Preller, Padres should build on rebuild
While GM's moves haven't panned out in 2015, he has chance to add to strong core in offseason
SAN DIEGO -- When you accept the accolades, you have to take your lumps, and on Tuesday night, general manager A.J. Preller sat in the home dugout at Petco Park before the Padres beat the Reds, 11-6, and took his lumps.
Preller was the first-year GM who won the offseason. The regular season that's followed hasn't turn out exactly how he and most Padres fans envisioned.
"The team has been pretty inconsistent throughout the year," Preller said candidly about a club that is on pace to lose 85 games, the same as last year. "We're not where we want to be as a group."
A flurry of preseason trades that included acquiring Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, Wil Myers and eventually Craig Kimbrel -- plus the signing of free-agent starter James Shields for four years, $75 million -- made the team relevant again.
The Padres sold more tickets, raised their profile both locally and nationally and broke out of the gate 10-5. But they have sputtered ever since. Many in the baseball operations branch of the organization thought the team was underachieving, and that cost manager Bud Black his job. Pat Murphy, the guy who replaced him, is equally on the hot seat and could be out after the season.
The deals cost San Diego a parcel of young, talented prospects and Major Leaguers making their impact elsewhere. For example, Yasmani Grandal went to the Dodgers for Kemp and made the National League All-Star team. In the three-way deal that nabbed Myers from the Rays, the Padres sent pitcher Joe Ross and shortstop Trea Turner to the Nationals.
Ross, San Diego starter Tyson Ross' little brother, is now in Washington's rotation, and Turner is the heir apparent at short next season when Ian Desmond is expected to leave as a free agent. The Padres, of course, desperately need a big league starting shortstop. And that's the short list.
It's easy to say in hindsight that deals shouldn't have been made. But no one can predict how any prospect is going to develop, unless he's named Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. Even Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt was an eighth-round Draft pick.
"I think when we made these trades, we knew were trading players or prospects who were going to go elsewhere and have some degree of success," Preller said. "You're not going to get back good players or players who are going to contribute anything meaningful if you don't. I think as we saw at the Trade Deadline that we have assets at the big league level that other teams want."
But all is not lost. The Padres held serve at the Trade Deadline, and if Preller plays his cards right, he'll have Shields, Kimbrel and Kemp to build upon. Add Melvin Upton Jr., and even though that quartet will eat up $66 million in payroll next season, it might leave room for San Diego to re-sign Justin Upton as a free agent.
Preller said the Padres will make a stab at it. The younger Upton went into action on Tuesday leading the team with 20 homers and 62 RBIs.
"He's definitely going to be one of the options we talk about," Preller said. "He's made a very positive impression here. We're going to sit down in the offseason and see what we can do with him."
No one thought all of the offseason deals would work out. Myers has played only three games since May 10 because of a left wrist injury that eventually needed surgery. Brandon Morrow, another free-agent signing, opened 2-0, but hasn't pitched since May 2 because of a sore right shoulder and just had surgery. Will Middlebrooks was batting .212 when he was sent to the Minors.
Kemp and Shields have been serviceable. Kemp went into Tuesday night's game batting .255 with 22 doubles, 11 homers and 60 RBIs. Shields, 8-4 with a 3.75 ERA, is third in the NL with 160 strikeouts. But he's also allowed 24 homers and has only won once since June 3.
"With Kemp, it's the first time recently in his career where he's had his health," Preller said. "This year he's struggled and gotten used to a new situation and new role. We've seen him play well in spurts. When he plays well, we're a different team. We don't want to put the pressure on him that as Matt Kemp goes the Padres go, but every team needs its big players to play like elite players."
As far as Shields is concerned, Preller added: "We didn't need James to come in and be a 25-game and Cy Young Award winner. We just needed to him to be a consistent Major League starting pitcher who could eat innings and in the end lead us to winning baseball. He's struggled at times, but he's got weapons. He's got ways to get you out. We've all seen that."
In essence, it was only half a rebuild, and Preller should keep adding to what he already has. Justin Upton, Will Venable, Joaquin Benoit and Ian Kennedy are all free agents and may not be back. That gives San Diego a bit of salary space, and there's little reason the Padres shouldn't increase their club-record player payroll of $108.3 million to try to improve.
The Padres receive about $100 million combined on average each year in national television and local television revenue, and their attendance has increased by about 270,000 over the same point last season. Now San Diego just needs to finish the job. Going into a 2016 season when the Padres will host the All-Star Game, the owners know this.
"They've been very supportive," Preller said. "When I came in last year, I don't think anybody felt that we were minutes away from being a dynasty. Work needed to be done. In any baseball ops process, there's going to be good and bad in anything you do. It's how you react off of those moves. What do you do moving forward?"
That, in fact, is the million-dollar question.