A.J. Preller’s International Restraint

Just last week we discussed 29-year-old Cuban infielder Hector Olivera again, noting some of the positives and negatives involved in the Padres’ pursuit of his services. Then, just yesterday, the Dodgers finally put an end to the months-long Olivera saga, signing him to a six-year, $62.5 million deal that includes a $28 million signing bonus.

The Dodgers adding Olivera shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone for the simple reason that, along with the Yankees, they have the most money. Olivera doesn’t necessarily fit LA’s list of immediate needs, a team that already has Juan Uribe, Howie Kendrick, and fellow Cuban Alex Guerrero slotted at second and third base for 2015. Then again, both Uribe and Kendrick are free agents after this season, Guerrero looks like a potential flop, and the Dodgers’ infield depth (they also have Justin Turner and another Cuban Erisbel Arruebarrena) and position on the win curve allows them to be patient with Olivera, perhaps for the betterment of his development and right arm. Further, while the Dodgers have resisted the temptation of opening the vault for international amateurs this signing period, likely readying to load up come July 2nd, they’ve been extremely active in the Cuban market in general in recent years, including an under-the-radar $8 million signing of Pablo Millan Fernandez last week.

For A.J. Preller and the Padres, missing out on Olivera caps off a fascinating offseason, one that saw the Padres both completely reshape the roster and lose out on just about every free agent they apparently courted. Besides the big-ticket signing of James Shields and a few minor deals, Preller’s roster shuffling has centered primarily around trades. Perhaps more surprisingly, noting his background in foreign territory, none of Preller’s moves have involved international players, despite heavily-rumored flirtations with Yasmany Tomas, Yoan Moncada, Hector Olivera, and Yoan Lopez. Three of those players ended up signing with NL West teams (Tomas and Lopez in Arizona and Olivera in LA) while Moncada landed east in Boston.

While it’s fair to question Preller’s success rate in free agent negotiations early in his tenure as general manager — or, more broadly, ownership’s willingness to spend going forward — there’s a decent shot he simply shied away from various players when the price ended up too high. After all, if we trust in Preller’s international experience and scouting ability, we should probably trust in his ability to know when to strike on a player and when to lay off when the price isn’t right. And it’s almost impossibly hard for us, as outsiders, to put a reasonable price point on someone like Hector Olivera.

That isn’t to say the Padres won’t regret not having Tomas, Moncada, Olivera, or Lopez under contract, but none of the four were slam dunk, must-sign types: Tomas and Olivera both have significant question marks, Moncada’s deal involved heavy penalties that even the Yankees weren’t willing to incur, and Lopez is a 21-year-old pitcher (whose signing also incurred penalties). As we discussed last week, from a team’s perspective, now might not be the best time to enter the high-end of the Cuban market, coming off a stretch where most big-name Cubans have greatly exceeded major league expectations.

As we’ve also discussed, laying off Moncada (and Lopez) allows the Padres, like the Dodgers, to load up on international amateur players this coming signing period or next, so long as they’re willing to pay the overage tax for breaking their international budget. And most of Preller’s past experience with the Texas Rangers involved signing international amateurs from the likes of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, not high-priced professionals from Cuba. In short, the Preller-led Padres are still likely to be a force in the foreign scene in the near future, even though Preller’s first offseason as GM yielded a surprising international O-for.

Unlike the Padres, the Dodgers are better suited to gamble on Olivera’s health and production — heck, even if he misses all of 2015 with Tommy John surgery, they have enough infield depth on the 40-man roster to wait until he’s ready in 2016. They also have the financial muscle to take a six-year, $62.5 million loss on the chin, if Olivera’s performance doesn’t translate or if his health and durability remains a long-term issue. The Padres can’t absorb that kind of hit, at least not without somewhat significant ramifications on future payrolls, and ultimately they decided the inherent risk associated with a player like Olivera wasn’t worth the potential reward.

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  • ballybunion

    AJ Preller played this off season perfectly. His trades remade the team into a contender, and he put the Padres into the conversation with all these overpriced Cubans. He may not have actually made an official offer to any of them, but he left the impression in the press and among agents that the Padres are players. Thanks to aggressive trading, and one acquisition, Matt Kemp, bestowing the “Rock Star” label, the Padres are no longer lisrted as “other” in offseason considerations.

    The most important is creating a winning team. The reluctance of non-pitcher free agents to consider San Diego probably had less to do with Petco than that the Padres weren’t contenders, and secondarily, were a small budget franchise. Having a winning team that can battle the Dodgers, (and Giants in even numbered years) and still have the second wildcard as a way to the playoffs, is what will get free agents to want to come here. Demonstrating that the Padres aren’t afraid of big salaries goes hand in hand with that.

    So despite coming up empty in the Cuban lottery, AJ Preller won the offseason anyway. And he still has twelve days to clear up the outfield logjam.

    • Preller and co. have definitely changed the culture of the Padres, and that’s been great to see. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I think you can quibble with some of the various ways he’s put the plan in place, but at the same time it’s hard not to admire the bravado involved in all the change (and many of the moves look like good ones). And, as you mention, he’s created a winning team — at least on paper. I’m really looking forward to what he’s going to do in the draft and in the international amateur market over the next few years.