For some time after young A.J. Preller became the surprise GM hire of the cost-conscious, historically restrained San Diego Padres, many new co-workers didn't know what to make of him. All day (and night) long, Preller would pace around all the offices, and all throughout Petco Park, attired casually, headphones in place, talking on the telephone.
Eventually, they all found out what was happening. Preller was working on some deals, and then some more deals, and finally even more deals.
It all became clear to one and all in one crazy 48-hour period a week before Christmas, when Preller finalized trades that involved an unreal 30 players – a major-league record that will likely never be broken, much less attempted - again. Now co-workers call the 37-year-old Preller creative, energetic and brilliant.
Recalling the frequently-worn gym gear and the occasional floppy scout hats, some will also call him "eccentric." But nobody can say they are unimpressed.
Fans in San Diego, understandably, are thrilled. Ticket sales between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15, just after the unprecedented acquisition frenzy, were said to be up 600 percent from a year ago.
Preller had the advantages of having inherited some excellent young starting pitchers, a decent stash of prospects, a low payroll that included only a couple bad contracts, and most importantly, the complete faith of both Padres president Mike Dee and owner Ron Fowler, who hired him last summer. They liked him enough to give him a five-year deal, though he'd only been assistant GM for one year in Texas. ("A.J. blew them away with his smarts and his plan in the interview," one Padres person said. )
Preller also took advantage.
If the interview was something, that couldn't possibly have foretold the wild offseason, when Preller traded for an entire outfield of sluggers, a new third baseman, a catcher and multiple relievers, signed a bona fide veteran ace, then capped it all off by finishing the winter in style and trading for Craig Kimbrel, baseball's best closer, on the cusp of the regular season.
It was an unreal way to close out a whirlwind winter.
"That's how we drew it up on October 1 ... exactly," Preller joked.
In actuality, there is a one-year blueprint, and a five-year blueprint. There were plans and redone plans. There were targets, and new targets.
Some acquisitions depended on others. Some took a while, others happened quickly. While an extraordinary number of things came to fruition, even more big things didn't quite make it.
Preller entered the winter thinking he had decent pitching but knowing he needed offense. In the end, he acquired plenty of everything (and also missed out on a few other big things).
The Padres tried hard to get Phillies ace Cole Hamels, but they didn't quite offer enough to get the hometown hero (neither did anyone else, apparently). One deal involved a prospect package and is believed to include a trio of top kids, but word is all sorts of scenarios were discussed, right up until San Diego got its ace on the free agent market, James Shields. That effectively ended their run at Hamels.
Right from the start, the Padres shocked baseball by being the high bidder for a big-time free agent. The Padres were said to have bid $100 million for third baseman Pablo Sandoval, signaling that they meant business. But Sandoval signed instead in Boston for $95 million, saying he never wanted to stay in the division of his longtime Giants team.
The Padres are said to have only "dabbled" with Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas despite a lot of ink spent on it, as they liked his power but had other concerns (they never made a firm offer). They did very much like third baseman Hector Olivera better but were outbid by the division rival Dodgers, a more normal outcome than the rest of the winter.
As for most everyone else they sought, it seemed that normally staid San Diego got their man. Kemp was a key guy, a former almost MVP with a big personality and considerable cachet. Preller lieutenants Logan White and Don Welke, who like Preller worked for the rival Dodgers before, very much liked him. And White, the drafting guru who picked both Clayton Kershaw and Kemp and plucked Yasiel Puig for the Dodgers, assured the others that Kemp would fit fine in smallish San Diego, answering one big question from others: "Is he too Hollywood for San Diego?" (To this point, Kemp has fit beautifully, mentoring the kids and setting a fine example b y working hard.)
But Kemp was only the beginning. Justin Upton provided more power in a four-prospect-for-one-star trade. Wil Myers, who somehow had fallen out of favor in Tampa Bay, provided even more muscle as the surprise center field choice who came in a three-team trade. (Scouts say he has acceptable speed, a strong arm and is learning the position.)
Derek Norris, who also had his detractors in Oakland, provided more offense. Middlebrooks, who lost his spot to Sandoval in Boston, needed a fresh start.
Most of these players came in the Dec. 18-Dec. 19 haul that will never be topped.
One longtime co-worker summed up Preller: "He's not afraid. And he knows what he wants."
As the Padres kept acquiring players, rival GMs were wondering where they were getting the money. Speculation started that they'd need to have a cash call, that the Padres couldn't possibly move from baseball's lowest payroll only a few years ago (even below both Florida teams) to maintain a player budget of close to $110 million, very respectable and higher than the big-market Mets and about 10 other teams.
Preller helped his cause by getting the Dodgers to pay all but $3 million of Kemp's $21-million 2015 salary, to the point that the 2015 payroll was actually lower than the prior year for a while, at least until the acquisitions of Shields (who came home for $75 million ($5 million less than the Giants offered, half what Jon Lester received and a third what Max Scherzer got) and Kimbrel (which shocked the baseball world).
Preller won't say which deal he likes best. "There really isn't one that stands out," he said. "I'll tell you in October, if Kemp hits .290 with 30 bombs."
Preller is suspected by co-workers of never sleeping, but he bristles at such suggestions. "Everyone works hard," he said.
He also doesn't pay much attention when rival GMs congratulate him on deals. He understands no one knows for sure how any of them will turn out.
Though if the Padres aren't the contender they appear to be, Preller is said to have contingency plans lined up, a suggestion he could unload as quickly as he loaded up. That would seem to be plausible, as most acquired pieces carry decent value, or better.
For those who assume he never sleeps, it's true he does have one vice, which you could guess from his attire. Many days he looks like he's dressing in case a pickup basketball game breaks out.
Preller actually put his basketball jones to good use by participating in a three-man shooting competition this spring, which he, along with assistant VP Josh Stein and minor-league executive Jason Amoroso, won by outshooting the presumably more athletic trio of reliever Brandon Maurer, Kemp (both acquired in trade) and pitching prospect Matt Wisler (later traded in the Kimbrel deal).
Kemp was so miffed to lose to bunch of egghead execs that he drop-kicked the basketball about 80 yards in response. "That answered the questions about his hips and knees," Preller joked.
Kemp looks quite healthy to start this year, in fact, and is playing the heck out of right field. (The Padres were concerned enough about his medicals to have requested L.A. sweeten the deal after viewing them, but they wound up taking him "as-is" once the Dodgers said no to that request.)
The Kemp deal put Preller on the map. But the Kimbrel acquisition solidified his reputation as a risk taker. To get Kimbrel and shed bloated contracts of outfielders Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin, Preller took the dead weight (and $46.35 million left) associated with outfield disappointment Melvin Upton Jr., and he surrendered Wisler, a nice pitching prospect with a great arm, talented long-range outfield prospect Jordan Paroubeck (drafted by ex-Padre exec Chad MacDonald, now with the Braves) and the 41st draft choice.
The Padres declined to part with top outfield prospect Hunter Renfroe in the deal, as Justin Upton is seen as likely to leave via free agency after the year. Meanwhile, the Braves didn't relish top catching prospect Austin Hedges, as they aren't sure he'll hit enough. That left them with Wisler as the key man.
Padres people may view him as a mid-rotation starter who needs to refine his breaking ball, but others like him, including MacDonald. In any case, many rivals saw the Padres' side of the deal, while more exciting, as an "overpay."
Whatever, Kimbrel brings swagger with his shut-down ninth innings. He has big stones, though perhaps rivaled by his new team's GM.
Preller characteristically demurs at such suggestions.
"I am not a big gambler," he said. "We don't think about it that way. We just try to go through the process and make good decisions, and have a big-picture vision."
The Padres look like a strong team on paper. But they recognize some flaws.
They are too righthanded (which actually works in their park). Their only above-average defender, according to one scout, is shortstop Alexi Amarista, a scrappy guy they would consider replacing, if they could. Starlin Castro and Elvis Andrus are veterans who have been speculated as possibilities.
Although, word is neither player is currently on the Padres' radar.
Of course, it doesn't pay to rule anything out with Preller's Padres.
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