The trouble started when Padres owner Ron Fowler publicly ripped starting pitcher James Shields after a terrible outing in early June. Actually, it started earlier than that, when Fowler’s GM A.J. Preller signed Shields to a club-record four-year, $75 million deal back in February 2015.
Shields came to the Padres with a career 3.72 ERA in a little more than 1,900 innings. His chief asset was his ability to log said innings, having cleared the 200 mark in each of his first eight full seasons. For a team that lands plenty of pitchers on the disabled list every year, durability is a good thing.
He replaced Ian Kennedy in the rotation and pitched a lot like Kennedy, which is neither surprising nor what the Padres were hoping for given their substantial investment. Shields’ performance was viewed as disappointing, but given his his age and history, it shouldn’t have been. Yes, he slipped some, but that happens. He went from being a reliable third starter to a reliable fourth starter, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the Padres hadn’t treated him like an ace.
So when the team followed a disappointing 2015 campaign by stumbling to an even more disappointing start to 2016, it was only natural to look for a scapegoat. Fowler quickly found one in Shields, who was unreasonably expected to lead the Padres to the promised land, or at least out of the mess that Shields’ bosses had created.
After his ten-run meltdown against the Mariners, Shields incurred the wrath of Fowler, who called the Padres “miserable failures” and singled out his nominal ace’s performance as “an embarrassment to the team, an embarrassment to him.” A few days later, the team traded Shields and a reported $31 million of the $58 million remaining on his contract to the White Sox for fringe prospects. This sent a powerful message to future free agents: Stay away from San Diego.
Fowler is understandably frustrated by his team’s continued poor play. But to lash out at a player, who was signed by men Fowler himself hired to assess and acquire talent, makes no sense. Aside from the fact that Matt Kemp—another acquisition made by Fowler’s people—has been even less useful since joining the Padres, there’s the matter of deflating someone’s value before trading him. “This guy stinks, what’ll you give us for him?” is not negotiating from a position of strength.
Suppose you sell software for a living. If you broadcast the software’s bugs to the world before even making your pitch, how receptive will potential customers be? They might still buy your product, but probably not for the price you had in mind. If you can’t sell your product at a profit, no amount of sparkling personality will save your job.
Now suppose your boss is the one telling everyone about the bugs in the software. If your boss also happens to own the company, you’re screwed.
Returning to the problem at hand, a better strategy would be for the owner to say nothing at all and to have someone leak rumors that the Padres were in a position to move one of their starting pitchers for the right price. Trading Shields before his implosion, or at least waiting a few starts for his value to recover, might have helped. Why compound the mistake of overpaying for a back-end starter by moving him at the worst possible time?
Long term, there are additional troublesome ramifications. Not only did the Padres sell for pennies on the dollar, they also created an obstacle for themselves in trying to sign other free agents. “You’re welcome to stay until you fail to single-handedly save our sinking franchise—whether it is within your means to do so or not—by an unspecified time of our choosing, at which point we will slag you and ship your ass out of town” is a terrible sales pitch. Shields wasn’t thrilled with his treatment, and he already worked for the team. How’s that act going to play with potential employees?
Furthermore, Fowler’s comments and the team’s subsequent actions betray a lack of self-awareness and accountability by the decision makers. Fowler and the entire ownership group hired Preller and his cohorts to spend money on talent. Presumably everyone was okay with signing Shields, trading for a broken-down Kemp, and making numerous other moves that were questionable at best when they were made and look even worse now.
Last year Manager Bud Black bore the blame, and this year it’s Shields’ turn (ironically, Shields may have helped get Black fired), yet others get a free pass. Preller, a well-respected baseball mind who is still in the infancy of his regime, might not be the problem. In fact, fans have suggested that team president Mike “Let’s Draft Johnny Manziel in the 28th Round” Dee is pulling too many strings and is more to blame (hence the recent #FireMikeDee hashtag on Twitter).
What Preller and Dee have in common is that they both work for Fowler, who made the comments and doesn’t have to suffer the consequences. The beauty of owning a professional sports team is that you can blame others as much as you’d like without ever being held accountable yourself (Charlie Finley sends his regards from the great beyond). No matter what goes wrong, someone else is always to blame. It’s a fantastic gig if you can get it.
Meanwhile, back in the reality that most of us inhabit, there needs to be a certain amount of reflection and working to improve process so that similar mistakes are avoided in the future. And no matter how frustrated anyone might be with the results, lashing out at players is counterproductive. Even if putting someone else down makes you feel better about yourself (not healthy, but whatever), from an economic standpoint, getting less than full value in trade and limiting the number of players who might be willing to sign with you in the future is a bad business move.
In baseball and in life, you might someday find yourself in a position to hire good people (assuming you figure out how to identify who they are). When that time comes, it’d be helpful to not have them turn you down because of how you treated those who came before them.
Geoff Young is Crooked Scoreboard’s baseball editor. He is based in San Diego. You should follow him on Twitter.