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New GM Preller faces tough task in turning around struggling Padres

New GM Preller faces tough task in turning around struggling Padres Photo:

A.J. Preller, who played a critical role in building the Rangers into an American League powerhouse, has been chosen as the new general manager of the Padres. Known as one of the top talent evaluators in the industry, the 36-year-old Preller was one of eight candidates formally interviewed to succeed Josh Byrnes, who was fired on June 22 after two-plus seasons at the helm. According to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, Preller has accepted the job; CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reports that Preller will receive a five-year deal and will only be allowed to take a limited number of folks with him from Texas.

Earlier this week, Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler was believed to be the frontrunner for the job, with Eppler, Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen, and MLB senior vice president for baseball operations Kim Ng as the other three candidates who received a second interview. All would have been cast in the GM role for the first time, with Ng a potentially historic hire as the game's first female GM. According to MLB.com's Corey Brock, Preller's resumé as a talent evaluator and his experience in the international market fit the bill of what the Padres' ownership group was seeking.

A 1999 graduate of Cornell University — where he roomed with future Rangers GM Jon Daniels — Preller got his start in baseball by interning with the Phillies for college credit. After graduating, he worked under Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, first via a position with the Arizona Fall League and then with MLB once Robinson took a job as vice president of on-field operations. In his three years at MLB, Preller was involved in disciplinary and time-of-game matters, as well as the labor relations department. He joined the Dodgers in 2003 as an assistant for baseball operations and worked with both professional and amateur scouting, gaining experience in the international market and in salary arbitration.

After two years with the Dodgers, Preller joined the Rangers as their director of international and professional scouting, climbing to senior director of player personnel following the 2009 season and to assistant GM this past winter. During his time with the Rangers, he oversaw a staff of 50 amateur and professional scouts, created the team's academy in the Dominican Republic, and played a major role in the acquisitions of several players who fueled the team’s back-to-back pennants in 2010 and 2011, including Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Josh Hamilton, Cliff Lee, Mike Napoli and Alexi Ogando. Similarly, he was a key figure in the additions of Yu Darvish, Leonys Martin, Rougned Odor and Jurickson Profar, the game's consensus top prospect coming into the 2013 season, as well as Jorge Alfaro and Joey Gallo, both staples of this year's prospect lists.

Preller has been considered a GM candidate in the making since at least 2010, regularly turning up on lists identifying those on their way up the front office ladders. Here's what the Baseball Prospectus staff had to say about him back in June, shortly after Byrnes was fired:

Was one of the chief architects of the Rangers’ farm transformation in his previous roles as International Scouting Director and Director of Player Personnel, overseeing and executing the signings of Jurickson Profar and Rougned Odor, and procuring Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz via trade. Known as one of the best all-around talent evaluators in the industry, particularly in the Latin American market, Preller has existed in the shadows thus far in his career, but his resume could eventually propel him into a more public role as the face of a front office.

Upon the occasion of Preller’s hiring, BP's national prospect and player development writer Jason Parks — who covered the Rangers' farm system for Baseball Time in Arlington as the team ascended to powerhouse status — said of Preller, "A.J. is a premier talent evaluator with a sharp mind and an even sharper work ethic. He's a dangerous combo: A grinder with plus-plus intelligence."

Baseball America's JJ Cooper praised Preller via Twitter:

Via Brock, an industry source said of Preller, "I cannot think of another GM in baseball who can out-scout him."

In taking over the Padres, Preller has his work cut out. The team is currently 51-61, en route to its fourth straight losing season and sixth in the last seven years, a span during which they’ve cycled through Kevin Towers (on the job since 1995, fired following the 2009 season), Jed Hoyer (who left for the Cubs' GM job in late 2011) and Byrnes. The Padres last made the playoffs in 2006 and last had a winning season in 2010, when they notched 90 wins but missed a wild-card berth by a single game. In August 2012, longtime owner John Moores sold the team to an ownership group headed by San Diego businessman Ron Fowler, ending a four-and-a-half year saga that began when Moores' wife filed for divorce.

Via Cot's Contracts, the Padres ranked among the game's four lowest payrolls during the final four seasons (2009-12) of the Moores regime. They climbed to 25th in 2013, with a $68.3 million payroll, and to 22nd with a club-record $91.1 million payroll this year, but the money hasn't been well spent. Though modest by the standards of other teams, Byrnes' comparatively lavish expenditures on free agent Josh Johnson and the extensions of Jedd Gyorko, Cory Luebke, Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin and Will Venable have backfired due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Of the 11 players on the roster making more than $3 million this year — a group that accounted for three-quarters of their Opening Day payroll — two (Johnson and Luebke) saw their seasons end in March due to Tommy John surgeries (an ongoing problem for the organization), and the other nine have combined to deliver just 9.2 Wins Above Replacement, with the recently-extended Seth Smith (3.5 WAR) the only one worth more than 1.5 wins. Three of those 11 players — Chase Headley, Huston Street and Nick Hundley — have since been traded.

Since firing Byrnes, the Padres have been run by an interim trio of A.J. Hinch (who announced his departure from the organization on Tuesday), Fred Uhlman Jr., and Omar Minaya. That group oversaw the July trades of Street, Headley and Chris Denorfia, with the four-prospect return from the Angels for Street and minor leaguer Trevor Gott getting high marks and the two-player return from the Yankees for Headley underwhelming given the third baseman's post-2012 decline due to injuries.

Preller thus inherits a roster that has around $41 million committed to seven players for 2015, with more than a dozen eligible for arbitration. Even after accounting for the run-suppressing environment of Petco Park — an ongoing challenge that has vexed Towers' successors — the team's offense is unusually decrepit, averaging an MLB-low 3.20 runs per game, which projects to just 518 over a full season, potentially the majors' lowest full-season total since the 1971 Padres scored 486 runs (the 1972 team scored 488 but played only 155 games due to a players' strike). Among the 13 players who have made more than 100 plate appearances for the team, only Smith (152 OPS+), catcher Rene Rivera (113 OPS+) and first baseman Tommy Medica (129 OPS+) have delivered better-than-average production after adjusting for their ballpark, the latter two in part-time roles. Mainstays Yonder Alonso (84 OPS+), Everth Cabrera (64 OPS+), Yasmani Grandal (94 OPS+), Gyorko (60 OPS+) and Venable (77 OPS+) have ranged from subpar to abysmal.

On the pitching side, Tyson Ross (131 ERA+) earned a trip to the All-Star Game, Ian Kennedy (95 ERA+) has been within hailing distance of average, and the bullpen has been strong, but Andrew Cashner and Robbie Erlin have combined for just 20 starts due to arm injuries. Recent callup Jesse Hahn and Cuban defector Odrisamer Despaigne have both made promising showings while patching the rotation — all of which offers at least some hope that Preller can build around the team's pitching staff.

Working in Preller's favor is a strong farm system, one that Baseball America ranked sixth in its preseason organizational rankings, noting in this year's Prospect Handbook its "impressive depth of high-ceiling pitching prospects and top catcher Austin Hedges." BP ranked them 11th, noting a strong 2013 draft among their assets. Four prospects made the preseason top-100 lists of BA and MLB.com, while three made those of BP and ESPN. More recently, Hedges (currently in Double-A) and righty Matt Wisler (Triple-A) both placed on BA's Midseason Top 50 Prospects, Hedges and outfielder Hunter Renfroe (Double-A) cracked BP’s list, and righty Joe Ross (High-A) made that of ESPN's Keith Law.

That farm system is critical if the Padres are to compete in a division where the Dodgers (first in payroll) and Giants (seventh) have combined to win five of the last six flags. Preller has the track record to offer hope that he can make the system even more productive — particularly via international means — but the team’s limited resources nonetheless make competing with the NL West’s heavyweights a daunting task.

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