Making sense of why Preller, Padres avoided a trade deadline fire sale
A.J. Preller cannot truly believe that the Padres are likely to be playoff participants two months from now. Yes, the first-year general manager's rebuilt but disappointing club has been playing better as of late—it had won eight of 11 through Wednesday—and, yes, 11 of its 17 remaining regular-season series will come against opponents who currently have losing records. But San Diego is still just 52–55, 8 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the National League West and seven behind the Cubs for the NL's second wild card spot. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Padres' odds of making the postseason are around 3%, and their chances of winning the division—and thereby avoiding the one-game crapshoot that is the Wild Card Game—are much worse, at just 0.7%.
A source told Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal that the central reason Preller stunned the baseball world by doing a lot of nothing in advance of last Friday's non-waiver trade deadline—San Diego was expected to be major sellers, and instead made a single, minor move by acquiring lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski from Cleveland—was that Preller remained optimistic that his club could play meaningful October baseball. But you shouldn't entirely believe that. Such a message might work to keep still reinvigorated fans engaged (an average of 33,100 of them have attended San Diego¹s nine post-All-Star break home games so far, 6,000 more than last year's seasonal average), and even a 3% chance is still a chance. But Preller's motivations for largely holding pat at the deadline were undoubtedly more complicated, and more logical, than that.
Preller is known to be something of a transactional savant, an executive whose mind always whirs with multiple chains of possibilities. When the Padres hired him from the Rangers' front office last August, the owners gave him a mandate to remake the club in a single winter. He approached the task armed not with a roadmap, but with a constantly evolving decision tree. By last October, when he met with his coaches and scouts to discuss the upcoming offseason, neither he nor anyone else could have predicted how it would turn out. "There were about 50 different ideas we went through," he explained to me in late April.
That process resulted in a revamped roster that added outfielders Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton, third baseman Will Middlebrooks, catcher Derek Norris, starting pitcher James Shields and closer Craig Kimbrel. There is no doubt that Preller and his colleagues explored as many or more possibilities as the deadline approached; the difference is that, unlike last winter, none of the possibilities seems to have proven attractive enough. Preller is not the type to sell simply for the sake of selling, and that he did not sell last week does not mean that he has irreparably damaged his club's future potential.
The easiest non-moves to understand are those involving the talented pitching quartet of Kimbrel, Shields, Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. Each of those four is under contractual control beyond this season: Cashner won't reach free agency until after next year, and Ross the year after that; Kimbrel is signed through 2017, with a club option for '18; Shields' contract runs through '18 with a club option of his own for '19. While each might have been on the block, Preller was under little pressure to trade any of them unless he received a significant prospect haul. This was a trade deadline at which the majority of teams—notably the Dodgers and the Yankees—maintained a white-knuckled grip on their best prospects, so no such haul was apparently forthcoming.
All that Preller did by hanging on to his assets was to give himself the possibility of benefiting from their play in the months and years to come, when they might help the Padres' efforts to contend. Moreover, he can always trade them this winter, or even next summer, if he receives offers he deems more attractive. There is little reason to believe their trade values will diminish over the next two months, or the next year.
The fact that Upton remains in San Diego—even though he is due to reach free agency this November—is more curious, but also defensible. The Padres will certainly extend a qualifying offer to Upton this fall, meaning that they will receive a compensatory first-round draft pick when, as is very likely, another team signs him. Preller's scouting acumen is unquestioned—he turned a once-barren Rangers farm system into one of the game's best—so here the value proposition was relatively simple: Were the prospects he was being offered for two months of Upton's services better than the one he believed he'd be able to draft in the first round next summer? Obviously, he determined they were not.
Less easily understandable is why he held onto the three players who will become free agents after this season but who are unlikely to be floated a qualifying offer: outfielder Will Venable, starter Ian Kennedy and reliever Joaquin Benoit. (Benoit's contract includes an $8 million club option for next season and he has pitched to a 2.17 ERA this year, but the Padres probably won't exercise it because he will be a 38-year-old setup man.) That means San Diego seems certain to lose all three without receiving any compensation in return. Surely, the team should have turned them into something, right? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Kennedy (who has a 4.44 ERA) and Venable (who is batting .250) likely wouldn't have brought back much at all. Context is also important: If you've already determined that you're not going to move any of your more valuable major league assets, maybe it's worth seeing if your less valuable ones might provide that last boost toward a playoff run, however unlikely it might be. The trade-off seems insignificant.
This is not to say that Preller's deadline inaction was beyond reproach. You can argue, for instance, that he ought to have been able to negotiate prospects of acceptable value for at least some of his tradeable pieces. You can also argue that he is overvaluing his current players, relative to the market. Still, perhaps the Padres will make a virtually unprecedented playoff run; in that improbable case, Preller's many critics will be immediately silenced. But even if they spend a ninth straight October at home, it is months, and even years, too soon to conclude that San Diego's trade deadline inaction amounted to anything approaching a disaster.
What Preller did was bet on himself; on the possibility that his splashy winter may yet pay dividends, even if not in 2015; on his own scouting instincts, to rebuild a depleted farm system; and on his ability to make better trades down the road than the ones with which he was presented this July. One thing is certain: The hard work in the Padres' executive suite has only just begun.