When I checked in on the San Diego Padres during my week in Arizona for spring training, manager Bud Black was running his annual 3-point contest on a cement half-court outside the team clubhouse. The day I was there, general manager A.J. Preller's team participated and Preller, wearing baggy shorts down past his knees that made him look 27 instead of 37, drained shot after shot. As the other players on his team took their rounds and then the players on the other team, Preller paced around the court, a bundle of high-energy intensity.
This is a guy who wants to win.
Of course, all general managers want to win. That's what they're paid to do. But how many back it up with this kind of action? How many have the stamina and passion to work on a few hours of sleep and the guts to make big move after big move? After a busy offseason that made the Padres interesting and nationally relevant for the first time in nearly a decade, Preller made another huge move on the eve of Opening Day, trading outfielders Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin, pitching prospect Matt Wisler, outfield prospect Jordan Paroubeck and the 41st pick in the 2015 draft to the Atlanta Braves for All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and center fielder Melvin Upton Jr.
Prospects? Who needs prospects? Preller has now dealt away Wisler, Trea Turner, Joe Ross, Max Fried, Zach Eflin, Jace Peterson and R.J. Alvarez, seven of the team's top 11 prospects entering the offseason, according to Baseball America. Paroubeck and Dustin Peterson were second-round picks in 2013, so they clearly have talent as well.
@dschoenfield Yep. Gotta respect the hustle. Preller gets an A+++ for effort.— Brad Vietrogoski (@BradVietro) April 5, 2015
Most GMs are afraid to clean out the farm system like that. But Preller, known for his hours spent on the back diamonds during his front office days with the Texas Rangers, has taken a different approach: win now. But if he's properly evaluated the talent traded away, he may have acquired valuable big league assets without giving much in return. Prospects, after all, are bets.
Even then, Preller hasn't really built the 2015 Padres at the expense of the future. The payroll isn't much higher than last year's $90 million. Matt Kemp is signed through 2019; Wil Myers is under team control through 2019; Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks are both in their final pre-arbitration year. Only Justin Upton, a free agent after the season, is a short-term acquisition.
The question is whether Preller has built a baseball team or a collection of talent. The outfield defense, with Myers in center and Kemp in right, could be problematic. The entire infield has potential issues offensively. The lineup is too right-handed, with first baseman Yonder Alonso -- coming off a .682 OPS -- and light-hitting shortstop Alexi Amarista the only regular left-handed bats. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross were terrific last season, but Cashner missed time and both have had injury histories. But a rotation with those two, free agent James Shields and workhouse Ian Kennedy should be excellent if they all stay healthy.
Kimbrel obviously adds a huge weapon to a bullpen that had a 2.73 ERA last season -- second-best in the majors. A bullpen deep enough that Kevin Quackenbush (2.48 ERA in 54 1/3 IP last season with 56 strikeouts) and Brandon Maurer (2.17 ERA in relief with the Mariners where his fastball averaged 96 mph) had already been sent down to Triple-A. So while the bullpen wasn't necessarily a concern, you add maybe the best closer in the game, depending on how you feel about Kimbrel compared to Aroldis Chapman or Greg Holland. That pushes Joaquin Benoit back into the setup role where he was so dominant last season and allows Black to match up as much as possible with his other relievers.
To get Kimbrel, the Padres had to take on the contract of Upton the Elder, currently on the disabled list with a foot problem. He's owed $46.35 million the next three seasons; the Padres traded away about $23 million salary in Maybin and Quentin, so the deficit is still $23 million to carry Upton on the bench.
Plus the prospects. For the Braves, the rebuilding mission of John Hart means Kimbrel would have been wasted the next few years on a bad team. Trading him made sense; plus, who knows, the Braves may have milked the four best years of his career anyway. His strikeout rate, a Bugs Bunny-like 50 percent back in 2012, has been at 38 percent the past two seasons. Still otherworldly, but a sign that he's probably already had his most dominant season.
Wisler is the prize of the deal, a Grade B starter prospect who is close to ready for the majors. Maybin, once part of the Miguel Cabrera deal between the Marlins and Tigers, has never lived up to his prospect hype and has battled injuries the past couple of seasons, but he at least gives the Braves a legit defensive center fielder; they had been counting on utility man Eric Young Jr. in the absence of Upton. The oft-injured Quentin is best considered midseason trade bait.
The Braves are going to have a terrible offense but Hart and their fans can dream on a future rotation of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller, a healthy Mike Minor and any combo of the young arms they've collected -- Wisler, Fried, Tyrell Jenkins and Mike Foltynewicz, plus homegrown Lucas Sims.
I think it's a trade that is justifiable on both ends. The Padres cleared out some of their outfield excess and picked up an elite ninth-inning reliever. If they get to the postseason, we've seen what a dominant bullpen can do. The Braves pick up talent that maybe helps down the road.
For Preller, the plan is for his road to lead to Kimbrel getting the final out in the 2015 World Series. We'll see; one thing is for sure, however: The Padres matter and that's something right there.