The San Diego Padres fired GM Josh Byrnes on Sunday, just two and a half seasons into his tenure with the club. Byrnes was the first GM fired in a long time, so the act itself feels strange. The last GM forcibly relieved of his job was Ed Wade by the Astros in December of 2011, about two months after Byrnes was hired. In fact, Byrnes was the sixth-youngest GM in baseball by hiring date, and when you note that Rick Hahn took over the White Sox job after Kenny Williams was promoted (not fired) to team president, Terry Ryan was re-hired by the Twins and Dan Duquette was given his second GM job by the Orioles, Byrnes was still one of the newest GMs in the game. Two and a half seasons typically isn't enough time to build a farm system, retool the major league roster and remake an organization. Then again, sometimes two and a half seasons is all you get, so you have to be both good and lucky. It's hard to argue Byrnes was either.
Byrnes is by all accounts quite smart, and his resume is impressive. He was an assistant GM with the Rockies, was a part of the front office that produced the first Red Sox championship in eight-plus decades and was hired to run the Arizona Diamondbacks when he was 35 years old in 2005. He was fired by new ownership after five seasons on the job, then was hired to turn the Padres into a perennially successful organization. The Padres were 184-215 under his leadership, so not so much with the success part.
You can ding Byrnes for not winning, and clearly the Padres owners did. In their statement, they specifically stated they felt the on-field product was "not living up to [their] expectations." As owners, that's their prerogative, but while some were optimistic about the Padres this season in the sense they felt the team might be in the postseason hunt, few expected them to complete for a division title, let alone be one of the better teams in baseball. Baseball Prospectus put the Padres playoff chances at 22 percent at the start of the season (they are at zero percent now), behind all but the Rockies in the NL West. A three-out-of-four chance to miss the playoffs isn't good odds, so it comes as no real shock that the Padres are out of it in June. Winning this season wasn't impossible in San Diego, but it required the reversing of some unfortunate trends, and those trends didn't reverse so much as accelerate.
Does that mean Byrnes should have been fired? We get into some trouble when we use phrases like "should have been" because things usually aren't so clear cut. They certainly aren't in this case. Even GMs with lots of autonomy can't (and likely wouldn't) claim ownership over the decision-making process. We can say, however, that in his tenure Josh Byrnes made some astute trades. He picked up Carlos Quentin from the White Sox for two now-non-prospects. Quentin has been hurt a lot, both before his tenure in San Diego began and since, but the Padres have had trouble hitting. When he's on the field, Quentin can very much hit. Byrnes also picked up pitchers Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy, two good starting pitchers, for scraps. He grabbed closer Huston Street from the Rockies for little, though one could argue about using a significant portion of the team's minimal payroll on a late-inning reliever. This season, Byrnes grabbed Seth Smith, already a two-win player, for reliever Luke Gregerson. Because of their home ballpark, the Padres should always be trading relief pitchers for guys they think might hit, and here it worked out well.
On the other hand, Byrnes made some trades that look bad after the fact. He gave away Ernesto Frieri to the Angels for what amounted to nothing. In probably his biggest deal, he dealt Mat Latos to Cincinnati for a package of prospects that, while highly valued at the time, has turned into spare parts. Edinson Volquez has eaten innings, but not with good results, and Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal have both seen their skills and stock decline since arriving in San Diego. Grandal isn't finished developing as a player, though, so some value could still be forthcoming.
Overall, Byrnes took some risks with the trades, and some of them worked and some didn't. The main issue was that, for a team with such a low payroll ($45.9 million, 27th out of 30 teams in his first year running the club), there wasn't much room for those risks to go badly. Adding talent in free agency was difficult to do, and adding significant talent was next to impossible. This isn't to absolve Byrnes -- a number of teams have won with bottom-10 or even bottom-five payrolls -- but to acknowledge a limitation on his stewardship.
To lock down some of his younger talent while the team could still afford it, Byrnes attempted to sign some of his younger players to team-friendly extensions. This is a common tactic for cash-strapped front offices to employ. Most famously it's been done to great effect by Tampa, with Evan Longoria, Matt Moore and Ben Zobrist. The Padres' attempts didn't go nearly as well. Quentin's injury issues have prevented the team from receiving surplus value on his extension, though when he's been healthy he's been quite effective. As noted above, Street is a reliever, and the Padres should be growing relievers on trees and allocating money elsewhere. That said, it's harder to criticize Byrnes for a player who is playing well, even if that player could be theoretically replaced by a cheaper alternative.
More problematic are the extensions signed by Cameron Maybin and Jedd Gyorko. After years as a highly touted prospect (he was a prime piece received by the Marlins when they dealt Miguel Cabrera to Detroit), Maybin finally put up a good season after arriving in San Diego. The Padres locked him up to a five year, $25 million contract, and he's mostly been lousy and injured since putting pen to paper. He's shown some life this season, however, so maybe there is more there. As for Gyorko, he's fallen off a table and into a hole in the floor. He's still young, so again, maybe something can be salvaged, but so far this season he's actually cost the Padres 1.2 wins (via Baseball Prospectus). He and Maybin aren't guys you want signed to long-term deals -- especially not if your payroll is severely limited.
This all would have been an issue either way, but it might have been less of an issue had Byrnes received some help from the farm system. Under his watch, the Padres minor league system failed to add any impact players (which was predictable, given the state of the system when he took over) and sunk from first to 11th in Baseball Prospectus's organizational rankings.
Then there's the issue of luck. As Ben Lindbergh noted at Baseball Prospectus, "The Padres lost more games to injury than any other team during their two-plus seasons with Byrnes as GM, and the third-highest percentage of their payroll." Injuries aren't all luck. Some players are more predisposed to injury than others. For example, nobody should be surprised that Quentin has seen many days on the disabled list, and it's in no way shocking that Josh Johnson got hurt and will miss the season. Those players are calculated risks, and the front office can and should be accountable for their production or lack thereof, but sometimes bad stuff does happen. Bad stuff isn't always under the control of the GM, and it's very difficult for any team, let alone one with a lower payroll, to deal with that number of injuries. Again, this isn't to excuse Byrnes, but to point out that sometimes luck does play a role.
Byrnes was with the team when the current Padres owners bought the club, so there may have been a desire by the new ownership to install their own GM. Further, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the relationship between Byrnes and the Padres ownership had "deteriorated", and no GM, no matter how smart or successful, will last long without support from ownership.
In the end, Byrnes is out because the Padres didn't win. Why did the Padres fail to win? Some injuries, some lack of organizational depth, some lack of superstar talent, some plain old bad luck, and maybe some stuff we just don't know about. Byrnes is out, and the job of resurrecting the Padres will fall to someone new. We can put it this way: If whoever takes over the job wants to win in San Diego, judging by Byrnes tenure, a little luck wouldn't hurt.