After two seasons as GM, A.J. Preller’s main contributions have been trades that were scrutinized, either because they didn’t work, or they involved some less than forthright disclosure of injury information. Both have been written about more than enough, notably by national baseball writers that don’t seem to enjoy saying anything nice about the Padres.
Fans of Preller focus more on the newly revamped farm system that is one of the deepest in baseball right now. It is full of high-ceiling prospects that could change the sports landscape in San Diego. The flip side, however, is the immense risk that these high-ceiling prospects carry. Most haven’t sniffed the upper minor leagues, and have value that is mostly driven by what they could potentially do, rather than what they have done as professional baseball players.
This is the strategy the Padres are implementing, and given Preller’s track record as an international scouting guru, prior to being hired as Padres GM, it stands to reason that this is what the ownership had in mind when they chose Preller. To some degree, investments into high upside future talent were going to be a part of the Padres’ strategy. The failure of the trades prior to the 2015 season, and subsequent fire sale to cut spending, just put more money into the budget for signing draftees and international free agents in 2016.
It’s logical, but that doesn’t mean it will work.
What would a realistic worst-case scenario look like, and would it cost Preller his job?
Let’s start with pitchers. To me, it honestly seems like a miracle that any pitcher can be successful at the major league level. So many things have to go right. First of all, a major league pitcher has to be a freak of nature that can push his arm to the limits of what is physically possible to accurately throw a sphere more than 90 miles an hour. And they can’t just be somewhat accurate, they need to have something close to pinpoint accuracy; to evade the other freaks of nature, holding a bat in their hands, that are waiting for any little deviation from that pinpoint accuracy to clobber that previously mentioned sphere into the next county. For close to 100 times a game, one or two games a week. For six months a year, not counting spring training or the post season.
That pitching prospects pan out less often than hitters do is no surprise. The physical toll is exemplified by the number of pitchers with scars on their elbow from Tommy John surgery. Scars that several Padres’ pitching prospects already have, the most promising of which is Cal Quantrill. All reports indicate that he is healthy now, but a worst case scenario would see him succumb to elbow troubles again and never reach his full potential because of it. Tommy John surgery is successful a majority of the time, and there is no reason to think Quantrill will be an unsuccessful case, but the fact that he underwent the surgery as an amateur does increase the risk.
The other top pitchers in the Padres farm, Anderson Espinoza and Adrian Morejon, are extremely talented and could very well become top of the rotation starters. However, both are still in the lower levels of the minor leagues and carry more risk because of it. Morejon is transitioning from a different country and hasn’t pitched professionally in the U.S. yet.
Espinoza has the stuff scouts like, but his performances in 2016 were a bit underwhelming. Durability in handling as many innings pitched as possible is a key part of being a top of the rotation starter, and both guys are also a little undersized. Given that smaller pitchers aren’t always the most durable, it’s not a stretch to imagine Espinoza and Morejon struggling to find that durability. If they did turn out to be mid-rotation starters, that still would be considered a success and they would provide value for the club. However, the idea behind loading up on several high-ceiling guys is, you want to hit big on one of them. If Quantrill is lost to injury and Morejon and Espinoza aren’t top of the rotation guys, that will sting.
Dinelson Lamet and Jacob Nix are two more potential members of a future Padres’ rotation. Lamet is close to getting his chance, but he might not have the off-speed stuff and control to avoid moving to the bullpen, which would reduce his value. Nix, on the other hand, has reportedly increased his command. Combined with his durable frame and velocity, Nix might be the least risky pitcher in the Padres’ farm right now, but he would still need to take more steps forward to become more than a mid-rotation guy. Again, there’s value in this scenario, but less value than what the Padres are hoping for.
On the hitting side of things, Manuel Margot also has a low-risk profile. His plus defending and ability to make strong contact mean that he’s a good bet to become a valuable major leaguer, even if he doesn’t hit enough to bat at the top of the batting order. Hunter Renfroe also looks like more of a sure thing after making an explosive major league debut last September, but he carries the risk of being a power first guy that might not be able to make enough contact for the power to matter. We’ve seen what his hot streaks look like. The worst case with Renfroe is that he turns into a Chris Carter-esque masher, that despite having the type of power that can change a season, bounces around from team to team because the batting average isn’t good enough.
Jorge Ona and Michael Gettys are two other high-ceiling hitting prospects in the Padres’ farm with the tools to be difference makers, but they also need to prove they can make enough contact for those tools to matter. For Gettys, it’s his speed and defense that stand out, and while he improved in 2016, he has more to prove at the plate as he approaches the majors. He may always struggle at the plate, and therefore may never be more than a fourth outfielder. Ona is another guy making the transition to professional ball as well as a new country. It’s impossible to know at this point how his tools will translate in professional games.
There are many, many more prospects in the Padres’ farm system with high ceilings. A scenario in which Quantrill is lost to injury, Espinoza and Morejon become less than top of the rotation starters, and Lamet moves to the bullpen, would be disappointing. Renfroe, Gettys, and Ona not hitting enough for their talent in other areas to matter much, would be a disappointment as well. But these guys falling short of their potential still might not matter with the sheer number of high-ceiling talent in the Padres’ farm that I haven’t mentioned. These are the guys most likely to become stars the earliest though, and if none of them do, it will be hard for the Padres to do more than flirt with playoff contention anytime soon. The new owners are willing to spend money on the club, but it’s still a small market club. If plan A doesn’t work, throwing money at a plan B isn’t going to happen. And if plan A fails, it’s architect might not get to stick around to put his next plan into place. It will be a few years before we know if plan A works, so no, A.J. Preller is not on the hot seat. Not yet.