Since August 2014 when he was hired as general manager, A.J. Preller has forged a reputation as a master at identifying young talent in the draft and through other means like the Latin American market. The ultimate judgment on the success of those players at the major league level or in their use as trade bait will take several years. In the meantime, Preller has demonstrated much less acumen in choosing veteran players to add to the roster.
Kevin Towers (the Padres’ GM from 1995-2006) has the inverse reputation. Many of Towers draft picks, especially first round picks, bombed, some spectacularly like Matt Bush in 2004. However, he demonstrated a genius for acquiring veterans especially leading up to the Padres’ 1998 playoff run that ended in a loss to the New York Yankees.
Towers had the benefit of taking over a team with All-Star-to-be Tony Gwynn, one of the best hitters to ever play the sport. Drafted by Jack McKeon aka Trader Jack, Gwynn also played under Randy Smith and Joe McIlvaine
After assessing the existing team, Towers then set out choosing a group of players, mainly through trades and free agent signings, that could compete. He brought in pitchers Andy Ashby (3.2 WAR), Trevor Hoffman, (3.1), Sterling Hitchcock (1.5) and Kevin Brown (9.6).
As the story goes, when the rest of the team found out about the trade for Brown, they knew the Padres’ front office was serious about winning. Brown went 18-7, Ashby 17-9, Hitchcock 9-7. Hoffman saved 53 games with an ERA of 1.48 in 1998.
Towers (as GM and previously as Scouting Director) also added infielders Ken Caminiti (129 wRC+, 2.6 WAR), Wally Joyner (121, 2.1), Quilvio Veras (106, 3.0) and Chris Gomez (97, 1.6). Joining Gwynn in the outfield, Steve Finley (89, -0.2) played center and Greg Vaughn left (151, 5.8). Vaughn led the team with 50 home runs and 119 RBI. Every starting fielder on the team had an on-base percentage higher than .300 with Joyner leading the group at .373. Most of the starters on the 2018 roster have an OBP under .300 despite the teams focus on getting on base.
The 1998 Padres obviously had the benefit of that intangible asset called chemistry. But the team also had an enforcer in Ken Caminiti. In 1996 he put the uniform of a player who had criticized Bochy in an interview in the manager’s office. When the player couldn’t find his uni, Caminiti advised him to look for it in the managers’ office since he obviously wanted to manage the team.
Unfortunately, the Padres had the misfortune of facing one of the best teams in history, the New York Yankees with its 114-48 record in the American League East. Ironically that team was built around players drafted and developed by the Yankees including Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte.
By every indication, team chemistry has not been a hallmark under Preller. In fact, the front office has added players like Wil Myers, Freddy Galvis, and Eric Hosmer to help provide leadership and chemistry. Additions like Derek Norris, Melvin Upton Jr., and Matt Kemp have been cited as players that actually disrupted the vibe in the dugout and locker room, but thankfully they have moved on.
The jury will be out on Prellers’ success in the draft and international market for several years, but every ranking system rates the minor league system highly. Players like Eric Lauer, Joey Lucchesi, Luis Urias have arrived, and others are not far behind.
In the meantime, the performance of veterans added under Preller has been mixed at best. Again using wRC+ and WAR, no player has come close to Greg Vaughn. On the current team, Eric Hosmer has a wRC+ of 93, WAR of -0.5; Wil Myers 105, 1.4; Freddy Galvis 76, 0.4. In 2015, Matt Kemp had a wRC+ of 93 and WAR of 1.0; Derek Norris 98, 2.4; Melvin Upton Jr. 110, 1.5; Jon Jay 101, 0.9; Justin Upton 119, 3.4; Clint Barmes 75, 0.2. The following year Norris dropped to 54, -0.4 and shortstop Alexei Ramirez had a miserable 63, -1.5. In 2017, pitcher Jered Weaver had a -1.0 WAR while shortstop Erick Aybar had a wRC+ of 72 and WAR of -0.2.
One of the more troubling aspects of Preller’s’ record in trading for or signing veteran talent has been the fact that Myers and Hosmer have the highest contracts of any Padres’ players in the history of the team. The Padres have a commitment to Hosmer through 2025, and he will make $20 million a year through 2022. Myers will start earning $20 million in 2020. Neither has performed at a level commensurate with their contracts so far.
While fans await the arrivals of young players like Fernando Tatis Jr., Mackenzie Gore, and Chris Paddack to show up, the Padres’ front office must find a way to improve the quality of veterans added to the team.
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