The easy question to ask regarding San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller is why they haven’t fired him yet. In their own uniquely different ways on and off the field, Preller’s first two seasons at the helm were disastrous. The club’s current big league roster portends a long 2017 season. So long, in fact, that they are, on paper, the worst team in baseball. It’s not close.
The club could have fired him after the 2015 season when, at the expense of a vast chunk of the organization’s prospects — including Trea Turner — and free agent money, he cobbled together a veteran-laden group of puzzle pieces that simply did not fit. Projected as a contender with Preller lauded for his aggressiveness, they lost 88 games and fired longtime manager Bud Black midseason.
Embarking on a rebuild for 2016, the Padres were worse. At least they knew they were rebuilding and acted like it, not spending money on veteran free agents and trading anyone who wasn’t bolted to the floor by means of an onerous contract. However, it was Preller’s ill-advised trickery that demolished his reputation even further as he was caught hiding information from opposing teams regarding the health of the players he was trading away. That got him suspended for 30 days, with calls for his dismissal. It wasn’t the first transgression for Preller during his executive career in what looks to be an ongoing attempt to win at all costs, even at the expense of his and his employer’s reputation.
With this series of black marks against him and the upcoming season’s unavoidable terribleness, there’s easy justification for the organization to cut ties now and start over before it gets worse.
But they haven’t done that. So let’s examine how Preller can save his job.
- Don’t do anything short-sighted to save the job.
A projected starting rotation fronted by Clayton Richard, a selection of journeymen, and choosing between which reclamation project free agent pitcher to sign among Jake Peavy, Doug Fister and Jered Weaver is destined to lose close to 100 games no matter how it’s framed.
This is the reality as the club enters year 2.5 of Preller’s contract. He’s signed through 2018. In most situations in which a new GM is remaking a franchise, the club would quietly put in place a contract extension even if they avoid the public outcry by not announcing it so he’s not pressured by the rapidly-approaching expiration of his deal.
The Padres are not in that position because it doesn’t appear as if they’re totally sold on keeping Preller. Trapped in the middle and clearly unprepared to cut ties immediately, they’ll have to ride it out. If they’re keeping him, then they must make certain that he doesn’t do anything to dress up the monstrosity that the club promises to be.
Having an expiring contract and facing the pressure of trying to keep one’s job can lend itself to making moves that are cosmetically beneficial for the short-term, but only gloss over issues that should simply have been left to resolve themselves. Since the Padres haven’t signed anyone of note this offseason and are looking at the above-mentioned veterans, it’s clear they know where this season is going. Allowing him to make trades that might keep the club from losing 100 games for its own sake is a mistake that wouldn’t save his job anyway, so he shouldn’t do it and ownership can’t allow him to.
- Behave like a professional.
While it might seem to be a fun, high-profile job that outside observers and low-level baseball employees envision themselves being able to do in making trades, overseeing the draft, signing free agents, being the subject of articles, writing books and standing on the champagne-soaked podium holding up the World Series trophy, when stripped of its layers, a top-level baseball executive position is just a corporate job. With that comes the fundamental truth that there are contractual obligations and codes of conduct that must be adhered to.
Preller got himself suspended with his ham-handed trickery and drew disfavor with his employers and the industry in general. Teams will look very hard at any deal he’s offering and demand that full disclosure be presented, presumably in triplicate. Had the Padres decided to fire him after the suspension, the aforementioned corporate contract would likely have had fine print with which they could have gotten out of paying him or paid him a fraction just to go away.
The argument for them having done that is compelling, but since they didn’t, this is where they are: hoping that he learned his lesson and is the gutsy talent evaluator and outside-the-box thinker they thought they were hiring.
- Show some improvement.
Improvement can be defined in different ways. With the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants in the National League West, the Padres are not going to contend. They aren’t even all that close to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, making another last place finish a reasonably safe foregone conclusion.
Preller graded well in his prospect accumulation when trading Drew Pomeranz, Andrew Cashner, Craig Kimbrel and others. This was obscured amid the controversy of his hidden medical reports and malfeasance. The bulk of the young players the Padres will be trotting out for 2017, like Hunter Renfroe and Austin Hedges, were not even acquired by Preller, so he has to hope that the veteran pitchers he signed or will sign are solid enough that they can yield more prospects at midseason; that he has a notable draft; and his international signings – supposedly his skill when he was with the Texas Rangers – rise quickly.
If the Padres are set on giving Preller a chance, then they can’t judge him on what happens with the big league club in 2017. They have to look at the very young minor leaguers he acquired and how they develop, using that as the barometer.
With his contract expiring after 2018, Preller would be running out of time even if he’d been the epitome of class and professionalism from the start. Considering the amount of cash and treasure he expended in his poor first season and then the suspension and accompanying organization-wide embarrassment, he’s essentially taken the hourglass and started pounding on it like it was a slow-flowing bottle of ketchup.
Judging by the club’s fortunes and his history, it’s difficult to see him keeping the job even past 2017, if he lasts that long. But if he can do the three things mentioned above, he won’t be completely toxic and, if he’s lucky, maybe he can convince the Padres that he deserves one extra year past 2018 to show that they didn’t make a mistake when they hired him in August of 2014 and let him do whatever he wanted to make what, right now, seems to be baseball’s biggest mess.