2016 MLB Preseason Primaries: A.J. Preller

For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain. Welcome to the 2016 MLB Preseason Primaries.

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Remember a year ago when some of us thought that the San Diego Padres were going to make some noise in an increasingly interesting National League West? Perhaps even chase one of those Wild Card slots, due to the upgrade of All-Star talent across their entire roster?

Please stop laughing at me.

There is no doubt that expectations at Petco Park – host of this summer’s All-Star Game – are much more modest in 2016. While not a complete turnover of last spring’s sudden maneuvering, the Friars have hedged their bets towards the future, rather than an immediate push for instant relevance.

Wait, you’ve heard that before, Padres fans, so let’s try that again.

While not a complete turnover of last spring’s sudden maneuvering, the Friars have decided against fast tracking themselves into contention at the sacrifice of a seemingly bright and definitely inexpensive future. After all, to have a hastily built roster stumble out of the gates while trying to gel on the fly was at best, ambitious. And at worst, it was reckless, and the outcome proved this to be case. The 32-33 start made Bud Black the first managerial casualty of 2015, as the second-longest tenured manager in team history didn’t make it through the end of May. Yet, plenty of blame laid at the feet of general manager A.J. Preller, whom tried to cut in on the dance between the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers atop the NL West, with splashy signings and bold trades in his first season on the job.

Now, a year later, Preller channeled his aggression from signing high-priced players, who struggled to adjust to the spacious Petco Park, to obtaining prospects that could be groomed into a new “new” San Diego way.

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In one of the biggest affirmations of this latest new direction, Preller was able to flip closer Craig Kimbrel – whom he acquired from Atlanta the night before Opening Day a year ago – to Boston for four prospects, including centerfielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra. In being optioned to Triple A recently, Margot could very well come up to the big league club this season after dazzling in Double A for the Sox last year.

Now, from the outside looking in, this is a team that isn’t positioned to break through what will be a fascinating three-way dance between the Dodgers, Giants and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Yet, in this era of parity in Major League Baseball, general managers always have to ask themselves “what if?”

Say the Padres actually surprise the baseball world this time around and win some games into the summer months. Does Preller decide to stay the course and let the current roster and farmhands play out? Or does he consider the landscape – at least a Wild Card, if not a seemingly improbable shot at the NL West crown – and move some of the highly-rated prospects his just acquired for a veteran bat or arm?

All of that is very much a pipe dream when you consider that according to The Sporting News’ annual MLB Yearbook, Preller wants to play the long game:

With the moves to free agency by (Justin) Upton, Ian Kennedy, Will Middlebrooks, Clint Barmes and Josh Johnson, the Padres have opened up $50 million from the past season, which gives Preller payroll flexibility, although it is more likely to be put in reserve for future use or to lure free agents from Latin America or the Far East.

Kennedy and Upton declining qualifying offers for $15.8 million for 2016 means the Padres will receive compensation picks in the 2016 draft if the players sign elsewhere in the offseason [Editor’s note: Kennedy signed with Kansas City, Upton signed with Detroit]. Combined with their own first- and second-round picks, along with a competitive-balance pick after the second round, San Diego could potentially have five selections before the third round.

It could be argued that no newly-minted, first time general manager has jumped off the diving board – and subsequently missed the pool – by as wide of a margin as Preller did a year ago. Padres management put a lot of faith in him when he was hired away from the Texas Rangers, where he was groomed for the position as assistant general manager. In turn, ownership allowed him an incredible amount of flexibility (for San Diego, that is) in putting together a competitive roster. This plan backfired and in a sense of saving face, Preller had rapidly deconstructed a roster he so bullishly pulled together. And now in Year 2 as general manager, he has to be as savvy in retreat as he was on approach, while still convincing both the Padre faithful (and in turn, ownership) that he is still the right man for the job.

Padres fans have been waiting for the future for some time now. Yet in a bold offseason a year ago, on the surface it appeared as if A.J. Preller wanted to knock down division rivals in short order. Though it is fair to wonder if there was a point to even shaking up the roster in back to back seasons, Preller saw an opportunity to restock what he felt was a middle-of-the-road minor league system with little upside over time. And while those departed free agents have Preller to thank for their fattened wallets, there’s a chance that Padres fans may someday do the same, no matter how exhausted of patience people have become in San Diego.

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