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  • The Padres are mired in a long playoff drought, but GM A.J. Preller won't be tanking like so many of his competitors.
By Stephanie Apstein
December 11, 2018

LAS VEGAS — There's a truly unusual sight amid the men clad in rhinestone-encrusted tuxedos at 8 a.m. and cowboy hat–topped gamblers who have moseyed away from the nearby National Finals Rodeo competition: a mediocre baseball team that is trying to get better at the 2018 Winter Meetings.

“You could argue,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said last year, “That there is more competition to get the No. 1 pick in the draft than to win the World Series.” He was defending his team as one of the few going for a championship.

Well, last week Dipoto traded his starting second baseman, Robinson Canó, and the best young closer in the game, Edwin Díaz, to the Mets.

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As it stands today, there are six teams—the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Astros, the Braves, the Cubs and the Dodgers—that made the playoffs last year and appear to have the throttle open. The Nationals, the Cardinals and the Phillies missed out, but Washington has already signed the richest free agent deal so far this winter (lefty Patrick Corbin, for six years and $140 million), St. Louis traded for star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Philadelphia owner John Middleton said that his team was “expecting to spend money, and maybe even be a little stupid about it.” The Indians, A’s, Brewers and Rockies made the postseason but are somewhat financially limited. The Mets finished below .500 but control two of the best young pitchers in baseball for two more years. Another 15 clubs have shown that they were watching closely when the Astros and the Cubs demonstrated that one way to win a lot of baseball games is to first lose a lot.

That leaves us with the Padres, a member of an endangered species—and one of the sport’s last hopes. It’s absolutely true that tanking at the major league level and stockpiling minor league talent can be an effective way to build a franchise, but it’s not much fun to watch.

San Diego is mired in a long postseason drought. The Padres last won a playoff series in 1998, when they made it to the World Series only to be swept by the Yankees. (That season was long enough ago that only one active player took the field that year, free agent Bartolo Colón.) San Diego won the NL West in 2005 and ’06, but that had more to do with an abysmal division than a good Padres team; in both cases it was bounced quickly from the NLDS. The club has not won more than 77 games since GM A.J. Preller took over in mid-2014, but only once has that ordinariness come by design.

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Preller spent his first offseason remaking the roster, trading top prospects to the Dodgers for outfielder Matt Kemp; trading top prospects to the Rays and Nationals as part of a three-team trade for first baseman Wil Myers; trading top prospects to the Braves for outfielder Justin Upton; spending $75 million on righty James Shields; and trading top prospects to the Braves for closer Craig Kimbrel and outfielder Melvin Upton Jr.

The Padres proceeded to lose three more games than they had the year before. Preller unloaded most of his new acquisitions and undertook what amounted to a one-year flash rebuild. By the following year, he had stopped selling. His team won 71 games. San Diego’s window of contention seemed solidly closed. So Preller tried to pry it open, signing first baseman Eric Hosmer to the largest deal in franchise history, eight years for $144 million. The Padres won 66 games last season. A trend like that might cause some general managers to scuffle through one more losing season, collect one more top draft pick and wait.

Entering the winter meetings, Preller was reportedly in on everyone from shortstop Manny Machado and outfielder Bryce Harper—both expected to command $300 million deals—to righty Noah Syndergaard and catcher J.T. Realmuto, who would both require San Diego to dip into its league-best farm system. Preller is unlikely to acquire a one-year rental, but there is a real chance he makes a move that will improve his team this season as well as next.

The Padres may be terrible this year. But they deserve credit for trying not to be.

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