It’s difficult to question A.J. Preller’s creativity since he’s been crowned General Manager of the San Diego Padres. Praised effusively in the world of baseball after major off-season acquisitions and free agent signings headlined by Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, Wil Myers, Craig Kimbrel, Melvin Upton Jr. and James Shields, Preller’s gamble hasn’t paid off. Yet parity in baseball this season is so precarious that we are seeing last-place teams resist the temptation to blow up their struggling, free agent-impending rosters with hopes that contention is still alive.
Preller took on risks that old-school GMs ordinarily would have shied away from, like shipping prospects outright that were on the brink of reaching the major leagues (i.e., Matt Wisler), or dealing young major leaguers on the brink of a breakout (i.e., Yasmani Grandal, who is becoming one of the premier catchers in the National League). In trading talent for talent, and considering the volume of Preller’a activity, there’s bound to be a strikeout on some trades. Of course, it wasn’t all bad; acquiring the controllable Wil Myers, still with far more upside than most 24-year-olds, and dealing a quad of youngsters for Justin Upton has more pros than cons. What’s most apparent, however, is that it’s the middle of July and San Diego is an essential seller, meaning that Preller is ready to show off his craftiness once again.
Shackled with a variety of bad luck, expectations gone south, and just plain horrific defense, San Diego sits eight games under .500, and only a game ahead of the last place Colorado Rockies. Matt Kemp is below replacement level in just about every category. He’s cost the Padres numerous runs on each side of the ball and is just average on the base paths. Using FanGraphs.com’s model of WAR, Kemp (-0.5) ranks as the 11th worst position player in baseball. Jedd Gyorko, although his five-year, $35 million contract wasn’t inked by Preller himself — like Kemp — has cost San Diego wins on the WAR scale ever since the deal was signed. Upton Jr. was acquired in a terrible contract to begin with, Kimbrel is a constant weapon in the back-end of the ‘pen, the inexpensive Myers and Norris are rightfully in the club’s future plans, which leaves James Shields as the final heavyweight contract that could be in the mix for one of Preller’s potential trade partners. The younger Upton, an impending free agent, has performed well enough to reel in for San Diego at least a top-1oo prospect in a potential trade. But in the final analysis, one is left with a struggling ball club with an increasingly hefty payroll and a host of untradeable players that hasn’t come close to playing winning baseball. Which brings us to our next subject: how to navigate a successful rebuild, or perhaps one that will bring positive dividends to the Padres and to another club.
The best resolution, sans Upton and Will Venable, or perhaps Joaquin Benoit too — all of whom will surely be dealt — is to generate some dialogue with teams that also have expendable players signed to unusually large deals as well. The Red Sox immediately come to mind as a logical trade partner for numerous reasons. However, it seems futile to consider a deal with the Red Sox before considering the most significant obstacle facing Preller in starting the rebuilding process: convincing ownership that it is essential to fix the club now, even if it may impact the chances of signing future free, or keeping the fan base engaged in light of next year’s All-Star game, which will be hosted by San Diego at Petco Park.
Provided by Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union Tribune, lead investor Peter Siedler had this to say about the possibility of a rebuild:
“I think they’re largely unrelated subjects. First, we want to provide an exceptional All-Star experience for everybody. Obviously, as part of that, we hope we have multiple players participating in the All-Star Game, because that will reflect on a strong team. But our expectations are going to be high going into the next year as well as 2017 and every year beyond.
“It’s not in our DNA to have a fire sale and to tear down. It is in our DNA to make good business moves and good baseball moves. And organizationally, I think that’s what we expect to happen right now, next year, the year after and the years beyond.”
Take that as you will. I suppose Siedler isn’t opposed to dealing from the current San Diego roster, even if that means being thrown by another club similar to the Red Sox acquisition last July of Eduardo Rodriguez for Andrew Miller. But after advising Rangers GM Jon Daniels for roughly ten years prior to beginning his tenure with San Diego, Preller should be trusted to take some risks just as he did this past off-season. There’s really not much to lose, and it’s tough to imagine Matt Kemp ever being the player he was believed to be when he was acquired. And despite some of San Diego’s hefty contracts, there’s a significant possibility of approaching the deadline with viable trade pieces that other teams would find attractive.
The best solution, however, might be a bad-contract-for-bad-contract swap. And the Red Sox quickly come to mind as the optimal trade partner. Going back to Matt Kemp, one of the worst players in the game in 2015, he would be considered with two other Red Sox players who also were inked to expensive deals. One of them, Pablo Sandoval, in fact was targeted by San Diego last winter before acquiring Matt Kemp. The other is Hanley Ramirez. Sandoval ranks as the second-worst player in baseball, costing Boston -0.8 wins on FanGraphs.com’s WAR scale, while Ramirez, eighth worst, has cost the Red Sox -0.6 wins, even while belting 19 homers. It seems, however, that most of Ramirez’s struggles have come defensively in left field, a notoriously difficult position to play at Fenway Park.
For Sandoval, his rapid decline is difficult to fathom, but we know he has struggled far more on defense than at the plate. The Red Sox showed an interest in Shields this past off-season as well, and it’s simply just speculation to envision San Diego dealing Kemp, Shields, and perhaps a couple of low-level prospects for Ramirez, Sandoval, and maybe a low-level player as well. But if Preller wants to be creative, and get talent, it’s going to have to come with taking on some ugly salaries. As with Preller, Ben Cherington, Red Sox GM, is in job-saving mode too, and his last major money-saving blockbuster (the trade of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto to Los Angeles) seemed to operate in Boston’s favor. Also, Preller and Cherington hooked up on the trade of Ryan Hanigan for Wil Middlebrooks, so perhaps they can work out something pretty unusual again.
For Preller, July isn’t going to be as easy a time to acquire talent as it was before he dealt away nearly all of the San Diego system last off-season, but he’ll definitely have some valuable pieces to work with. Perhaps the best way for him to start is to deal Upton, though it’s apparent that some major changes need to happen this month if San Diego has any hopes of being in contention for 2016.