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San Diego Padres Avoided Disaster by Letting Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell Go

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San Diego Padres Avoided Disaster by Letting Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell Go

A strange phenomenon happens every winter in baseball without fail.

A small market team lets one of their star players go. A larger budget team picks up that star player as either a free agent or as part of a salary dump. And then there is an inevitable eruption of people screaming how unfair baseball economics are and how small market teams can never compete.

At that same time during the winter, there are also teams trying to unload unmovable players from failed signings and bloated contracts. Somehow the people who scream about the small market teams losing players never make the connection with the big market teams trying to dump players without eating a fortune.

Look at what happened to the San Diego Padres, who were one win away from a surprising National League West title in 2010. They traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox before the 2011 season, which was looked upon as an example of everything wrong with baseball.

Gonzalez was born in San Diego and blossomed into a star as a Padre. Now he was off to the big spending Red Sox who signed him to an extension that would keep in Boston through 2018.

Then last winter, San Diego's All-Star closer Heath Bell skipped town to Miami to join the revamped Marlins. Bell was born and raised in Southern California and was a perfect fit for PetCo Park. But the riches of South Florida were too much to resist.

The players the Padres got in exchange for Gonzalez and Bell are not lighting the league ablaze. San Diego flipped Anthony Rizzo from the Gonzalez deal for Cubs pitcher Andrew Cashner, who has pitched well out of the bullpen and is being developed into a starter. The other prospects, outfielders Kyung-Min Na and Reymond Fuentes, and pitcher Casey Kelly are all in the minors and are either currently struggling or injured.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Padres drafted high school pitcher Zach Eflin and college catcher Dane Phillips as compensation for Heath Bell. Eflin has already signed and Phillips will do the same soon. Neither will be a factor for a few years.

So now the Padres are sitting in the National League West cellar with a 27-47 record, the second worst in baseball. But things could be worse for the Padres. They could have signed Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell to long term contracts.

Gonzalez's first year in Boston was indeed excellent. But he faded down the stretch when the Red Sox collapsed and he has yet to rediscover his stroke.

His power numbers are way down and he does not have injuries as an excuse for his lack of production. He has played in all 73 Red Sox games this year. And what has he hit? Six homers? 39 RBI? A .263 average? A .722 OPS? An OPS+ of 94? He will need a monster second half to reach his career averages.

He is now 30 years old. The era of power hitters reviving their career in their mid thirties has mysteriously ended with the beginning of PED testing. The Red Sox are going to pay Gonzalez as if he is an elite player for the next six and a half seasons.

At least the Red Sox got a good year out of Gonzalez. The Marlins are getting nothing but headaches from Heath Bell. Through the middle of May he had as many blown saves as converted saves, which is almost statistically impossible.

He had a good stretch in late May and June. But last night he blew a four run lead and with the season almost half over, his ERA sits at a grotesque 6.59.

Winslow Townson/Getty Images

A team like the Marlins, who are struggling despite high expectations, can not afford to blow late four run leads as they try to build their confidence up. They need a closer that they can rely on, not one who lets up a run 60 percent of the innings he pitches. He will get a raise next year and is guaranteed through 2014.

The Padres might be struggling. But at least they do not have to deal with crippling contracts. The need to appease a fan base in one winter can haunt a team for many summers.

Signing Justin Morneau to a six-year extension in 2008 was a wonderful crowd-pleasing move for the Minnesota Twins. Their homegrown MVP was not going to leave town. But after several concussions, injuries and dropping numbers, he has been a $14 million a year albatross. His contract runs out after next season and the Twins will no doubt let him go and slide their other bloated contract, Joe Mauer, from catcher to first base.

Remember how unfair it was that the Red Sox poached Carl Crawford from the Rays and that Tampa could not contend with a mass exodus of expensive players? Who is getting the last laugh now?

Take a look at the one team that is worse than the Padres right now, the Chicago Cubs. Theo Epstein wants to rebuild the team but first has to contend with the mess of bad contracts, led by the unmovable Alfonso Soriano.

The list goes on including Vernon Wells, Jayson Werth, Jason Bay, Chone Figgins and Barry Zito, who is finally starting to produce. But none of those teams could even dream of unloading those deals without paying off the contract themselves, like the Yankees did with A. J. Burnett.

The Padres might not be contending this year, but at least they have flexibility. Give the team credit for not spending money irresponsibly. If the team is going to lose, they might as well do it young and inexpensively.

Spending money does not necessarily mean being smart or even doing what is right for the team. Of the top 10 payrolls in baseball for 2012 according to ESPN.com, four currently have a losing record. And a fifth, the Red Sox, have been hovering around .500 all year. 

No doubt if those teams finish under .500 with a payroll twice the size of San Diego's, their management would be thinking, "If only we did it the Padres way."

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