Rany Jazayerli wrote a 4,700 word treatise at Grantland on the Padres yesterday, much of which provides an excellent outsider’s perspective on A.J. Preller’s first offseason as general manager. While I agree with a number of Jazayerli’s points (the Grandal-Kemp trade was never a good idea), I think the tone of the article ends up being too harsh on Preller and the Padres. Some thoughts:
But for a guy who made his name in the slow burn of player development, Preller the GM decided that he no longer needed time as an ally. Patiently building the Padres into a perennial contender wasn’t enough for Preller — he was going all in from day one.
Here’s the thing, which Rany thoroughly addresses in following paragraphs — the Padres had been stuck in “patiently building mode” for the better part of the last couple of decades, and it wasn’t working. It’s certainly possible that building from within is still the best way for the Padres to reach some level of sustainable success, but there’s probably a decent chance the Padres’ owners and front office higher-ups — the guys who hired Preller — didn’t want to hear it. As others have discussed, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that agreeing to attempt to make the Padres into a contender right away was one of the main reasons Preller was hired. The offseason shakeup might have been less about Preller’s grand philosophy or roster-building and more a prerequisite to being hired.
Okay, I’m reading through the article again — there’s a lot of good points here. Ahh, here’s something:
To start all three of them at the same time, when that meant pushing one of them to center field, was high atop the list of “worst ideas of the 2014-15 offseason.” Maybe you could fake it in a small ballpark, but Petco has one of the most spacious outfields in the game.
This is a major nitpick, but Petco doesn’t really have a big outfield. In fact, by square footage, it’s right around average — just ask Wil Myers. Moving on …
To replace Grandal, Preller traded Jesse Hahn, who had a 3.07 ERA in 14 appearances as a rookie, to Oakland for Norris. Before getting shut down last week with a forearm strain, Hahn had a 3.35 ERA and a 3.44 FIP in 16 starts with Oakland, marks that would rank first and second, respectively, in the Padres’ rotation. He won’t be a free agent until after the 2020 season.
Look, Hahn’s fine, but he’s a pitcher currently on the disabled list with a pitching-arm-related injury, and he’s made 28 major league starts with a 113 ERA+. It’s hard to argue that he’s any more valuable than Derek Norris, the catcher the Padres picked up for Hahn, who, despite recent scuffles, has 32 extra-base hits while showing improved work behind the plate. And he’s under control for three and a half more years.
To acquire Brandon Maurer, who has had an excellent season in the Padres’ bullpen, Preller traded Seth Smith to Seattle, where he has hit .268/.338/.477 — better numbers than any of the outfielders that replaced him at such great expense in San Diego.
Smith’s fine, too, but he’s a platoon-challenged 32-year-old outfielder who was coming off a career-year in 2014. He was the perfect trade candidate, especially on a team that suddenly had a surplus of outfielders. Smith’s continued to be an effective hitter this season in Seattle, but it’s 263 plate appearances. He’s unlikely to keep hitting at a .815 OPS clip, and there was little reason Preller — or anyone else — would have expected him to in the offseason. Most of the projection systems tab his hitting a couple of notches below where it is now, and when you combine that with so-so defense, struggles vs. lefties, and his age, he doesn’t look like anything more than a spare outfielder on a good team. And Maurer, who is cheap and controllable through 2019, might one day inherit the closer’s role if bullpen arms like Craig Kimbrel and Joaquin Benoit are dealt away.
And what a flier he has been. Maybin has hit .289/.356/.418 for Atlanta with 15 steals in 19 attempts, and he can actually play center field.4 His contract, far from being an albatross, is an asset for Atlanta, particularly since there’s a club option for 2017, when Maybin will be only 30 years old.
Who could have predicted this? From 2012 through 2014, Maybin hit .235/.297/.336 in nearly 900 plate appearances, all while Baseball Prospectus was forced to hire two extra interns with the sole responsibility of keeping his injury log up to date. Sure, right now an outfield of Will Venable, Cameron Maybin, and Smith doesn’t look so bad, but that’s mostly thanks to hindsight. It would have been tough to predict that Maybin would suddenly transform into an effective and healthy player or that Smith would keep racking or that Matt Kemp‘s offensive game would totally collapse, let alone that all of those things would happen. You can’t totally blame Preller for baseball’s inherent unpredictability.
The tragedy is that Preller didn’t have to do anything. The Padres’ boring performance on the field the past few years disguised how their future was actually quite exciting. They had two of the sport’s most valuable assets: a strong farm system and payroll space. Even if his offseason splurge had succeeded, the true heroes of the Padres’ winter would have been the player development guys who had put together what had been the sixth-best farm system before the 2013 and 2014 seasons, according to Baseball America, as well as ownership, which authorized Preller to take on so many big contracts.
I’m just not sure I can buy that the future was particularly bright prior to Preller’s offseason makeover. The farm system was okay — it was probably trending down, thanks to a 2014 that featured plenty of injuries and under-performance, not to mention a Padres’ developmental staff that had continuously failed to groom big league talent. And it’s not as though the major league roster was filled with young stars. There was Yasmani Grandal and … I don’t know, Tyson Ross, I guess. Maybe Andrew Cashner and Jedd Gyorko if you want to stretch it a bit. There was almost certainly a lot of work to be done, especially in a division that houses the Dodgers and Giants. As it turns out, the specific plan Preller and Co. executed wasn’t the right one, but that doesn’t mean sitting on their hands would have been a clearly superior alternative.
In retrospect, A.J. Preller’s plan was as flawed as we feared it might be. It was too right-handed, too haphazardly thrown together, too outfield-heavy, and maybe skewed a little too old. But it didn’t have to be that way. The pitching could have been better, despite the decline in defense. Kemp could have hit like Kemp, Upton could have really broke out in a contract year, Myers could have stayed healthy, and maybe one of Will Middlebrooks or Gyorko or Yangervis Solarte could have turned in a useful campaign while solidifying the infield. This was a team that was picked to make the playoffs not just by overly giddy Padres’ fan and bloggers, but also by smart, impartial writers like Ben Lindbergh. Even the cold, hype-proof projection systems generally pegged the Padres in the mid-80s win range, close enough to the playoff hunt to make the offseason maneuverings worth the try.
Preller and the new front office deserve criticism, no doubt — that comes with the territory, especially when big expectations aren’t followed by big results. Their plan was flawed, but it could have worked. It didn’t, not yet anyway, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be altered and repackaged as something better — or at least something different — at the trade deadline and into next offseason. Maybe Preller already has something cooking to turn this team into a contender next year. Or maybe he’s going to return to his roots, rebuilding the organization through a focus on prospects and development in hopes to turn things around for good by the end of the decade. Maybe he’s thinking about something in between. No matter what transpires, it’s too early to relegate Preller to Ruben Amaro status. It’s been three and a half months worth of games — he deserves another shot or two.
Wonko also discussed the article, and raised some similar points, over at Gaslamp Ball.