NO MLB TEAM TRANSFORMED ITSELF AS COMPLETELY AS THE PADRES DID LAST WINTER. IT'S TOO SOON TO SAY IF THEY'LL BE GOOD, BUT THEY SURE ARE MUST-WATCH
This is an article from the May 18, 2015 issue
DISASTER NEARLY struck Petco Park on the evening of April 25: It looked like rain, and nobody, for the life of them, could figure out where the tarp was. This was understandable. Although the Padres have weathered many problems in recent years, the weather has not been one of them. Petco, situated in the heart of San Diego's hip, pristine Gaslamp Quarter, has experienced a single rainout since it opened in 2004, and has not even had a delay since '11. As the storm clouds gathered, stadium workers mounted a search for the infield prophylactic. Eventually, someone found the thing in the bowels of the stadium; as it turned out, it was not required. "The Red Sox have a half-million-dollar-a-year deal for their L.L. Bean tarp cover," says Mike Dee, the Padres' bald, deeply tanned CEO, who was an executive with Boston for eight years. "We couldn't get that in San Diego."
For most of the past decade, the Padres have been as predictable as their hometown's climate—and just as likely to send San Diegans scrambling for the beach. They annually fielded clubs that produced variations on the same theme: Their pitching was good but not nearly as good as their hitting was bad. Between their last playoff appearance, in 2006, and '14, the Padres ranked sixth among the majors' 30 teams in runs allowed but 29th in runs scored, and the last time Petco finished higher than 11th in the NL in attendance was 2007.
Last season represented the nadir of what had become the unfortunate Padre Way. The pitching—led by starters Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross—was typically strong, ranking fourth overall with a 3.27 ERA, but the lineup scored the third-fewest runs of any in a nonstrike year since 1978. "The offense sucked—I don't know how else to describe it," says Ron Fowler, the San Diego beer mogul who led the group that finally bought the club from the increasingly beleaguered John Moores in August 2012. "We went back to the baseball people and said, 'O.K., what are we looking to do?' They were like, Well, it is what it is."
The ax fell on general manager Josh Byrnes last June. Another reasonable interpretation of his response to ownership was not that he was throwing up his hands, but that he remained committed to the rebuilding scheme he had instituted upon becoming GM just 2½ years earlier, with the goal of creating a sustainable winner despite San Diego's small-market resources. But Fowler and his fellow investors were restless. "We realized the fans were getting frustrated because they didn't see us doing anything, and we probably needed to be more aggressive," says Fowler. "We were looking for someone who didn't mind being the David in David and Goliath, who really had a different way of looking at things."
By August the organization had winnowed roughly 20 candidates down to one: A.J. Preller, a 37-year-old who had spent the previous decade running the Rangers' scouting department. When Preller launched his first attack, four months later during the winter meetings in San Diego, it was not with a slingshot but with a trebuchet. In the early morning hours of Dec. 11, he acquired Matt Kemp, the 30-year-old Dodgers superstar, in exchange for catcher Yasmani Grandal and a pair of pitching prospects.
As other members of the Padres' front office shook hands and headed out into the night to celebrate the deal, Preller sat contemplatively on the sofa in the club's suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. "What are you doing now?" Dee asked him.
"I'm going to go down and see Tampa," Preller said.
"It's 2:30 in the morning!"
"Those guys work late."
Wil Myers, the Rays' 24-year-old slugger, was a Padre nine days later. In short order the team added A's catcher Derek Norris, and Braves rightfielder Justin Upton, and Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and Royals ace James Shields, and then, on the eve of Opening Day, Craig Kimbrel, the Braves' dominant closer. Preller had engineered one of the boldest one-winter rebuilds baseball had ever seen, replacing all but two members of his lineup without, somehow, sacrificing any of the key pieces of his quietly excellent staff. Whatever the Padres now were, one thing was certain: They would no longer be boring.
DURING HIS nine months with the Padres, Preller, a Long Islander who speaks quietly and fast and not often about himself, has unwittingly inspired something of a cult of personality. Newly invigorated Padres employees can't help but exchange whispered details they have learned about him, though these often fall more into the realm of rumor than fact. It is said that he doesn't sleep. (He does, if irregularly.) That he turned down a full ride to Yale Law School for an internship with MLB. (He never applied to law school.) That while other GM candidates the Padres interviewed showed up with professionally bound presentations, he came with a few scribble-covered sheets of paper and barely looked at them over the course of a dozen hours of interviews. (True.)
One thing not in doubt is that Preller has a relentlessly active baseball mind, and it never stops whirring. "I think when you're talking to him, he's always trying to figure out ways to make the team better," says Kemp. "I think he's always worried about work."
Preller's first attempt at a franchise-changing move proved unsuccessful, when the Giants' free-agent third baseman Pablo Sandoval rejected his offer of more than $100 million and instead signed a five-year, $95 million contract with the Red Sox in late November. Yet even as Sandoval was in the process of rebuffing him, Preller was continuing talks with the Dodgers' new brain trust of team president Andrew Friedman and G.M. Farhan Zaidi that had begun weeks before, and centered on Kemp. Although intradivisional trades are rare, says Preller, "They really wanted a catcher, and we were looking for a guy who could spearhead what we were trying to do and a guy who could hit the ball out of the ballpark."
Back in 2011, after Kemp completed a magnificent, near-MVP season in which he batted .324 with 39 home runs, 126 RBIs and 40 stolen bases, the idea that Los Angeles would trade him before the eight-year, $160 million deal he signed that November had expired seemed far-fetched to everyone, Kemp included. "I'd been with them since I was 18 years old," he says. "I never saw myself wearing a different jersey."
He also never saw himself as vincible—"When you're younger, you feel like you won't ever get hurt," he says—but suddenly, starting in 2012, he was. He pulled his left hamstring, and then he ran into an outfield wall and tore the labrum in his left shoulder. The next season he strained his right hamstring, then during an awkward slide injured his left ankle so badly that it eventually required microfracture surgery. Kemp tried to play through it all, but his numbers suffered, and his once lauded defense was increasingly maligned. "I just couldn't run the way I wanted to run," he says. The low point came during the '13 playoffs, which he spent with his arm in a sling and his foot in a boot after back-to-back surgeries. By that point Kemp knew that his Dodgers future was no longer assured, even after he rebounded during the second half of last season, hitting .309 with 17 home runs and 54 RBIs after the All-Star break. "When I used to hear my name mentioned in trade rumors, I'd get phone calls from the front office telling me, That's not going to happen," he says. "But not those last two years." In fact, the first call Kemp ever received from Friedman, in December, proved an awkward one. "He was like, 'This is weird meeting you like this. But we traded you.'"
To Kemp, though, it seemed like fate. At 30, he had grown tired of chasing the celebrity life—"I had my Hollywood moments. They're over," says the onetime squire of Rihanna—and had two years ago purchased a house in the quiet town of Poway ("mountains, green grass"), which is a half-hour north of San Diego. The Padres, meanwhile, had found their new centerpiece, and one who was relatively affordable: The Dodgers agreed to pay $32 million of the $107 million remaining on his contract, turning it, from San Diego's perspective, into a five-year, $75 million deal.
"I say this in a positive sense: This team, since Adrian Gonzalez left, really didn't have what I call a diva, a star, the person who stirs the drink, so to speak," says Fowler. Says Bud Black, now in his ninth year as the Padres' manager, "I think that when you acquire a guy of that magnitude, an All-Star player with a great personality, it straightens you up a little bit. It straightened the fan base up. When you add to it Upton, Myers, Norris, Middlebrooks, then to get Shields and at the very end cap it with Kimbrel, it made everybody just go, Ooh."
So far, Kemp's Padres tenure has involved daily 5:45 a.m. arrivals during spring training and a concerted effort to integrate himself into the clubhouse. "If I do something wrong, he lets me know right away," says first baseman Yonder Alonso, appreciatively. Kemp's physical ailments do linger; his ankle, in particular, is still not entirely right. "Walls are undefeated," he says. Even if Kemp might never be what he once was, a compromised version of him is more than anything the Padres have recently had. Through his first 33 games he was batting .275 with one home run and 20 RBIs. "I feel good at the plate right now," he says. "I don't think my power numbers are where everybody wants them to be. But it's the first month of the season. It will come."
WILL IT? Are the reimagined Padres more than a headline-grabbing plastic-surgery job? The early returns have been encouraging, but mixed. As of Sunday the Padres were tied for the fourth-most runs scored in baseball, entirely new ground for a franchise that hasn't finished higher than 19th in more than a decade. They are also regularly filling up Petco Park, with an average attendance—more than 32,000—that ranked fourth in the National League. "I think the Kimbrel trade, at the 11th hour, just said to the community, Hey, these guys are all in," says Fowler. "They are prepared to rock 'n' roll."
Despite all those runs scored, San Diego started just 17--16, largely because it had allowed 150 of them, the majors' sixth most, partially a result of its defense being populated with relatively lumbering sluggers.
Still, the Padres are competitive, and their long-term plan has only just begun. The acquisition of so many major league bats came at a heavy cost to their farm system, as Preller stripped it of no fewer than nine of its top 16 prospects, as ranked by Baseball America. But Preller is a scout at heart, and one who helped transform the Rangers' formerly barren system into one of the game's best, and he's got a few years to replicate that with the Padres. "It's not just about doing it one way, one year," Preller says. "It's about sustaining it. The Blue Jays did it with Pat Gillick in the '80s and '90s. The Braves did it, the Yankees did it, the Cardinals, the Red Sox recently. The Rangers had it going like that for a while. That's the ideal, when you get it going that way, when you've got a chance to contend for a division title every single year, with different players and different personalities."
Preller's mind seems to wander. Is he conjuring his next set of moves? "Yeah, probably two or three more in the next week or so," he says. He's kidding. "Nah, I think you let these guys go play—you know?"
"I think he's a genius," Kemp says of his GM. Then he grins. No future, he has learned, is guaranteed. "He is a genius, for right now."
Padres' rank in runs scored from 2006 through '14; last season they scored the third-fewest runs of any team in a nonstrike year since 1978, with 535.
San Diego's rank in runs scored this season through Sunday. The team as a whole is hitting .255/.309/.400, compared with .226/.292/.342 in 2014.
The team's rank in average MLB attendance so far this season, with 32,393 fans showing up per game; last year they were 20th (with 27,103).