At the beginning of the Winter Meetings, held in the city he’s trying to win over, A.J. Preller walked into the beautiful, 50-foot-high-ceilinged lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt with one flap of his button-down shirt tucked in and the other flopped over the top of his pants like a forgotten napkin. It’s not so much that the new San Diego Padres general manager doesn’t know how to cut the figure of an executive. He’s just got better things to worry about.
In his four-plus months running the Padres, Preller has developed a reputation as a manic worker, the sort of guy who will call all 29 teams and do his best to put something together. It’s how the Padres, in their small market, with their flagging attendance, have managed not one but two of this frantic offseason’s biggest moves.
First came the agreed-upon Matt Kemp deal, which is in its 150th or so hour of limbo and heads into Thursday’s deadline for completion with cautious optimism, sources told Yahoo Sports. The Los Angeles Dodgers want to deal Kemp, get Yasmani Grandal, Joe Wieland and Zach Eflin, and flip Eflin and Tom Windle for Jimmy Rollins. The Padres want Kemp. Whether the $32 million the Dodgers are offering will suffice is the question, because Texas, where Preller grew his executive chops, has in the past used medical concerns as a way to rework deals at the last minute. And with Kemp’s physical the holdup, 11th-hour haggling remains a roadblock.
Second and perhaps more surprising – which takes something considering the last time the Padres committed $75 million to a player was never – was the deal struck Wednesday, a nice, fat, three-team, 11-player, who’s-going-where log tossed on the Hot Stove. This is where Preller’s tendency to what-if a situation came in handy: When the Rays finally committed to giving up on the centerpiece of the James Shields trade, he pounced.
It’s what Preller must do. He whiffed when shopping in the upper echelons of the free-agent market with Pablo Sandoval and Yasmani Tomas, the allure of life in San Diego simply not enough to overcome either less money or the perception of a lesser chance to win. So he went into the distressed-asset bin on the trade market and played raider, getting the Dodgers to cover about a third of Kemp’s remaining $107 million salary and buying low on Wil Myers.
The Rays’ concerns with him were two-fold. More important than questions of his ability to process changes he must make to succeed in the big leagues were the implications of the stress fracture in his wrist last season. Few injuries debilitate a hitter like one in the wrist, and the mere chance that it’s chronic throws this deal into red-flag territory.
Of course, that’s where the Padres must operate for now. Even though the Padres’ current payroll sits around $88 million – right around last year’s $90 million figure – it’s still in the bottom third of teams, and it could take a whack when San Diego deals one of its surplus outfielders. Whether it’s Seth Smith, Carlos Quentin, Will Venable or Cameron Maybin, the Padres can dump two veterans and be fine. If they want to deal prospect Rymer Liriano, that’s kosher, too.
With these two trades, Preller stayed true to a wildly important value for small-market teams: get talent. He didn’t focus on landing a third baseman or shortstop, even though the Padres need both. He found a pair of talents with the ability to hit for power in Petco Park, and even though it will necessitate a Roto-Rootering of his outfield, that was the collateral damage for such strikes.
The only way to win in San Diego is with risks, with the checkered background and hefty contract of Kemp’s, with Myers on his third team barely past his 24th birthday. It’s easy to dream on the Padres, with the filth at the top of their rotation (Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner) and stability in the middle (Ian Kennedy), excitement (Jesse Hahn and Matt Wisler) compounded by depth (Odrisamer Despaigne, Robbie Erlin, Casey Kelly) at the back end.
In these deals, Preller managed to give away neither catcher Austin Hedges nor Wisler, their top pitching prospect. Much of their pitching depth (Wieland, Eflin, Joe Ross and Burch Smith) is gone, but then they’re just pitching prospects. The Padres had a bunch of those. They turned into Cory Luebke (Tommy John surgery twice), Kelly (TJ once) and Wieland (ditto Kelly). Pitching prospects exist to get hurt.
Tampa Bay will flip Ross – Tyson’s younger brother, who has been a popular ask in talks with the Padres this year – along with the Padres’ 2014 first-round pick, Trea Turner, to get Steven Souza from the Nationals. Washington will send left-hander Travis Ott to the Rays. And the rest of the deal is between the Rays and Padres: Myers, catcher Ryan Hanigan and pitching prospects Gerardo Reyes and Jose Castillo for catcher Rene Rivera, first base prospect Jake Bauers and Smith.
Perhaps Washington found its replacement for Ian Desmond, though two scouts say Turner is a below-average shortstop despite his excellent speed and forecast a move to second base. And maybe the Rays dealt Myers at an opportune time like Kansas City two years ago, restocking its farm system through one player overvalued because his pre-major league hype heightened expectations unnecessarily.
The greatest implications fall on the Padres, on Preller especially. He’s a new GM making moves like an old one, self-assured and decisive. For too long the Padres have wallowed in mediocrity to stand for otherwise. It’s a difficult place to fix, one that affords its executives duct tape to stop a dam. Layer by layer, Preller is pressing, pushing, looking a lot more like a GM than any shirt can say.
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