Building a Winner: How the Padres Went From Last Place to the Playoffs

General Manager A.J. Preller has put the Friars in a position they've never been in

The Padres are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Their 14-year playoff drought was the 2nd-longest active streak in baseball. The only team with a longer post-season absence is (perhaps somewhat fittingly) the team they beat to reach the playoffs, the Seattle Mariners, who last tasted October baseball in 2001.

In between those post-season appearances the Friars organization used the term “rebuilding” more often than The Home Depot.

The late Kevin Towers did it before he was let go. Jed Hoyer did it before he left foe the north side of Chicago. Josh Byrnes did it before he was let go. After Byrnes’ firing A.J. Hinch even had a brief stint running the operations and trading All-Star closer Huston Street before he went to Houston.

What is to follow is a look at how the current G.M. went about assembling this club that snapped the decade and a half run of frustration.

On August 6, 2014, the Padres hired A.J. Preller to be their new general manager and oversee yet another reconstruction project. He kept things low-key for a couple of months, only doing the everyday baseball things like moving players up and down in the farm system and updating injury lists.

His first trade came in November of that year, an innocuous deal sending LF Reymond Fuentes to the Royals for LHP Kyle Bartsch.

A week before Christmas, all hell broke loose.

Between December 18 and December 19 Preller made the following moves:

  • Traded C Yasmani Grandal, RHP Joe Wieland and LHP Zach Eflin to the Dodgers for OF Matt Kemp, C Tim Federowicz and cash considerations
  • Traded RHP Jesse Hahn and RHP R.J. Alvarez to the Athletics for C Derek Norris and RHP Seth Streich
  • Traded 2B Jace Peterson, LHP Max Fried, 3B Dustin Peterson and CF Mallex Smith to the Braves for OF Justin Upton and RHP Aaron Northcraft
  • In a 3-team deal, traded C Rene Rivera, RHP Burch Smith and 1B Jake Bauers to the Rays and traded RHP Joe Ross and a Player to Be Named Later (recently drafted SS Trea Turner) to the Nationals for OF Wil Myers, C Ryan Haniagan, LHP Jose Castillo and RHP Gerardo Reyes

A few more minor deals followed before Preller signed James Shields to the biggest free agent contract in franchise history then dropped another bomb, sending CF Cameron Maybin, LF Carlos Quentin, LF Jordan Paroubeck and RHP Matt Wisler to Atlanta for RHP Craig Kimbrel and OF Melvin Upton Jr. just before Opening Day.

Needless to say the Friar Faithful went bonkers.

San Diego averaged more than 30,000 fans a game for the first time since 2007, when they went to game 163 and lost to the Rockies.

As history shows us, it didn’t work.

After all the upheaval they went 74-88, fired manager Bud Black in the middle of the season, replaced him with the disastrous and mercifully short tenure of Pat Murphy, let Dave Roberts get hired by the Dodgers and went with Andy Green as their new skipper.

The only guy from all those moves who’s still around is Myers, who earned a big contract with an All-Star year in 2016 then became a target for Padres fans for three underachieving seasons before a complete resurgence in 2020 that’s likely going to earn him the Comeback Player of the Year award.

Preller found out the hard way a quick rebuild usually doesn’t work in baseball. You need immense amounts of talent and a deep system. So, as quickly as he built it, he ripped it down to the studs and started again with a very different approach.

Preller parted with all those pieces for prospects or draft picks, then traded away many of those players for better prospects. He got the ownership group to invest darn near $100 million on the international market in 2016, a haul that included Luis Patino, Adrian Morejon, Michel Baez and Jorge Ona on the current team.

But it also featured players who became assets. Ronald Bolanos was traded to the Royals for lefty reliever Tim Hill. Gabriel Arias was part of the package that brought back Mike Clevinger. Having assets means you can get better big leaguers and do it consistently.

Once he got the system to where it could keep growing from within he asked ownership to back up the Brinks trucks and to the infinite credit of Ron Fowler and Peter Seidler, they did it. Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado signed on for a combined $444 million. They’re two of the most influential and productive players on the 2020 roster.

Let us not forget a few solid waiver wire additions. Valhalla High School alum Greg Garcia has become an invaluable utility bench piece and Kirby Yates became the best closer in the game before needing surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 resulted in losing seasons. Then this year the switch finally flipped as Preller made all the right moves. 17 players on the active roster were acquired within the last 10 months, using currency he'd been building up over the years.

On the current 40-man roster there’s only one player left who was in the system before Preller took over. It’s a pretty good one. Dinelson Lamet, the right-hander with the most vicious slider in baseball who will likely be San Diego’s Game 1 or Game 2 playoff starter is the only guy they kept around.

Not all the moves have worked. Fried looks like he’s going to be a Cy Young winner at some point. Turner is probably going to win a batting title or two. But overall the Padres, even after all the moves this year, still have one of the best farm systems in the game and look to be set up for years of success.

Oh, and the final piece of the puzzle might be hiring Jayce Tingler as the skipper. He’s probably going to win the National League Manager of the Year award and has won over the clubhouse in one of the craziest years in modern history. Preller adjusting his approach to a rebuild and a manager search shows he’s a lot like the owners of the organization:

Smart, adaptable, and not afraid to fail a few times to get something right in the long-run. Isn’t that the very essence of baseball? San Diego native Ted Williams is credited with saying "Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer."

Preller is hitting .500 in his rebuild attempts. The good news is this one looks like it’s going to last long enough for him not to have to attempt a third.

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