Next move may be as important as last ones for Padres, Preller

BY Ken Rosenthal • February 9, 2015

Something Athletics general manager Billy Beane said the other day got me thinking about A.J. Preller and the Padres.

“If one of these (trades) doesn’t work, we’ll make another one because that’s what we do,” Beane said at the Athletics’ FanFest. “We’re not going to wait around.”

Those should be words to live by for Preller, the Padres’ frenzied first-year GM. Because as much as I love what Preller has done – the sheer energy and audacity of it – his extreme roster makeover still could flop.

That possibility existed before the Padres reached agreement with James Shields, and it exists now that they’ve secured the free-agent right-hander for four years and $75 million, according to numerous reports.

Shields, 33, lives in the San Diego area, but if he had signed this deal with the Padres in November, the marriage would have stunned the baseball world, and so would have the price. Three months later, the move became almost fait accompli, Preller being Preller, the Pads being the Pads.

Problem is, the Pads still might not be good – or at least, good enough. Various projection systems put them in the 78- to 85-win range, well below the Dodgers and in some cases below the Giants in the NL West.

I don’t put much stock in projection systems, which can’t account for injuries, trades and other variables. But it’s probably safe to expect the Padres to compete for a wild card at the high end, or bust like other recent offseason “champions” – the 2013 Blue Jays, 2012 Marlins and 2008 Tigers come to mind – at the low end.

The San Diego infield remains suspect, the rotation largely fragile, the outfield defense a major question. The lineup projects to be nearly all right-handed, the rotation, too. And while a pitcher such as Shields will benefit from moving to Petco Park, hitters such as Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers do not figure to be as enchanted with the stadium’s pitcher-friendly tendencies.

So, Preller will need to shift course quickly if this club does not meet expectations, and I’m not talking about firing manager Bud Black, who would be too easy a scapegoat if his roster proves to be an ill-conceived jumble.

No, I’m talking about Preller peddling his top potential free agents at the July 31 non-waiver deadline – right-hander Ian Kennedy, left fielder Upton, closer Joaquin Benoit. Heck, the way Preller operates, he might explore deals for those players anyway, because why not?

Let’s not jump too far ahead: The Padres’ five-year commitment to Kemp and four-year obligation to Shields for a combined $150 million signal that the team is not simply looking for a quick fix. The signing of Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada – a definite long shot for the Padres as they compete against the big-money Yankees and Dodgers, among others – would be further evidence of the team’s long-term direction.

In the more immediate future, it’s difficult to imagine the Pads would be entirely out of contention in July. The usual deadline math also would apply -- the returns for Kennedy and Upton, in particular, would need to significantly outweigh the value of making them qualifying offers that would ensure compensation picks.

Whatever Preller does, his task will only get more difficult. To this point, he only has traded prospects he inherited from previous regimes while picking off imperfect stars such as Kemp and Shields at depressed prices. True, he retained arguably the Padres’ three best youngsters – outfielder Hunter Renfroe, catcher Austin Hedges and right-hander Matt Wisler. But he also lost the 13th overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft by signing Shields.

If short-term relevance was the goal, mission accomplished. But it’s doubtful Preller is playing for one year or that ownership plans to bail the way Jeffrey Loria did after his revamped Marlins finished 69-93 in ’12.

Yes, the signing of Shields will take the Padres’ payroll past $100 million, a club record even with the Dodgers paying all but $3 million of Kemp’s $21 million salary in 2015. But the potential defections of free agents such as Kennedy, Upton, Benoit and outfielder Carlos Quentin will help balance the team’s commitments to Kemp and Shields in future seasons. Short-term at least, the Padres’ payroll shouldn’t be too suffocating. And Preller can figure out the rest later.

Then again, it’s one thing for a GM to address the shortcomings of previous regimes, particularly when ownership provides him with resources that his predecessors never had. It’s another thing for a GM to admit his own mistakes, and that will be the true test for Preller.

Ask Billy Beane. If things go awry. Preller can’t wait around.

 



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