Imagine spending your first weekend of April mentally preparing for all the hope, splendor and bunting of Opening Day, and then getting a push notification on your phone: your team just traded for baseball’s best closer.
Padres fans don’t have to imagine; that actually happened to them five years ago today -- April 5, 2015 -- less than two hours before the Cardinals and Cubs opened the ‘15 season with a Sunday night game at Wrigley Field (and less than 24 hours before San Diego’s opener at Dodger Stadium). Here is what the Padres and Braves received from a trade that already feels way older than it actually is:
Yes, that was Craig Kimbrel -- aka the best reliever on the planet at the time -- suddenly looking up last-minute flights to Los Angeles. After five seasons, Kimbrel’s career ERA stood at 1.43 (not a misprint), and he’d struck out 42.2 percent of the hitters he’d faced -- marks that ranked first and second, respectively, all-time among pitchers with at least 250 innings.
Translation: Kimbrel was unhittable. But the Braves were moving headlong into a total rebuild, and new Padres general manager A.J. Preller was trying to make San Diego a World Series contender in the span of one offseason. Hence, a true stunner was struck.
There has been a trade here and there that happened only days before the season started (the Padres’ trade for Gary Sheffield in 1992, the Blue Jays’ trade for David Cone as the strike lifted in ‘95, the Kenny Lofton-David Justice-Marquis Grissom swap in ‘97, the Cardinals’ trade for Jim Edmonds in ‘00, the Yankees’ trade for Vernon Wells in ‘13), but this was the first blockbuster swap in recent memory to occur on the very eve of Opening Day. There’s a lot to unpack from this one, so let’s take a trip down memory lane.
The Padres were committed to 'winning the offseason'
Many figured San Diego, coming off eight straight seasons without October baseball, was going to be more aggressive when it hired Preller away from Texas in August 2014. But as it turns out, “aggressive” underplayed Preller’s agenda upon arrival.
Preller immediately planted World Series seeds in his introductory press conference, and then started transforming the Padres’ roster. In the span of one week, Preller traded for Dodgers star Matt Kemp (taking on Kemp’s $75 million remaining salary in the process), former American League Rookie of the Year Wil Myers and two-time All-Star Justin Upton, giving the Padres a completely new outfield by mid-December. More trades soon came for catcher Derek Norris, bullpen piece Brandon Maurer and infielder Will Middlebrooks, and Preller took fliers on free agents Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson. In February, Preller signed righty James Shields to a four-year, $75 million free-agent deal.
Then came the Kimbrel trade, the kind of bold swap you hardly see anymore from a team that was really going for it. That winter, Preller gauged the risk of all those contract dollars and lost young talent (future stars Max Fried, Yasmani Grandal and Trea Turner ... ouch) and pushed his chips into the middle. World Series odds for the Padres -- a team with one winning season in the previous seven years -- jumped up to 20-1, and many thought they could snatch the National League West crown away from the Dodgers.
That’s not how it turned out, of course. San Diego stumbled to a 32-33 start, and Preller dismissed manager Bud Black in June. Kemp drove in 100 runs, but his OPS fell nearly 100 points. Justin Upton went to the All-Star Game, but also saw his numbers dip. Wrist issues limited Myers to 60 games in his Padres debut. Shields gave up a Major League-high 33 home runs. And even Kimbrel's ERA jumped to a career-worst 2.58.
By the 2016 Trade Deadline, Kemp was with the Braves, Upton with the Tigers, Shields with the White Sox and Kimbrel, the jewel of this blockbuster deal, with the Red Sox -- jettisoned after only one season on the West Coast. The ‘15 Padres finished 74-88, 18 games back of the Dodgers, and Preller was forced to hit the reset button and start rebuilding his team again, the long way. They’re still looking for their first postseason appearance since 2006.
You couldn’t split them up
Justin and Melvin (now known, again, as B.J.) Upton made history right out of the gate when they became the only two brothers to be taken first and second overall in the MLB Draft, albeit in separate years. Then, B.J. signed a five-year, $75.25 million free-agent contract with the Braves prior to the 2013 season, teaming him up with his younger brother. B.J. and Justin hit back-to-back home runs at Coors Field that April, making them the first brothers to do that since Hall of Famers Lloyd and Paul Waner back in 1938. They’d go on to homer in the same game five times with Atlanta, setting a Major League sibling record.
The Super Upton Brothers experiment looked like it was over when the Padres traded for Justin right after the 2014 Winter Meetings, especially because the remaining $46 million on B.J.’s contract was seen as an albatross. But taking on B.J.’s salary proved to be the right price for convincing Atlanta to part with Kimbrel, and just like that, the Upton boys were right back together -- if only for one more year.
Carlos Quentin was both a centerpiece slugger for this author’s old PC-game superteams, and also, briefly, a cult hero for White Sox fans. South Siders gave him the nicknames TCQ (“The Carlos Quentin”) and “Q-uperman” after he emerged as an unlikely AL MVP candidate in 2008, but then the injuries came in droves. First, Quentin fractured his wrist while slamming his bat in frustration after a foul ball, ending his storybook ‘08 season. Then came plantar fasciitis, a sprained shoulder on a diving catch and two arthroscopic knee surgeries.
By April 2015, Quentin was essentially an extra piece thrown into the Kimbrel deal, released by the Braves nine days after the swap. But he’s still known to some as the slugger that should have been.
A diamond in the rough?
One silver lining for Padres fans is that the Braves didn’t acquire any key pieces of their current NL East-champion club from the Kimbrel trade, either. But they might have gotten their third baseman of the future with that 41st overall pick in 2015 -- aka third baseman Austin Riley.
You might remember Riley setting Atlanta aflame with 12 homers in his first 34 games last summer … right before he nosedived to a .164 average and 41 percent strikeout rate over his last 46 contests. It’s too early to say if the powerful Riley will boom or bust at the big league level, but he could be another prospect who got away amid Preller’s memorable 2014-15 shopping spree.