When A.J. Preller was hired towards the end of the 2014 season as the General Manager of the San Diego Padres, the Friars hadn’t finished with a record above .500 in three straight seasons and were about to extend that number to four. Under Preller’s leadership, the Padres continued to finish with a losing record up until the 2020 season.
That’s five straight losing seasons under Preller and nine straight overall.
And then came the 2020 magic.
So, let’s address the obvious.
Yes, Preller is most famous for trading for Fernando Tatís Jr., and this alone gives Padres fans a whole lot to be grateful for, but that in itself is not the whole story.
Preller’s often glorified tenure on the Padres has also been speckled with a whole lot of losing, some mistakes, and some wrongdoings to go along with all the good he’s done. To ignore these facts would be to blot out a key part of Padres history.
Will Preller be remembered as the Padres’ savior? Or will his name be tainted throughout history?
Let’s take a look at Preller’s tenure, and in doing so, maybe we’ll start to answer some of these questions.
The Hole He Dug for Himself
Preller became the Padres’ GM on August 6, 2014 and he immediately went to work. Just four months later in December, Preller struck a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers for Matt Kemp. That same offseason, he traded for Wil Myers, Justin Upton, and signed then-free agent James Shields to a four-year deal. These players were supposed to be the new faces of the Padres franchise, not at some point in the future, but in the current moment.
And we all know what happens next.
The Padres finished the 2015 season fourth in the NL West with a record of 74-88. Then-manager Bud Black is fired midway through the season and the Padres begin their rebuild again.
But the Padres have a problem this time: their farm system is much depleted. In trading for Kemp, Myers, and Upton, Preller had given up players the likes of Yasmani Grandal, Zach Eflin, Trea Turner, and Max Fried. Baseball Prospectus ranked the Padres farm system 16th in 2015 after ranking them 11th just the year before.
Well, once Preller re-trades Kemp, Myers, and Upton, he’s going to get some of this talent back, right? Eh.
For Kemp, Preller gets… Héctor Olivera. Olivera hasn’t played in a Major League game since 2016.
As for Myers, he makes the All-Star Game in 2016 and Preller gives him a contract extension in 2017. After three down seasons from 2017-2019, Myers had a career revival in 2020 and is off to another hot start in 2021, hitting for a line of .323/.432/.613 to go with his two home runs through his first nine games.
What about Justin Upton? He leaves the Padres as a free agent.
Overall, the Myers trade/extension looks like it’s going to pay off in the long run (although his trade counterpart, Trea Turner, also has had a solid career on the Washington Nationals as well), and the Kemp and Upton deals look bad in hindsight.
So from just looking at these three deals, Preller’s done some good and some bad.
And that’s when we get to the Fernando Tatís Jr. trade.
Preller Saves Himself
Now at this point, like with most prospects, no one exactly knew what type of player Tatís Jr. would become. But also with Tatís, in some ways, it was even harder to project his skillset because at this point in his young career, he had no career. He had not played a single professional game in his life.
By now, we all know how the story goes. Tatís Jr. quickly becomes one of the most highly regarded prospects in the Padres organization, and then becomes one of the most highly regarded prospects in MLB, and then has a solid showing in his 2019 rookie season and then completely takes over the scene in 2020.
This single trade might not just be the trade that defines Preller’s legacy, but might be the best trade in all of Padres history.
But again, this trade should not just be seen as Preller’s glory but also a reminder of his mistakes.
Yes, Preller did extremely well given the situation he was put into. He shipped an aging veteran past his prime for a young kid who might just be a generational talent. But Preller put this situation on himself. He was the one that signed an aging Shields to this deal. He was the reason why he had to make this trade in the first place.
There’s no doubt that the end result is great. If you told me I could sign James Shields and be able to turn that into Tatís Jr., I’d sign Shields immediately, but Preller didn’t know that at the time he signed Shields. Nor did he know the type of player Tatís Jr. would turn out to be.
Preller has put up great results, but the way he got there has been questionable to say the least.
These questionable routes are the reason why Preller is so dang conflicting.
A couple of days later, the Miami Marlins traded Rea back to the Padres for Castillo. What happened?
In case you forgot, after the initial trade, Rea made a start for the Marlins and injured his elbow during the game. He would later go on to have Tommy John surgery.
In a separate but related trade, the Boston Red Sox traded Anderson Espinoza to the Padres in return for Drew Pomeranz. However, the Red Sox grew suspicious that the Padres had withheld medical information about Pomeranz from them. Turns out, they were right.
MLB would later discover that Preller had told Padres’ trainers to create two sets of medical records: one for internal use by the organization and the other to be sent to other teams during trade talks.
Because of this, MLB allowed the Red Sox and the Marlins to rescind their respective deals, which is how the Marlins were able to trade back an injured Rea to the Padres.
Now, what Preller did is already incredibly unethical in regards to competition.
The current process for teams to run “physicals” of prospective trade prospects is through the usage of MLB’s Electronic Medical Records system. This system contains all the medical reports of any current MLB player and teams are given access to these records during trade talks or during free agency. However, these reports are self-reported by the team, meaning you’re banking on the team the player is coming from to be honest, truthful, and thorough.
This is arguably the one part of a trade that isn’t an area a team is supposed to use to get an edge. You can create your own statistics and sabermetrics on evaluating a player’s ability, but you can’t be deceptive with a player’s health.
This means Preller and the Padres cheated.
If you think cheating is too harsh of a word to describe this situation, I would disagree. Preller did something you’re not supposed to do and MLB punished them for it. But, if you disagree with this, then fine, we can agree to disagree.
It doesn’t really matter because Preller did something far worse than cheating: he played around with players’ health and livelihoods.
Colin Rea didn’t play in another Major League game until 2020. Maybe if the Marlins knew about Rea’s health or the state of his elbow they wouldn’t have traded for him. But also, maybe if the Marlins knew about his health, they wouldn’t have pitched him that day even if they decided to go with the trade.
Teams aren’t allowed to use a player’s health to get a competitive advantage in trades because concealing medical information puts the player’s career and life at stake.
We can’t go back in time so we won’t know if the Marlins would’ve been able to save Rea’s elbow. Maybe he was too far gone and this injury was inevitable. Or maybe he was repairable and just needed rest and could’ve had a long and prosperous career. I don’t know what could’ve happened to Rea, but what I do know is that the Marlins could’ve been more prepared and made a more educated decision on how to use him/not use him if they had all the info.
This is the bigger problem: championships and titles can be stripped away, but an individual’s health and career and livelihood are much harder to restore.
Hiding medical information can cost a player like Rea dollars and an elbow, but what if the information was more serious? I don’t know what information was concealed in Preller’s medical reports, but what if there was a lump that was left out of the report. And what if that lump turns into a tumor? Giving the correct information might save a player’s life.
And that’s what’s so conflicting about Preller. In this one moment, his obsession with winning looks like it consumed his sense of morals.
Preller wants to win so badly and he seems to know how to win and the Padres’ future looks real bright right now.
But what did he give up to get here?
Photos by Quinn Harris, Brian Rothmuller, Peter Joneleit & John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG