by JDCam 1.12.15
The San Diego Padres have been consistent in their mediocrity in recent seasons, winning 77, 76, 76 and 71 games in the last 4 season and failing to record a winning season since a surprising 2010 season in which they recorded 90 wins and still missed the playoffs after being beaten out by a Giants team still riding the last of Tim Lincecum’s outstanding pre-pubescent coattails.
The only other constant in San Diego in recent years other than a constant 72 and sunny is that they have been boring. That’s right, the Padres are dull, they are not great at anything, and they are not the worst at anything. In a sport literally struggling to keep pace with more explosive and fast paced competition in the NFL and NCAAF the Padres have been the epitome of why folks are tuning out of baseball and into…well, anything else.
Enter A.J. Preller, a brilliant, workaholic, Cornell graduate who, in a brief 48 hour stint at the 2014 Winter Meetings in his teams’ city, demonstrated that he understands one of the most critical off the field tenets of turning around a downtrodden sports franchise, reigniting the fan-base.
The Padres OF was terrible in 2014. Upgrading his OF and acquiring more right-handed power for the spacious confines of PETCO Park was the number one item on Preller’s off-season bucket list. RH power-hitting was in short supply this offseason, with bats like Alex Rios (Royals), Nelson Cruz (Mariners) and Billy Butler (Athletics) commanding some pretty heft salaries in the free-agent market. Preller pursued OF via trade in an incredibly aggressive manner, acquiring Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, Wil Myers from the Rays and Justin Upton from the Braves (all teams that had a reason to trade an OF) whilst holding onto the Padres consensus top 3 prospects Austin Hedges, Matthew Wisler and Hunter Renfroe,
These moves immediately make the Padres OF a threat. In 2014 there OF trio combined for 29 HR, 141 RBI, and combined OPS of just .654. Assuming Myers, Kemp and Upton remain the starting OF trio in 2015, the 3 combined for 60 HR, 226 RBI a .791 OPS and combined WAR of 3.5 (which may not seem like much, but Myers -0.9 from an injury riddled season skewed that stat, his 2013 1.9 maybe a more realistic expectation assuming he can stay on the field). That is not to say that these moves aren’t a huge risk. Upton could ultimately turn out to be a year-long rental, Myers has struggled to remain healthy after a balky wrist derailed him after a strong rookie campaign and Kemp has been reduced to a walking sick note in recent years, despite a last 28 days if the regular season in which he belted 8 HR and had a slash line of .314/.341/.674. All of these players come with questions but Preller knows one thing…meekness has not paid off for the Padres of the last 5 years.
Preller’s Wall Street aggressiveness does come at a price as the Padres now have a dearth of extra OFs and very little leverage in moving any of them. Seth Smith, Cameron Maybin and Will Veneble constitute a group of good-not-great outfield options that the Padres need to move at least one probably two of to keep their roster balanced (Smith has since been flipped to the Mariners for bullpen arm Brandon Maurer). There are certainly teams in need of OF help, the Orioles being one (after the departure of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis), but given the Padres army of surplus bodies, they may not receive much of a return.
One deal that has kept the hot stove bubbling since the Winter Meetings is the potential of reeling in former World Series MVP and home-town stud Cole Hamels for a package centered around Myers. If Preller was able to pull off this move, the Padres would have their ace and be an undeniable contender in a not-that-great NL West. Had Myers been healthy and produced throughout his second full season with the Rays, a deal might seem much more probable, I wouldn’t put it passed Preller to pull a fast one on Ruben Amaro who has been a year behind in rebuilding a Phillies franchise burdened by age and some ridiculous contracts (looking at you Ryan Howard)
Remarkably, Preller has pulled off this improbable series of moves whilst keeping his 3 top prospects. Catcher Austin Hedges, pitcher Matthew Wisler and OF Hunter Renfroe all remain with the organization. This is not to say that the Padres won out in all their deals, they dealt several excellent prospects, including speedy SS Trea Turner to the Nationals. My point here is simply that rebuilding/crappy teams always seem so reticent to deal excellent prospects. How often do ‘high upside’ prospects pan out? Matt Bush, Rocco Baldelli, Bubba Starling, Josh Vitters, Bryan Burlington. OK, I’ll stop. Obviously I chose some high profile examples to prove a point. All these names were at one point or another consensus stud prospects. Some showed flashes of brilliance, some did very little, some most baseball fans have never heard of. I admire Preller’s balls for taking a risk.
His moves may not pay off; this season may become an unmitigated disaster with sloppy infield and a weak rotation. What Preller has brought to the table in San Diego is potentially much more valuable. A real enlivening of a stagnant franchise. For a man whose legend has taken on an almost mythical MacGyver/Chuck Norris like quality (see AJ Preller facts Twitter account). Every mention of his name and the Padres makes them slightly more relevant and interesting than previously, in spite of whatever their performance maybe on the field. Give the man a paperclip. He may just stop a missile timer and put together a division challenging team at the same time.