Some surprising news came over the weekend. No, it wasn’t about Giancarlo Stanton or Shohei Ohtani. It was the announcement from the San Diego Padres that general manager A.J. Preller had signed a five-year contract extension.
Preller’s three-plus seasons in San Diego have not been covered in glory, from failed win-now buying sprees to forced rebuilds to ignominious suspensions for unethical conduct in the trade market. His interpersonal reputation behind the scenes has not received great reviews, either. Yet, executive chairman Ron Fowler released a strong statement of confidence in Preller’s tenure and his ability to steer the team into the future.
Let’s unpack a few key moments in Preller’s career and see what we can glean from his approach in the Gaslamp District.
1) DECEMBER 2014: Preller acquires Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, Melvin Upton Jr., and Derek Norris
Preller had been on the job a few months when he “won” the offseason by gobbling up every major asset on the market. Preller clearly wanted to make a statement as a GM in his first offseason, and believed the Padres to be in win-now mode despite an anemic 77-85 record in 2014 that should have been 73-89 based on underlying performance relative to the strength of schedule. Preller decided to push all his chips onto the table, figuring the five guys he got would be enough to challenge the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West.
It failed spectacularly. Kemp quickly became one of the worst players in major league baseball. Melvin Upton Jr. wasn’t too far behind. Norris, Myers, Kimbrel, and Justin Upton certainly acquitted themselves admirably in Padre uniforms, but the lack of a legitimate rotation–Preller’s big free-agent signing that winter was James Shields–doomed the team. The Padres won 74 games in 2015, and should have won only 70. They didn’t get better; they got worse.
The failure of that offseason wasn’t just the lack of major league performance; it found another source in the players Preller surrendered. Yasmani Grandal went to the Dodgers and became a pitch-framing star with power and patience for a couple seasons. Trea Turner is one of the best young players in baseball. Joe Ross never lit it up before his Tommy John surgery, but he was a solid, league-average, back-end starter when healthy. Preller mortgaged the team’s future and it bombed.
2) NOVEMBER 2015: Craig Kimbrel traded to Red Sox for Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra
Credit to Preller for realizing his mistake and pivoting relatively quickly. The 2015 win-now Padres crashed and burned, so Preller decided to ship assets and restock the farm system. Kimbrel was the big-ticket item to move that winter, and the team was able to land a couple blue-chip prospects in the process. Margot got his first taste of the majors later in 2016, and while his bat hasn’t come alive, he has played an excellent center field and showed marked improvement at the plate in his second pass through the big leagues.
3) DECEMBER 2015: Preller flips Yonder Alonso for Drew Pomeranz
This trade didn’t seem like much of a deal at the time, but given what happened with Pomeranz seven months later–and Alonso a year after that–it has taken on considerable ex post facto significance. Pomeranz was excellent with the Padres, carrying a 3.17 Deserved Run Average in 102 innings. That performance set up the fated trade with the Red Sox and Marlins in July.
Alonso, meanwhile, erupted in 2017, posting career highs in walk rate, home runs, and isolated power by getting drunk on launch angles. Had Alonso stayed, he would have provided on-field and trade-based value to the team, and Preller might have been able to sidestep some of the drama he created in the Pomeranz deal.
4) SEPTEMBER 2016: Preller suspended for 30 days for withholding medical records from Red Sox in Pomeranz trade
This is the deal that will haunt Preller. He pulled off two trades in July, one that moved Andrew Cashner and Colin Rea to Miami for Luis Castillo and Jarred Cosart. Two weeks before that, he nabbed Anderson Espinoza from the Red Sox for Drew Pomeranz. In both deals, Preller kept medical information hidden from Dave Dombrowski and Michael Hill that could have scuppered each deal. Rea was sent back to San Diego, but despite Dombrowski keeping Pomeranz, Major League Baseball elected to suspend Preller from all GM-related activity for a month at the end of the 2016 season.
It wasn’t much more than a slap on the wrist, but it brought back the memories of Preller’s suspension with the Texas Rangers for improprieties relating to international amateur signings. Stories began to leak out that Preller was one of baseball’s least favorite GMs with whom to do business. The hotshot who announced his arrival a mere two years before now looked permanently tarnished.
5) Padres are youngest MLB team, paired with an elite farm system, and in the running for Shohei Ohtani
Even though the Padres have held a .438 record in Preller’s three full seasons in charge of the club, things might be ready to take a turn for the better. They were baseball’s youngest team last year, the only one with an average age below 27. In addition to Margot, former first-round pick Hunter Renfroe put in a league-average shift in his rookie campaign. Espinoza should be ready come 2018. The farm system has six likely top-1o0 prospects, making it one of the five strongest in the game.
Cal Quantrill and Luis Urias might graduate to the majors. Mackenzie Gore was the best lefty pitcher in the 2017 draft, and the Padres nabbed him in the first round. The team won’t be ready to compete for awhile, but it has ample assets if ready in a few years, both as future major leaguers and as trade bait.
But perhaps the most flabbergasting thing about the Padres’ future is that they might be the favorites to land Shohei Ohtani in the next couple weeks. Our own Jon Heyman speculated that thanks to San Diego’s location, history of scouting Ohtani as a teenager, the presence of former Japanese players in the front office, as well as a former Nippon-Ham Fighters trainer in the clubhouse, Preller could land the biggest fish of the offseason, and for no money. Nobody knows anything when it comes to Ohtani right now, but the Padres make a fairly strong case once you ignore the market size, recent record, and budget, all of which Ohtani seems to care little about.
Ohtani could change Preller’s spotty legacy over the past three years. He’s done a lot of learning on the job, to put it charitably; a less charitable evaluation may tag him as incompetent. He needs to continue the rebuild if he hopes to get the squad back into a state of health. The strong farm and young major league squad help, and Ohtani’s possible arrival could accelerate everything. Of course, because of Preller’s history, don’t doubt for a second that the league will immediately begin investigating the process by which Preller secures Ohtani’s services, if he does.
In five years, we may look back on Preller’s first act with the Padres as a mere speed bump. But if he can’t sign Ohtani, or misreads the tea leaves once more, or steps out of line again, his fall from grace could finally be complete.