If any general manager generated expectations for instant gratification in the past season, it was A.J. Preller of the San Diego Padres. After giving us one of the most exciting Padres offseasons ever, wheeling and dealing like the second coming of Trader Frank Lane, Preller created heightened expectations that this season’s Padres might contend and -- once that didn’t happen -- that they might be equally busy around the trade deadline. But the funny thing is, Preller hasn’t delivered on any of that: not the contending team or any subsequent wheeling and dealing. And there are a number of reasons to believe there won’t be any, so you can say goodbye to the instant-gratification Padres of the recent past.
It’s a situation sort of like that in the Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” where the key clue was that the guard dog didn’t bark -- or in this case, what Preller hasn’t done. He didn’t get sucked into a fairly weak seller’s market. And obviously, he didn’t hear from someone so desperate to land a present-day Padre that he couldn’t resist pulling the trigger. Preller understandably put a brave face on it, saying he liked this team and liked its chances of contending.
But the fact the Padres didn’t deal any major asset says a couple of things about Preller’s position, not just at the deadline but also right now and for the immediate future. The Padres were four games under .500 at the end of July, and they’re five games under now. Perhaps Preller was unrealistic about this team’s chances all along, but at the deadline it means this team is as good now as it was then: better, but not good.
First, last winter’s flash and dazzle aside, it’s important to remember the farm system Preller inherited wasn’t overwhelming. Mid-stream in Preller’s dealing, Keith Law rated the Pad farm just 18th overall, and that was before they dealt Matt Wisler and Max Fried to the Atlanta Braves and before top hitting prospect Hunter Renfroe put up mediocre numbers in Double-A. Even before Preller packed off many of the few prospects he inherited (including Wisler, Fried, Joe Ross and Trea Turner), it was going to be years before his player development team restocked the organization with their own products. While they did well in their first draft, the team’s best asset remains its big league roster.
Second, the hand Preller can peddle from isn’t as strong as you might think. Take Justin Upton, the player who possesses what might be the hardest commodity to find: power. Does dealing him as a free-agent-to-be really make sense? Perhaps not when he’s almost certain to trigger a qualifying offer and -- if he spurns it -- leave a compensation pick in next June’s draft in his wake. Any offer on Upton has to be in the ballpark of what a late first-round draft pick would be worth to the Padres, and while valuing draft picks is tough, it’s still perhaps somewhere in the range of $1.2 million or so per year over six years of team control of whoever they draft.
So beyond the value of trading for the value of Upton’s next six weeks to your contending team to be named later, that team would also have to give the Padres that draft-pick value. And that’s before getting into Preller’s stated position that the Padres would be willing to re-sign Upton, so they have nothing to fear from making a qualifying offer at the least. And although it’s early yet, the 2016 draft looks like a stronger crop than 2015’s talent. Why give up an extra bite at that apple?
Outside of Upton, the Padres really don’t have many premium talents on short time to flip. Ian Kennedy is the fourth or fifth starter on the Padres; he’d be no better than a fifth starter on a contender. Joaquin Benoit is a solid late-game arm whose best feature might be a 2016 option for $8 million to spare the team acquiring him from having to replace him. But Benoit isn’t going to get you an impact prospect, and because of that option, he’s Pads property next year anyway, so there’s no need to move him. Shawn Kelley is a useful righty reliever only signed through this season who might bring a C-grade prospect -- the key word being "might."
So, no big difference-making deals there. What else is out there? Among the veterans under club control for years to come, James Shields is a win-now asset, and he cleared revocable waivers. But after last winter’s long wait, what’s to say he commands a ton of interest now, when it might take multiple prospects instead of mucho moolah and a pick to get him? Jim Bowden’s fun suggestion aside, given a choice between Pablo Sandoval’s next four years and Shields’, I’d pick the pitcher over the Panda. If the Padres were going to deal Shields, a pitcher who helps them right now, for someone else who can help them right now, I’d just observe that there aren’t all that many win-now players available while so many teams still think they have a shot at a wild card -- and winning now.
What’s left? Craig Kimbrel is a premium closer under control through 2018, but most contenders are squared away for closers; dealing him almost certainly wouldn’t bring back what it just took to get him. Matt Kemp is rooted in place. (Yes, "Family Guy" fans, that means two things.) Young arbitration-eligible talents such as Tyson Ross and Derek Norris are among the guys Preller is banking on to have upside in the years to come.
So it isn’t going to surprise me in the least if the Padres do with the waiver-trade deadline exactly what they did at the July 31 deadline: nothing. And to be fair, they have other things to sort out, like where they’ll play Wil Myers once he comes back from the DL. But if you’re expecting instant gratification from the Padres, guess again. A.J. Preller made a great first impression, but now he’s strapped in for the long haul.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.