Maybe if AJ Preller had just waited and not gone mad scientist in the ’14-’15 winter, he would have been thought of as something like a hero in the past winter or two. He would have been just about the only GM “going for it.” He would be the only GM who would have seemingly known what free agency and the winter months are for. Making people talk about your team. Getting them excited. Improving it.
Sadly, Preller’s Brewster’s Millions winter came in 2015, before that time in baseball’s offseason became nuclear and life was not allowed to grow in any way. Still, Preller’s pivot has been borderline-stunning, and one wonders how many other GMs would get the chance to reverse course as quickly and forcefully. Then again, when the pivot means saving and shedding money, owners tend to get a little patient.
Instead, in the offseason leading to 2015, Preller became something of a laughingstock. Let’s take you back. The Padres hired Preller at the end of the 2014 season, their fourth-straight losing one after nearly pipping the Giants for the NL West in 2010, ceding the lead in the last weekend of the season (and possibly saving us from the most mystifying dynasty of our time). Clearly, the Padres didn’t like the way things were going, as they licensed Preller to go all Jackson Pollock with their roster. (Maybe that Cashner-for-Rizzo deal played a part?)
So here’s what Preller did, and this list will seem completely alien after the past couple offseasons. He traded for Derek Norris, at the time one of the better hitting catchers around. He traded four players for Justin Upton, who was in the last year of his deal. He took Matt Kemp‘s salary off the Dodgers’ hands, though the whole Grandal-for-Norris swap behind the plate didn’t look good at the time and worse now. He swung a three-team trade to bring Wil Myers from Tampa, though it cost them Trea Turner and Myers didn’t especially have a position. He signed James Shields, who at the time was one of the biggest pitching free agents out there (which probably helped contribute to teams very calm trigger fingers when it comes to free agent pitching). And then right at the dawn of the season, perhaps the biggest move he made, was to bring in Craig Kimbrel from Atlanta.
The sheer volume of moves is startling through the lenses of what we’ve become accustomed to, and all of them were aimed at the top of the roster. It becomes even more stunning when you realize that almost none of them worked. Norris never hit, Kemp was in the middle of his decline everywhere outside LA, Kimbrel was a hood ornament on a car without a suspension, Shields gave up 33 homers before the ball became a Top Flite and with half his starts being protected by the marine layer. Myers and Upton hit for sure, though Myers was hurt for two-thirds of the season and a danger to himself in the outfield.
The Padres collected 74 wins, all the experts tut-tutted, and Preller had to reverse course in a hurry. Upton left via free agency. Kemp was traded the next season for nothing. Norris was traded after that season. But in the real coup, Shields was moved in the middle of 2016 to the White Sox, in midst of their own inexplicable and deluded drive for a playoff spot, and got Fernando Tatis Jr. out of it. Kimbrel was dealt for four prospects, one of which is Logan Allen who remains on the precipice.
At least it was quick work. While the Padres didn’t net much in all of their shedding of Preller’s ’15 madness other than Tatis, it only took Preller three seasons to build one of the more exciting, young teams around. Tatis is already wowing people, and Preller was able to convince Manny Machado that things will turn around soon. Franmil Reyes wasn’t his signing, but he developed in Preller’s system. He was able to steal Chris Paddack out of Miami, and he might be the best rookie pitcher around. And over the next two to three seasons, the Padres are poised to keep rolling out players from their system as they are considered one of the best pipelines in baseball right now. The Pads are considered to have 10 of the 100 top-rated prospects in baseball, though two of those are Tatis Jr. and Paddack.
Some were taken before Preller, of course, like Reyes. But he was allowed to admit a mistake, turn around, and now has the Padres poised for long-term success instead of the lightning in the bottle kind he chased four years ago. Quite the turn, no?