A team that uses the term "rebuilding" is a team that's essentially saying "Boy, you should see the players we're getting now. They'll be awesome in three years. Which is when you should check them out. I'd probably just save my money this year if I were you." So you can understand why that's not the most popular way for a team to describe what they're doing.
The handiest indicator on whether a team is rebuilding or not, then, is when they trade a fairly cheap player with a team-friendly contract in exchange for even cheaper prospects. Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, for example. Mat Latos. The A's didn't have to trade those two pitchers. The Padres certainly didn't have to trade Latos. They were going to be around for a while at below-market prices. There was a chance to build a team around them, even.
But if prospects are raffle tickets, then youngish players with a lot of trade value must seem like Confederate dollars. Not much you can do with those, but the drunk guy behind the counter will take them in exchange for the raffle tickets, and if you get enough of those …
So, fine. The Padres are rebuilding. They traded away their young, cost-controlled ace for a bounty of prospects. They let their fan-favorite closer walk in the offseason, just a few months after trading away one of the best setup men in baseball for a pair of prospects. They traded a couple of pitching prospects for an oft-injured player who will make a lot of money in his final arbitration year before walking as a free agent. They tra …
Wait a sec.
In isolation, it's not like the Carlos Quentin trade was completely ridiculous for the Padres. They're actually building a nifty little offense. No one will really be able to tell because of their park, but they have a pretty good chance to break the franchise record for runs scored at Petco (8). Between Cameron Maybin, Yonder Alonso, Chase Headley, Orlando Hudson, Nick Hundley, Jesus Guzman, Kyle Blanks, and now Quentin, the Padres are amassing quite the collection of interesting hitters. Maybe not good per se, but any or all of them have the potential to be.
But they traded their best pitcher, years before he was to be a free agent. Teams don't send out press releases for moves like that -- they write the move in Sharpie on a piece of white fabric, tie it to a stick, and wave it frantically. Trading a pitcher like Latos is a clear sign that the team is rebuilding.
Then right after doing that, the Padres traded a pair of pitching prospects for a guy who won't be around in a few months. It's not like the two prospects were highly rated, but rebuilding teams should hold on to every young pitcher with a scintilla of talent -- Josh Collmenter just went from out of the Diamondbacks' top-30 list to a rotation stalwart that's saving his team all sorts of money. A rebuilding team should never trade their prospects for one-year players.
Which brings us to the obvious answer: The Padres aren't rebuilding. They traded Latos because …
a. the Reds' offer was too good to resist, and …
b. he's kind of a putz
And the trade left San Diego with a surplus of young first basemen who will be very popular in the trade market. They still have moves to make. And if they trade with the Rays, which seems like the obvious fit, they'll likely get some majors-ready starting pitching back. The Padres aren't rebuilding -- they're just reshuffling. They figure they even if they can't find another Latos, they can approximate one out of spare parts and Petco Park.
The Padres looked around at the NL West and saw a Diamondbacks team that hasn't done a lot other than re-sign Lyle Overbay, a Giants team that's content to hope Freddy Sanchez fixes everything, a Rockies team that's caught between strategies, and a Dodgers team that's pathologically hoarding utility infielders like a Wall-E that was dropped on its head. They aren't crazy to think that they can repeat their surprising run from 2010.
And if they fall out of contention? They'll just use the Matt-Holliday-on-the-A's strategy, and trade Quentin at the deadline. They'll hope that they fare better than turning Carlos Gonzalez into Brett Wallace into Michael Taylor, of course, but they still have an out if this contending gambit blows up on them.
It's an interesting strategy, and it isn't one that a lot of teams would undertake in the Padres' position. But the Padres aren't rebuilding. They're reloading. Kind of. Considering the state of the NL West -- and the underrated collection of hitters the Padres have quietly socked away -- it might not be a bad strategy at all.