When AJ Preller was hired by the San Diego Padres, he was touted as an up and comer in the Texas Rangers organization whose strength was international player evaluation. During his time there, he was handed down a month long suspension from MLB for negotiating with a player in the Dominican Republic who had violated an age/ID discrepancy rule. It was a slap on the wrist to Preller, but didn’t stop his rise to becoming a general manager. If anything, the misstep granted him more positive buzz than negative. After all, before being hired by the Rangers, he had worked under hall of famer Frank Robinson on disciplinary matters at the same MLB office that reprimanded him. Within the context of front office activity, there is no upside to being a complete Boy Scout when it comes to dealing with Latin America. AJ understood this and tried to beat the system. People took notice.
Since December, Preller has added a new layer of interest when it comes to following the Padres. For about a two-week stretch right before Christmas it felt like Julian Assange was running the team. He wasn’t just signing players to reshape the roster and win baseball games; he was creating a new form of communication with baseball fans in this city. With every move he dominated the San Diego sports conversation. Even when the Chargers were fighting for their playoff lives, the volume of his actions made it feel like a direct message was being sent: If you like this new feeling, buy tickets. If you buy tickets, the guys with the money will give me more autonomy to maintain this feeling. Also, the Matrix is real. Let me unplug you.
Not since Billy Beane has a front office person captured the imagination of the baseball community. Beane’s early 2000s Oakland Athletics grabbed attention after an historic winning streak, focusing on solid defense and on-base percentage, while using players on cheap contracts. Beane was solidified as one of the great baseball visionaries when New York Times columnist Michael Lewis took interest and wrote his bestseller Moneyball, which was then followed by the movie adaption starring Brad Pitt. AJ Preller has positioned himself as the logical next leap in the evolution of the modern GM. He hasn’t gotten results yet, but the timing of his moves, compounded with the accelerated approach to pulling them off, has allowed for a market changing wave of anticipation.
This offseason, on the heels of the Padres trading Yasmani Grandal and pitcher Joe Wieland to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp and backup catcher Todd Federowicz, Preller and Billy Beane made a deal. The Padres filled the hole behind the plate with starting catcher Derek Norris, along with getting right-hander Seth Streich and an international signing slot from the A’s for right-handers Jesse Hahn and R.J. Alvarez. It wasn’t much, but it added to the surge of activity AJ had already aggressively put together. By the time of the deal, local and national media had already become accustomed to calling Preller “The Rock Star GM”. In my mind, the post-trade small talk between Billy Beane and AJ was over Skype and went something like this:
Billy: So you’re the hot new thing on the block.
AJ: I’m just trying to stand on your shoulders, sir.
Billy: Call me when they make a movie about you.
AJ: I’ve been approached by Aaron Sorkin.
AJ: Sure, nothing interests me more than giving up all my secrets and never winning a ring.
Billy: What did you say, punk?
AJ: Easy with the hostility, Brad. You’re the pits.
Building up the combative genius personality of AJ Preller that I choose to believe exists is a lot of fun. It beats the narratives going into last season: What are the Padres going to do with Chase Headley? Who is going to be the next PA announcer? Should the Pads start Nick Hundley, the poor hitting, but morally pure catcher over the more talented, but flawed Yasmani Grandal? None of that matters now. It’s Derek Norris’ job and with pitchers and catchers reporting this week, it’s his time to make his presence felt. If he can be a decent bat and develop a great relationship with the pitching staff, things will work out well for the Padres in this department. He hit .246 with 26 home runs in three seasons at Oakland in a platoon situation. Last year he posted career highs, batting .270, with a .361 OBP and 10 home runs.
Prize of the Padres organization, catcher Austin Hedges isn’t ready, but it looks like his ceiling in the next few years will land somewhere near where Derek Norris is right now. If that comes to pass, Preller can move Norris and plug Hedges in for less money. It was a smart baseball move, but it also helps to rid the fan base of confronting the problems with Yasmani Grandal, who led the Padres with 15 homers last season while hitting .225. He was suspended for the first 50 games of 2013 after testing positive for testosterone and then tore up his right knee in a collision at the plate that July. That isn’t fun, but more importantly, that isn’t Preller.
“I was just trying to figure out what a Padre was,” Norris said, smiling during his first press conference with three of his new teammates. It was an innocent and playful statement, but that is something we are all looking at. Are the Padres setting themselves up as a year-in and year-out contender in the National League West? Do they just want to be good for a few years so they can host the All Star game with a nice presence of talent participating in the weekend’s big event? Will AJ Preller leave the team to run for president and fix this country of ours? I don’t know. I do know that we have a new catcher and a new season to figure out what we are.
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(Photo Credit: m.padres.com)