A.J. Preller has gone from Philadelphia to Arizona to New York to Texas during his career, and he's settled into one of the most picturesque locations in the country for the past two-plus years in his role as executive vice president and general manager of the San Diego Padres.
Preller's tenure with the Padres has seen him make a flurry of moves, first trying to build a quick contender before moving a lot of those same players to bolster a weak farm system. Now in his third full season in San Diego, Preller believes his club has a core of young players who can help the club get back to the postseason for the first time since 2006.
MLB.com sat down with Preller at the Peoria Sports Complex during the final days of Spring Training to discuss his approach during the first two years on the job, what he learned from his good friend and Rangers GM Jon Daniels and what it means for the Padres to now be the only pro sports team in town.
:: General manager Q&As ::
MLB.com: How did you land your first job in baseball?
Preller: Actually, I started with an internship with the Philadelphia Phillies while I was still in college. I did the internship, then went back to school for my senior year at Cornell. That led to an opportunity with the Arizona Fall League, working in baseball operations with Frank Robinson and Steve Cobb. That was probably my first taste of baseball operations.
MLB.com: You went on to work in the Commissioner's Office after that for several years. Did you think there was a chance you would have a career working at MLB, or did you always want to get involved on the club side?
Preller: Honestly, at that point in time, it was more about any experience in baseball was basically a dream experience and a dream job. For myself, I was from New York, and an opportunity to go back to New York and live there, work for Frank Robinson, a baseball Hall of Famer, he was a phenomenal boss and became a great friend and definitely a big-time teacher for me. I learned a ton from him. Also at the time, Sandy Alderson was there, Paul Beeston was there, Rob Manfred was there, Frank Coonelly was there, the list goes on and on.
You had an opportunity to start to realize all the different areas of baseball operations, the game behind the game and learn from some really great people. It was a pretty tremendous proving ground, training ground and definitely a learning experience. Really, at that time, I was focused on just enjoying every day going to work there. Whether it led to opportunities or not, I was really appreciative of the opportunity to be there.
• PODCAST: Listen to the full interview
MLB.com: You and Daniels were fraternity brothers and roommates at Cornell. Did you guys ever imagine back then you'd both be general managers in the Majors competing against each other?
Preller: (Laughs) No. I don't think you can ever aspire to be a general manager. There's only 30 of those jobs in the game. From my standpoint, I was clear from the beginning; I wanted to see if I could stay involved in the game and work in baseball. That was going to be the path I was going to do while I was at college or leaving college. For J.D., he went out into the business world first. When I was doing my experience at the Fall League and then at Major League Baseball, I don't think he was all that happy working in the business world.
We were constantly staying in touch and spending more time talking about baseball than anything else going on. I was encouraging Jon that at that point in time, there was opportunity. Ultimately, if you have a dream and you have a goal, go for it and see what happens. That led to a situation for him and an opportunity with the Colorado Rockies, and obviously he took that and ran with it and it led to a lot of success for himself.
Video: A.J. Preller discusses the influence of Jon Daniels
MLB.com: You mentioned you're from New York -- Long Island, I believe. You've been described as having an "East Coast intensity." How have you adapted to life in laid-back San Diego?
Preller: Ultimately, San Diego is a beautiful city. It's not too hard for anybody to get used to living in San Diego. It's as nice as any city in the country. There are passionate baseball fans in Southern California. In SoCal, just with youth baseball, amateur baseball and all the professional baseball that's there, the big league baseball, I think the fans are thirsty to see good baseball and they love the game. That part's been an easy transition; when you have a lot of people that love the game of baseball, then the climate and the sunny days, the beautiful beaches, it's made it pretty easy to transition to San Diego.
MLB.com: How do you deal with the weather? It must dip into the low-60s sometimes.
Preller: Yeah, it was a rough transition; 75 and sunny every day.
MLB.com: Do you miss seasons?
Preller: Nope. Not at all.
MLB.com: You're good with not seeing snow?
Preller: I did that for enough years.
MLB.com: Do you think Statcast™ is making fans look at the game differently?
Preller: I do. You see it every night; it's put in front of you every single night whether you're watching an MLB highlight show, "Quick Pitch" or your local FOX broadcast. It's definitely making people more aware of a lot of components, a lot of measurables in the game and gives fans a different way to look at the game. It definitely leads to more awareness for fans as they go into tracking their favorite players, seeing who they think can perform or not perform or anything like that.
MLB.com: Now that the Chargers have moved up the road to Los Angeles, you guys are really the only show in town in terms of big league sports. It's been more than a decade since the Padres were in the postseason; how important is it to get this team back to that level?
Preller: It's a huge responsibility that I think we all feel in the organization. I think honestly, regardless of the Chargers being in San Diego or not, it's a great fan base. You do this job to give your fans an opportunity to see a team that year in and year out can contend and compete and go play October baseball. That's the best feeling. I had a chance to do it when we were in Texas; we were able to go to the postseason, back-to-back World Series and the postseason a number of years in a row.
When you get there and you see it, that's what it's all about. From our standpoint, definitely with the Chargers leaving, you feel that sense of responsibility. We felt it anyway, honestly. To put together a product that your fans are proud of, that they're engaged with watching the players that are on the field, that they're excited to go see, that's our goal every single day in baseball operations.
MLB.com: Daniels once referred to you as "a tremendous talent evaluator." That's not something you can learn in school. How did you develop your ability to evaluate baseball talent?
Preller: In general, any evaluator, it comes down to two things. There's a certain level of feel that you have to have; a feel for people, a feel for ability. Then it comes down to work ethic. If you have guys that merge those two areas together in terms of a feel for looking at people, reading people and players and a thirst to want to go see more and do more, usually when you do that, it leads you to good things. It's definitely not a science. I think the more that you have in terms of the ability to read and the ability to work, usually that will lead to good results.
MLB.com: You worked with Jon for a long time in Texas. What did you take away most from your time with him?
Preller: J.D. is a great decision-maker. Ultimately, he's really able to process a lot of information, which you have to do in this job. There are a lot of people that are giving you information, there's a lot that's out there from when you go into making a trade or free-agent signing. He did a really good job of having a feel for who to listen to, when to listen, how to feel for a moment in time, what was the right direction for the organization in a lot of cases, whether a player's value was stock-up or stock-down. He's always had his own really good knack and feel for that. More often than not, he's usually in the right. I think he's done a great job leading that organization.
MLB.com: Your first winter as Padres GM, you made quite a splash. You traded away 15 players, received 11 others during a 36-hour stretch that December. Among the players you received were Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton. Then you signed James Shields before Spring Training and traded for Craig Kimbrel. Was there a sense that you were going to be able to contend right away in 2015?
Video: GM Preller discusses building out the team
Preller: I think what we were trying to do in 2015, we had a group of pitchers that we felt we had a moment in time with the pitching staff for a one- or two-year period that we wanted to take advantage of the group that was there. Quite frankly, when we looked at it, we looked at different paths and different avenues of what to do and we felt like from a value standpoint of potentially moving those pitchers, we weren't going to get what we felt like we needed. So we went the other direction. We talked about, "What if we added around those pitchers?"
We moved some players, some prospects; some guys I'm sure are going to end up coming back to be good players, some will end up being more fringy guys. I think we felt it was two-fold. One, a chance to go out and contend over more of a mid-term type, a one- or two-year period. Two, potentially we could turn those players back around and have value. Overall, when I took the job, it really comes down to, "Can you have enough depth, enough quality players, enough length in your system to have a four-, five-, six-, seven- or eight-year run?" We talk about waves of players that are coming; there's a lot of different ways to get there.
Now as you go into year three, we feel like we have one of the stronger farm systems in the game of baseball. We feel like we're set up to have success down the road. We probably didn't do it in a traditional sense of what some clubs have done the last few years in terms of how to get there, but part of that was taking a shot with some of those players in the 2015 season, see if we can win, excite the fan base a little bit, and if it didn't work out, you could always go down a different path. That's what we saw with some of the other deals we've since made after that with the Shields trade, the Kimbrel trade, etc. Ultimately, getting financial flexibility with the Kemp and Upton deals, and now looking forward.
MLB.com: Kemp is in Atlanta, Upton is in Detroit, Shields is in Chicago and Kimbrel is in Boston. Myers is still here. He became an All-Star for the first time last season in your park, and at 25, you locked him up to an $83 million extension. How important was it to lock him up?
Video: Preller discusses how good Wil Myers is as a player
Preller: With Wil, it was a few things. As we try to build the system and bring young players into San Diego, he was a really good bridge player, a transition player. He's young, he's athletic, he's a two-way player, a very talented guy on the offensive and defensive end. But also, he's a guy that embraced what we talked about in terms of a vision of the next few years, bringing in more talented, young players. He's looking to have other talented, young players around him and try to help the Padres get to a situation where overall from a culture standpoint and a team standpoint, he's helping create the right atmosphere for those guys to come in and break in.
It's important to have quality players to show both your organization, your employees, your fans, the players on the field, that we're not looking to constantly look for five years down the road. If you're a quality player and you're a guy that fits in with what we're doing from a talent standpoint, a makeup standpoint and an athleticism standpoint, we're going to look to try to keep you here. I think it's a statement from ownership as well; it's a building block for us going forward.
For a lot of those reasons, there was motivation on our part to get a deal done. From Wil's standpoint, he could have easily looked at it and said, "I'm going to play out the next few years, I want to go on the free-agent market and have all 30 teams bid for my services." But I think he felt the same feeling that we felt in terms of what we're trying to build. He felt the same way and it led to match -- and hopefully a good signing for us.
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com.