A.J. Preller, Indie-Rock Star GM

Last offseason the Padres turned Yonder Alonso and Marc Rzepczynski into Drew Pomeranz. Then they turned Pomeranz into a healthy and effective pitcher for three and a half months. Then, earlier today, they turned that healthy and effective pitcher into Anderson Espinoza, a consensus top 25 prospect in all of baseball.

My opinion on A.J. Preller’s body of work seemingly changes weekly (as it should, I suppose), but right now it’s hard to argue that he’s not moving this franchise in the right direction. Give him—and his staff, obviously—credit for realizing that Alonso wasn’t the guy and that Pomeranz was both a good buy-low option and a potential breakout candidate. Give them further credit for actually helping Pomeranz reach that level and then, finally, for realizing that this season is lost and that Pomeranz is probably more useful as a trade chip in a thin market than as an ace on a fourth or fifth place team—especially when Dave Dombrowski has a team in the playoff hunt.

Espinoza is just 6-feet tall and 18 years old, but he’s already thrown 79 and 1/3 innings at Red Sox Single-A affiliate Greenville, posting a 4.54 ERA but a much more impressive 2.62 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.2 HR/9. Remember, he’s 18, nearly four years younger than the average South Atlantic League player. A few weeks back we noted that recent Padres pickup Chris Paddack was super young for the South Atlantic League . . . well, Espinoza’s a full two years younger than him. In fact, Espinoza entered the season as the youngest player in the entire South Atlantic League. There’s a decent change he’s never faced anyone younger than himself.

Not surprisingly, those who follow prospects closely are intrigued. Baseball America (15), Baseball Prospectus (24), and Keith Law (14) all ranked Espinoza inside the top 25 on recently released midseason top prospect lists. The repertoire consists of a plus fastball that sits in the mid-90s (and occasionally reaches triple digits) and two developing secondary pitches in the curve and change, all with sound mechanics and a repeatable delivery. It looks something like this.

Of course, all the usual concerns are present. He’s still really young and a long way from the majors, and at this point, a lot more can go wrong than right, including injuries and ineffectiveness. Espinoza still has to prove, at higher levels, both that he can get guys out and that he can handle the rigors of a larger workload. The Padres still have to develop him into a successful big-league pitcher.

But there are reasons why he’s ranked so highly. He’s not “can’t-miss”—nobody is, really, particularly not an 18-year-old pitcher—but scouts and prospect hounds alike obviously feel like there might be something special here. Now the fun part begins. Where do the Padres send Espinoza, and for how long? How will they manage his workload? Will they be aggressive with him or pump the brakes?

The Padres lost something here in Pomeranz, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Although this level of performance is almost certainly unsustainable, Pomeranz might be a new guy, and he’s under control through 2018. Still, there’s rarely a better time to trade a once injury-riddled pitcher than at the absolute height of his value, and that’s what the Padres have done. They ultimately turned Yonder Alonso, a no-pop first baseman with little upside who served as a constant reminder of what could have been (Anthony Rizzo), into one of the game’s most exciting young pitching prospects.

There are still some bad decisions in the rearview mirror, but it looks like Preller’s getting the hang of this thing.

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