The first full year of A.J. Preller’s tenure as San Diego Padres general manager has basically been a roller coaster of emotions. With Opening Day just days away, it’s interesting to see how the narrative about the club has changed so drastically from the year before.
Upon getting hired in August 2014, San Diego’s biggest need was pretty clear: breathing life into an anemic offense that ranked last in runs scored (535). In the boldest way imaginable, Preller completely transformed the lineup by acquiring players like Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Derek Norris and Wil Myers.
After most of his heavy offseason lifting was done, he strengthened a pitching staff that ranked fourth in ERA (3.27) by inking free-agent starter James Shields to the richest contract in franchise history. These moves led to the Padres’ payroll rising from about $89 million in 2014 to a franchise record $127 million last season, according to Spotrac.
No matter how incredible he was during the interview process, watching the payroll increase at such a drastic rate would surely make any owner get a little lightheaded. However, judging from the level of excitement generated around the team (and anticipated ticket sales, I’m sure), this appeared to be worth the risk in the long run.
As impressive as this offseason makeover was for San Diego, it was the final trade Preller made prior to the regular season starting that really sent the message home. Literally on the eve of Opening Day, the Padres acquired Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. from the Atlanta Braves for Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin, two minor leaguers and a draft pick.
Already considered a postseason contender before this deal, watching them trade for one of the game’s most dominant closers pushed them even further ahead of the competition.
However, as we’ve seen in recent years, the winners of the offseason very rarely end up being winners of the World Series come October. That trend continued with the Padres, who missed the playoffs with a disappointing 74-88 record. The goal of improving the offense was achieved (650 runs scored, 23rd-best in MLB), but not necessarily by leaps and bounds. The pitching and defense also suffered in the process.
After this failed experiment, plenty of people were interested to see how San Diego would navigate through the winter, especially after they weren’t sellers at the non-wavier trade deadline. Their plan could’ve gone in many different directions, but it was easier to just watch Preller work instead of trying to predict his next move.
They didn’t completely tear things down like some other National League clubs, but the organization definitely backtracked just a year after so noticeably pushing their poker chips to the center of the table.
Kimbrel, Joaquin Benoit, Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso all received tickets out of town through trades, while Upton and Ian Kennedy left via free agency. They could’ve made a big splash at shortstop by signing Ian Desmond, but opted for a one-year deal with Alexei Ramirez instead. The thought of signing Yoenis Cespedes also crossed their mind, but that particular itch never seemed to seriously be scratched.
Perhaps the most ironic storyline of all is the one currently surrounding James Shields. Entering the second season of his four-year, $75 million contract, San Diego has been actively trying to trade him all winter. How badly do they want to accomplish this? Well, they’ve reportedly sent a scout to evaluate third baseman Pablo Sandoval in Red Sox camp.
So, in the span of 12 months, the Padres went from acquiring one of the game’s most dominant closers to help them “get over the hump” to investigating the possibility of acquiring a third baseman fresh off a -2.0 fWAR season.
Instead of analysts expecting them to be in the middle of what should be a very entertaining race between the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, they’re expected to be on the outside looking in with the Colorado Rockies.
What a difference a year makes.
Preller and the Padres do deserve credit for having the audacity to go all in the way they did for 2015, but there’s no sense in forcing after seeing it didn’t work. This year’s roster doesn’t look nearly as intimidating on paper as last year’s version, but it’s not one giant black hole, either.
Kemp had himself an awful month of May, but actually had a decent overall season after slugging 23 homers and driving in 100 runs. Myers is a reasonable comeback candidate, the organization is excited about Cory Spangenberg’s potential and Norris hasn’t been traded just yet.
If Shields sticks around, having a top three in the rotation including him, Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner isn’t the worst thing in the world. Fernando Rodney is certainly no Kimbrel, but he’s not far removed from being an effective closer.
With rookie manager Andy Green now in charge, there’s also an expectation that he helps improve the defense after making a positive impact during his time on Arizona’s coaching staff.
But…Pablo Sandoval? Really?!
While both he and Shields are coming off rough seasons, there have been more than a few people wondering how any team would willingly acquire someone like Sandoval after what he’s done (read: hasn’t done) over the past year. However, this seems like one of those trades that would benefit everyone involved.
Shields is being paid like he’s San Diego’s ace, but he’s not the ace. Sandoval is being paid like a starting third baseman and middle-of-the-order bat, but the continued emergence of Travis Shaw may thwart that from happening, as well. Even though the Red Sox have David Price at the top of their rotation, they’ve been on the hunt for more rotation help, while the Padres clearly wouldn’t mind displacing Yangervis Solarte from his spot at the hot corner.
Instead of paying top dollar for diminishing performance (or no performance at all), it only makes to see if they can align for a potential deal.
If traded to Boston, the Red Sox won’t be paying Shields to be an ace. If sent packing to San Diego, the Padres would pay Sandoval to be their starting third baseman. The remaining amount of money on both contracts is very similar, and if Boston kicks in some more cash and a prospect, this seems like a win-win situation.
No matter how much theoretical sense it makes at the moment, it’s hard to ignore how ironic it is to see the Padres included in these kinds of headlines at this time of the year. Nobody thought this would be happening 12 months ago, but that’s why they play the game.
Thankfully for Preller, he’s been given an opportunity to hit the reset button after his failed experiment. Not many general managers get that luxury. How he handles it will be the interesting part to watch as this season unfolds.
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