneers, "that I didn't hear a word of this." In the event, Leeds brutalizes his men, who end up losing to Juventus, setting in line a struggle that costs his job. The point? There is always a broader picture, and playing to win today is not always the same thing as playing to win.
This is generally understood in baseball, a sport where executives will in certain circumstances privately admit to being more interested in high draft picks than in fielding their best team. And it's probably better understood in San Diego and Toronto right now than it is anywhere else. Surely no one would ever suggest to Bud Black or Cito Gaston that they sit the good players, but were you able to force perfect honesty on their employers, you might well get an admission that their success this year has been, from certain angles, inconvenient. One doesn't want to lose to Leeds, and yet...
Take the Padres. Their 186 losses over the past two years were enough to cost long-tenured and well-respected GM Kevin Towers his job, which went to Jed Hoyer, one of the architects of the great Red Sox teams of recent years and a man of certain ambitions. Coming into the year, reliable prognosticators generally had the club down for 85 to 90 losses, which would have suited the new regime perfectly well, allowing it to evaluate players under little enough stress and, after falling out of the race, to auction off 28-year-old first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
Tragically for peddlers of trade rumors, the Padres have the best record in the National League, and their franchise player, who leads the league in adjusted on-base plus slugging after having managed to hit 40 home runs and draw the most walks in the NL while playing in the game's worst hitter's park last year, is likely going nowhere. (Certainly agent John Boggs doesn't expect his client to be moved, noting that the unexpected winning puts the team "in a precarious position, because now what do you do?")
The slight shame of things for the club is that no matter how well they're playing, in the abstract the best move would probably be to trade Gonzalez, a free agent after the 2011 season. His value will never be higher than it is now, and if Hoyer is any kind of operator he could turn his rights into enough young talent to alter the trajectory of the franchise. Meanwhile, the Padres, despite their record and despite some encouraging recent play -- just in the last week they took two of three from Tampa Bay and became the first NL team all year to score more than two runs against Colorado ace Ubaldo Jimenez -- aren't all that strong a team.
Whether you go by performance metrics like WAR or airier measures like reputation, Gonzalez is the team's only strong regular. The starting rotation, meanwhile, has been spectacular, with the best earned run average in the game, but one can't reasonably expect Jon Garland, Clayton Richard and Wade LeBlanc, none of whom has either great stuff or control, to all continue to masquerade as strong No. 2 pitchers. A true MVP candidate, an awesome bullpen, quality starters, smoke and mirrors have this team in a great spot, but we aren't seeing a serious contender emerge here. What we are seeing is a team that's won enough that they now have to keep their best player around almost as a matter of propriety, whatever the enormous long term opportunity cost. To misappropriate a phrase, the Padres' success this year has been a bit catastrophic. Hopefully for them at least some locals will notice they've been playing well; as of now attendance is down for the fifth time in six years, to its lowest level since 1995.
While not so dramatic, the situation in Toronto is quite similar. Any honest preseason projection would have had the Blue Jays among the lesser teams in baseball this year, and there's an argument to be made that the team has the slightest talent base in the American League. So of course, in their first year under new GM Alex Anthopolous, they're playing above .500 in the toughest division in North American sports, doing just enough to complicate the difficult work of rebuilding. A team in their spot really shouldn't be playing Jose Bautista, a 29-year-old utilityman who's on his fifth team in seven seasons and has never been even an average hitter, every day. But if such a player insists on leading the league in home runs, what else can they do?
Winning is of course a good thing, the best thing, and no real fan or real ballplayer is ever going to care a whit for the carefully laid schemes of executives when weighed against the prospect of their team not embarrassing itself. As you watch two teams that could use a good gutting win enough to stay clear of the knife, though, think of Brian Clough. A win now is not the same as a win when it counts.