It’s Okay to Still Believe in A.J. Preller

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

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  • Kevin West

    Great read, can’t believe he had the balls to say ‘the tragedy is that Preller didn’t have to do anything.’ Shows he has no clue what has gone on at all with this organization the last decade and a half.

    • Thanks, Kevin. I think Rany’s super smart, and in fairness, he didn’t like Preller’s moves as they were happening. But I do think it’s tough to keep tabs on each organization when you’re trying to cover them all, and so his piece missed the mark in a few areas.

  • Boourns76

    The thing is– Preller did the equivalent of maxing out his credit card and taking out a max home equity loan. There’s nothing left to make the team better in the foreseeable future (unless the Pads decide to go up another $40 million in payroll). No farm system, no payroll flexibility, and still a really mediocre team. The core point of Rany’s screed is absolutely true. Preller destroyed this team and its future.

    • I think there might be some creative ways to open up payroll flexibility, perhaps like packaging Upton Jr. with someone desirable and taking back less (or close to nothing) in the package. There’s still enough talented players on the roster to bring back plenty of value in deals, depending on who Preller decides to part with.

      • Pat

        Yeah, maybe he could trade Mupton and Kimbrel for a CF/4th OF, young, major league ready top 50 prospect of a starting pitcher, and a draft pick. I’d even be OK with just the pitching prospect, or just like draft pick.

  • Tom Waits

    Mostly agree with Boourns76 (I was saying Boo-Urns). The tone of the article may be too harsh, but by a matter of degrees. We may not be maxed out, because we can recoup some of the prospects by smart trading between now and next season, but we did use up a lot of capital.

    We don’t know if the money sunk into Kemp and Upton will constrain us in the future. Hard to believe it won’t, but there might be a creative way to unload some or roll them into slightly more useful players who’ve worn out their welcome in other cities.

    Jazaleri may have been wrong about Petco’s relative size, but that doesn’t really help Preller. Myers isn’t a bad CF because he’s playing in a spacious park. He’s just bad. That makes Preller’s evaluation seem worse.

    To Kevin’s point: Preller could have done other things than what he did, things that would have also grabbed the fan’s attention. There’s a middle ground between standing pat and expecting everything to go the same (Jazaleri) and handcuffing yourself with two horrible contracts in order to get — at best — marginal improvements (Preller in reality).

    • Sac Bunt Chris

      Yeah. There’s a middle ground. All of the above is true, but we’re also only 3 months into the season. Weird things can happen in 3 months.

      • Tom Waits

        Also true, but that’s asking for a lot of weirdness.

        So much weirdness. So, so much.

    • Tom, I agree with your last paragraph. While I was a fan of numerous Preller moves, the Kemp one specifically I obviously did not agree with. Even if Grandal had to go, for clubhouse reasons or whatever, I thought the Dodgers (Kemp, specifically) were a bad choice for a trading partner. I didn’t like the Middlebrooks-Hanigan deal either, and the Kimbrel move, while exciting, was always a bit of a head-scratcher. So, yeah, I definitely think he made some missteps in valuing players, but I think there’s plenty of hope because he can learn from that *and* he still should be able to turn the farm into something that produces solid big leaguers.

    • Pat

      True. Just adding Myers and Shields would have been a nice change, and would have kept Myers in right, Smith in left, and Maybin in center. A solid defensive outfield, and a decent offensive one. Peterson could play shortstop, and we’d still have Grandal plus Rivera, with Hedges getting regular at bats, plus Wisler, Eflin, and Fried. Even if he goes for J Upton, too, we’d still have Wisler and Eflin.

      Oh well, maybe Upton, Kennedy, Benoit, and another player or two can bring back some useful prospects. Then pray for Kemp and Shields, plus whoever is left between Cashner and Ross, to play back to form.

  • Friarfanatic

    Really well written. The part that really bugged my about the article was 1. the tone, and 2. the part about not doing anything.

    • Thanks, Friarfanatic. Sitting pat might look like a decent alternative when compared to what has transpired, but it would have been tough to predict that in the offseason — that Maybin stays healthy, that Kemp’s offensive game craters, etc.

  • Sean Dreusike

    I think it’s unlikely that A.J. Preller was hired to bring this kind of shake up to the team. I think it’s something he decided to do on his own. This comes from hearing how the marketing department was caught off guard by the offseason acquisition. I heard they were under the impression that there would be more of a rebuild with possibly one or more of the rotation pieces traded. They then had to change course after the trades started happening. I suppose its possible Dee made sure those guys were in the dark so as not to accidentally tip their hand, but it just seems weird that if an org were that interested in changing over the roster like that they wouldn’t clue in the guys that would be selling the team to the public.

    • Good points, Sean. I’m not sure, really. I thought I read a few times about Preller being hired in part because he promised a quick turnaround — or at least an attempt at one — and the Padres’ owners/front office didn’t want to wait around for a slow rebuild.

  • Robby Deming

    Thanks for this. There are so many ways this broke poorly for us. One of the other things people overlook is that the development of prospects has been abysmal. For the prospects to suddenly pan out is something of a surprise, and it’s too early to know for sure.

    They tried something. It didn’t work, but they tried. We’ll see what’s up next.

    • Thanks, Robby. That’s about how I feel.

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