By all accounts, San Diego general manager A.J. Preller subsists on a frat-boy diet and falls woefully short of the seven to eight hours of sleep per night generally recommended by medical professionals. But he makes the absolute most of the 20 waking hours that he spends texting and calling trade partners, spinning scenarios and immersing himself in the obsessive quest to find new players.
Four months into his tenure, Preller is the focal point of the most stunning turn of events in San Diego since Ron Burgundy mouthed off in front of his teleprompter.
After weeks of meetings and holding his front-office team hostage while reconfiguring the roster on his whiteboard, Preller emerged from his cocoon and crammed six weeks of hot stove activity into roughly 48 hours. Matt Kemp appeared at a Padres news conference Friday shortly after the completion of deals involving Wil Myers and Justin Upton, who were introduced via emails from San Diego's frenzied media relations department. The Padres also have a new catcher, 2014 American League All-Star Derek Norris, and a new third baseman, Will Middlebrooks, who will try to regain his old prospect luster after coming over by trade from Boston.
The end result, pending further moves: San Diego's lineup will be offensively formidable and borderline unrecognizable. The Padres might not have the talent to overtake San Francisco and Los Angeles in the National League West. But if it's relevance they're after, the new top baseball man has taken care of that.
The honor of most newsworthy franchise of the hot stove season remains a moving target. The Marlins gave Giancarlo Stanton the biggest contract in MLB history in November and subsequently have made good on their pledge to upgrade the roster around him. The Cubs signed Jon Lester to a $155 million contract, the fifth largest for a starting pitcher in MLB history. The Red Sox added Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and three new starters, and the Royals signed not one but two Scott Boras clients (Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios) in a bid to defend their American League pennant.
Rick Hahn of the White Sox has built his team up, Oakland's Billy Beane is disassembling his roster, and Andrew Friedman of the Dodgers is making a raft of moves to put his stamp on a club with high expectations and baseball's biggest payroll.
Yet the Padres arguably are the No. 1 movers and shakers of the winter because their makeover is so far-reaching and out of, well, left field. A team that ranked 12th in the National League in attendance and 21st in MLB Opening Day payroll in 2014 approaches spring training with a buzz that makes Peoria Stadium a must-see stop on the Cactus League calendar.
It was obvious to everyone who watched San Diego's soporific offense last season that the team needed massive upgrades. The Padres ranked last in the majors with 535 runs scored and a .634 team OPS, and they had to close with a rush to do that well. As team president and CEO Mike Dee recently told ESPN.com when assessing manager Bud Black's performance, "Casey Stengel would not have won with the type of offensive output we had over the first 90 games of 2014.''
Right-handed hitting is so scarce. Rios will receive a guaranteed $11 million from the Royals after hitting four home runs in 492 at-bats and ranking 99th among qualifying hitters with a .709 OPS last season. So it's impressive that Preller could acquire three hitters of such prominence without surrendering top prospects Austin Hedges, Matt Wisler or Hunter Renfroe. The Padres sent starter Max Fried to Atlanta in the Upton trade, but he's four months removed from Tommy John surgery.
Of course, the circumstances surrounding the new acquisitions were less than optimal. Upton is eligible for free agency next winter. The Padres will pay $75 million for five years of Kemp, whose body shows more signs of wear each year, and Myers' golden boy status has faded a bit two years after his American League Rookie of the Year season. Petco Park will be a challenge for San Diego's new outfielders, and defense could be a problem. But they're sure to be a major improvement over last year's outfield contingent, which combined to hit .234 with a total of 29 homers and 141 RBIs.
Preller's willingness to charge in head-first came as no surprise to the baseball colleagues who know him best. That group includes Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels, his former roommate at Cornell University and the man who hired him to scope out talent in Latin America before Preller seized his big break with the Padres in August.
"I think he went in there very open-minded,'' Daniel said. "The prevailing thought was that it was kind of a tear-down and he would trade for prospects and build it back up, especially given his background in the amateur markets. To his credit, when he saw they had a strong pitching foundation and such a good environment with the staff, he knew they had an opportunity to build off that and not take it backwards. I think they've got a vision in place of where they want to go.''
Preller is building quite a reputation for relentlessness in the industry. He chafed on some people with his aggressiveness in signing players out of Latin America for the Rangers, and Baseball America's John Manuel called him "ruthless in a good way.'' A player agent recently compared Preller to a "terrier'' for his persistence, and some people in the Padres' front office half-jokingly suggest they need to find him a girlfriend to inject a little balance in his life.
Preller doesn't have a smidge of publicity hound in him. During the general managers meetings in Phoenix in November, executives filed into a conference room at the Arizona Biltmore each day for a meet-and-greet with the media. Preller, too busy meeting with agents and poring over scouting reports with his staff in San Diego's team suite, was a no-show at two straight sessions.
In Texas, it was always about the next game to scout or the next prospect to sign. One day Daniels picked up the phone and it was his buddy A.J., flat on his back in excruciating pain in a Dominican hotel room with a herniated disc in his neck. Preller put off surgery for two months before finally relenting just as his doctor was preparing to go on vacation. When the procedure finally was scheduled, Preller had exhaustively researched his options and was determined to express his thoughts to the surgeon as he was being wheeled into the operating room on a gurney. The conversation didn't end until the anesthetist sprung into action.
"Some people genetically don't need more than a few hours sleep,'' Daniels said. "That's always been A.J.'s deal. It's a plus from the standpoint of productive hours in a day. He's always grinding on it. But as a friend, I'm kind of worried about his long-term health. I get on him and encourage him to try and take care of himself. That's just who he is.''
It's readily apparent that Preller has the chutzpah, discipline and people skills to broker deals. The more salient question is: When will he stop? With Kemp, Upton, Myers, Seth Smith, Cameron Maybin, Will Venable, Carlos Quentin, Abraham Almonte and Rymer Liriano on the roster, it's a given that he'll trade an outfielder or two between now and spring training. The betting seems to be on Smith, a solid lefty hitter who could fetch a nice piece or two in return.
As Preller contemplates his options, the baseball world will be watching. A Twitter account called @AJPrellerFacts has begun to churn out a daily list of nuggets attesting to his persistence and magical baseball powers:
When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone he already had 3 missed calls from AJ Preller #PrellerFacts
- AJ Preller Facts (@AJPrellerFacts) December 19, 2014
Preller's first trick was taking a nondescript, afterthought team in San Diego and turning it into the talk of baseball. Just imagine what a rock star he'll be if the Padres actually win.