AJ Preller’s Forgotten Strengths

One of the interesting things about AJ Preller’s early reign as San Diego Padres general manager is just how quickly our perception of him has changed.

Make no mistake, way back in August, there was plenty of optimism surrounding his hiring. Preller was known for his tireless work ethic, his expertise in the amateur international market, and his overall scouting/player development chops. Most of us — at least myself — probably envisioned Preller sort of starting where Jed Hoyer left off, trying to draft well and beef up the Padres international efforts, all while attempting to fix a player development system that had become too proficient in churning out injured or ineffective prospects.

Instead, Preller’s focus — at least on the surface — has been on fixing the major league roster, mostly by trading prospects and young players for big league talent, quickly transforming the Padres from boring afterthoughts to exciting fringe contenders. Despite the activity, there’s still some question as to just how good the offseason has been in total, however (and it’s not over yet, by any means). The Padres still have gaping holes on the left side of the infield, a range-challenged outfield, potential issues with catcher defense, and significant question marks in an often overrated starting rotation. The Padres have seemingly bypassed a number of opportunities to upgrade at shortstop or third base either via free agency or trade, and they’ve (thus far) failed to add an impact arm to the rotation while losing Jesse Hahn.

The moves have been exciting and overall possibly very good, but the jury’s still out on Preller’s ability to build an efficient major league roster. The good news, however, is that Preller is, at least, active. That’s good because it means that he won’t sit around and wait on mediocrity to improve, but it’s also good because the actual process of pulling off a trade is an often overlooked skill in the GM’s tool bag. First, you’ve gotta have the faith in yourself — and in your staff — to pull off deals that are beneficial to your club while every trading partner is trying to pull a fast one, especially on a rookie GM. More than that, though, you have to develop negotiating skills and communication skills — you have to gain a sort of trust and camaraderie with fellow GMs. Preller, based on the amount of deals he’s struck this offseason, is probably good at those skills.

The really good thing is that this activity — maybe even creative brilliance, depending on your viewpoint — on the major league side is an unforeseen addition to what we thought was Preller’s skill-set. He’s still, first and foremost, a scouting guy with strong international roots. And let’s face it, the current Padres payroll still hasn’t budged versus last year’s mark, so the Padres are going to have to build from within to find sustainable success. Even if Preller’s grand strategy revolves around trading prospects for established big leaguers, he’s still going to have to produce those prospects, especially considering the current farm system has been raided by his early aggressiveness.

Of course, that shouldn’t be a worry, as building a farm system that churns out major leaguers was one of Preller’s perceived core strengths when he was brought on board. The question, as we’re still four-plus months away from his first draft as Padres GM, is just how Preller is going to do it. We’ve seen shades of it already. His acquisition of Justin Upton, for example, looks like a win-now move at first glance — and it did cost the Padres four prospects of varying promise — but it’ll also net the Padres a 2016 draft pick assuming Upton leaves via free agency next offseason. And even though most of Preller’s early trades have featured Padres prospects heading elsewhere, he’s traded for some interesting pieces as well, like 19-year-old left-handed pitcher Jose Castillo or soon-to-be 24-year-old rightly Seth Streich.

It’s been mostly quiet on the international front. The Padres flirted with Yasmany Tomas, but he ended up in Arizona. The major day in the calender for signing amateur international players — July 2nd — passed before Preller was hired, and considering the Padres have actually dealt international bonus pool money away since Preller arrived (they traded $182,300 to the Braves in the Upton trade and acquired $144,100 from the A’s in the Derek Norris trade), they probably don’t have much cap space remaining in their 2014-2015 international spending budget. Yoan Moncada and the ability to bust that cap still lurks as a possibility, but it seems unlikely the Padres would spend the $100-plus million it might cost to sign the 19-year-old Cuban. We’ll likely have to wait until this coming July to see Preller’s international efforts in action.

Baseball transactions aside, the front office Preller has assembled shows the importance he places on building a successful minor league system. We’ve discussed most of the hirings at various points this offseason, but Preller’s brought a slew of experienced, intelligent executives into the Padres front office, ranging form veterans like Don Welke and Logan White to up-and-comers like Sam Geaney.

More recently, Preller hired former Long Beach State and Loyola Marymount head coach Dave Snow:

Snow, a college coach for 29 years before his 2001 retirement, said, “I told my wife I couldn’t believe any GM would do that,” referring to Preller’s offer to drive to his home to recruit him for the job. There’s little doubt Snow’s cut from the same cloth as Preller, as this quote from an article written back in 1988 shows:

Dave has very tunneled vision,” Garrido said. “He can really find focus and that is why he’s successful. He spends 26 hours of a 24-hour day thinking about how he can help his players get better so the team can win. His mind is just locked in to what he’s doing.

It’s another interesting, outside-the-box hire for Preller’s revamped baseball operations department.

The point here — if I have one — is that while Preller’s shown some aptitude for GM responsibilities we weren’t sure how good he’d be at initially, like making trades and assembling a competitive team, it’s important to remember that his bread-and-butter is the prospect game. While the Padres have made a bunch of flashy moves this offseason, finally grabbing national baseball headlines, their ticket to long-term success will be earned behind the scenes as they work to draft better, make more of an impact in the international market, and build a player development system that spits out major-league-ready assets to be called-up or traded away.

The real fun with Preller over the coming years will be watching how he marries his apparent love for the blockbuster trade with his scouting and player development acumen.

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  • Virginia Padres

    Nice article. It is a good point that we haven’t even really seen AJ flex the particular set of skills that pedigreed him for the GM slot (except work ethic and hopefully keen talent evaluation), and that he has proven to be able to handle the other aspects of the job. It should be fun following the through the amateur and international drafts this spring.
    One thing AJ certainly has done is raise the hope level for Padres fans. I admit that I actively check for trade news on the Padres every day (several times a day, actually) because we seemed to be involved in every discussion. Not the case in years past.
    I do cringe a little as he trades away talent I recognize from the farm because I know that draft and develop is the key to small market sustained success and I would like us to be at least wild card good every year, but I am excited that we finally get a break from “wait for next year, Padres fan” and have some legit hope for this season. And if AJ is a good at amateur scouting as advertised (and I have no reason not to believe that), we should be feeling more comfortable with the strategy he orchestrates a restocking in June and July.

    • Dustin

      Thanks – And agreed on what you said there. It’ll definitely be fun watching Preller and co. work.

  • randplaty

    I agree. Part of the fun of this offseason is figuring out who Preller is and what is his philosophy. I didn’t know the stuff about the LBSU coach. That’s interesting. Preller is definitely a scout from a scouting background, which is strange because he’s young and from an Ivy so we assume he’s in the sabermetrics mold. He might be a bit of both, but considering the fact that he hired Logan White away from the Dodgers, he probably aligns more closely with White than the Dodgers guys do. White, like AJ was also a Welke protege and Welke is definitely a scout.

    • Pat

      I think the whole scouting vs. analytics divide has been overstated. There always need to be both, at least in this era, to be successful. Sure, you can try to apply analytics to your draft, but there simply isn’t enough there, even for college players, to really be very useful. How does an OPS in the ACC compare to one in the Pac 12? And won’t it vary significantly year to year as Seniors graduate and Freshmen come in? This problem exists in the minor league levels as well, though probably not to as large an extent, in terms of player turnover.
      Analytics should really come strongly into play in terms of looking at FA acquisitions and trades though for established major league players. But you still want a scouting perspective there, too. Has he lost a step out of the box or in the field? Has the bat speed slowed? Etc.

      • I think analytics might play a bigger part in the draft than you might think. When the Padres employed Chris Long a few years back as senior quantitative analyst, sabermetric-type analysis of the draft was one of his major responsibilities. I’d assume the Padres still have a large focus in this area, as many teams do.

        As you mention, raw numbers from college games are tough to deal with, but that’s where the various adjustments come in, for strength of schedule, or age, or what have you. Teams can also look at various scout-type attributes of the player, like his size or speed, and see how those players do historically. Then there’s a whole other area of analyzing scouts’ performance, and analyzing past drafts, and stuff like that. For many teams, analytics plays a huge part in the draft. Of course, scouting is always crucial when dealing with amateur players.

      • randplaty

        Yeah I agree. The biggest thing I’ve heard about AJ is hard work, which can apply to both analytics and scouting… We’re really focused on outsmarting other teams through new stats and analytics, AJ is probably just outworking them.

  • ballybunion

    If we can conclude one thing about A.J., it’s that he’s flexible. After last year, he knew he had to address the major league offense first. He tried to sign Sandoval and Petco looked like a real problem, so he switched to trades.

    I don’t think the padres overvalued their farm, they just noted Moores wouldn’t shell out for a Verlander, Butler or Weaver, so they went with cheaper prospects with enough skills to be solid major leaguers. Preller used many of them to upgrade the major league roster, keeping the best prospects.

    The June draft for the next couple years looks to be better than the 2014 draft, especially in position players, I’ve been told, and next year’s free agent class is especially strong in pitching. I can see more changes in the off-season next year, and Preller also doing some quality drafting of top available talent.

    It looks like the lauded baseball front office team Preller assembled is geared to use drafting, free agent signings and trades whenever and wherever applicable to give the new owners what they want, a competitive, possibly contending team every year. It remains to be seen whether they’ll give Preller and his team the money they need to make it happen.