It's Tatis' anniversary, but SD gets the gift

June 4th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- Hard to believe it's already been five years.

Five years since someone handed a cell phone with Padres general manager A.J. Preller on the other end, leaving Tatis wondering if he'd been pranked.

Five years since Wil Myers stared at James Shields' vacated locker to his right in the Petco Park clubhouse and thought, "Some 17-year-old? I'm never going to see this kid."

Five years since Preller took what he called "a risk" by trading for a 17-year-old who hadn't played a single game of professional baseball but looked like he might be a pretty good shortstop one day.

"Time flies," Tatis said on Thursday night, punctuating that comment with a signature laugh, moments after he'd practically beaten the Mets by himself.

"It's great to be a Pad. It's always a date that we're going to celebrate with joy."

Then Tatis added the kicker:

"Especially A.J."

Indeed, Preller's freewheeling nature has come to define his tenure as Padres GM, but he hasn't made a better move than this one. Probably never will.

On June 4, 2016, Preller sent James Shields and a sizeable chunk of Shields' salary to the White Sox in exchange for 26-year-old right-hander Erik Johnson (who pitched four games for the Padres, with a 9.15 ERA) and Tatis, whose arrival was shrouded in mystery, as he wasn't ranked among the White Sox top prospects.

"I thought they were joking," Tatis said. "I thought they were playing with me, because I never saw just getting traded that quickly, especially for a player that just signed from Latin America coming into the States, hasn't even played his first professional game. I remember they passed me the phone, and it was A.J. He told me, 'Hey, you're coming to the Padres,' and I was like: ‘Wow. OK.’"

At the time, the deal was viewed mostly as a fair one. In the short term, Shields could help the White Sox, who were looking to make a push in the American League Central. In the long term, Johnson might have become a back-end starter for the Padres. And if everything broke right, Tatis could be the answer at shortstop the Padres had been seeking for the better part of a decade.

But even as the Padres sent scout after scout to White Sox camp -- and got rave review after rave review in return -- the team's decision-makers didn't envision this.

"When your general manager comes to you and says, 'I think this trade makes sense for us,' we ask a few questions," Padres chairman Peter Seidler said in February after Tatis put pen to paper on a record-setting 14-year extension. "He's shown he gets it more right than wrong. But, you know, he didn’t come in and say, 'I’ve got the next face of baseball.'"

Since his 2019 callup, Tatis, you could argue, has been exactly that. He's hitting .301/.375/.608 with 56 homers and 39 steals in his first 183 games. He also plays the game with unbridled joy and passion, rewriting unwritten rules and reigniting a franchise.

The Padres are legitimate World Series contenders, with the second-best record in the National League entering play Friday. It's hard to overstate just how different things were in San Diego five years ago.

Preller's failed spending spree before the 2015 season left the Padres with a subpar roster, a mediocre farm system and too many pricey, aging veterans. When the '15 season ended, the front office mapped out a plan for an overhaul.

It started with a rebuild of their farm system and the acquisition of players who wouldn't pay dividends until three or four years down the road. Sure enough, within two years, the Padres had the sport's top-ranked farm.

San Diego supplemented that system with prized free agents Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer, then dealt from within that system to acquire such integral pieces as Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell.

Back then the Padres were an afterthought. Now they might be baseball’s most exciting team. In many ways, the trade for Tatis was the first domino to fall.

"That call changed my life," Tatis said on Thursday.

Changed a lot of other things, too, including the fortunes of a franchise and the landscape of an entire sport.