A.J. Preller brings baseball fever to San Diego

A.J. Preller
A.J. Preller’s aggressive offseason continued with the signing of free-agent pitcher James Shields. (MLB)

Life is never easy if you’re a fan of the San Diego Padres, the “other” team that resides on the west coast. While the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have all established winning traditions, the Padres have floundered in mediocrity since the turn of the century. For the club’s few loyal patrons who file into the city’s beautiful downtown ball yard, the only attractions have been promotional giveaways like fashionable floppy hats or fluffy beach towels.

Last season, the gloom was felt in epic proportions. It was bad enough that this team stumbled through another losing season for the ninth time in 14 years. The franchise lost its two most iconic figures in the passing of Jerry Coleman and Tony Gwynn. Both men are enshrined in Cooperstown and have majestic statues that greet patrons at PETCO Park. I might as well throw in the firing of General Manager Josh Byrnes and the demise of all-star shortstop Everth Cabrera as other negative vibes during the year. For the well-paid yet oft-injured slugger Carlos Quentin, it was another disappointing effort.

The Padres needed more than their Swinging Friar mascot to restore faith. Not even Pope Francis could fix this franchise. It needed a true savior to lead the way. Enter A.J. Preller, a young rebel executive whose aggressive, relentless behavior would seem to pave the path for a promising future. To San Diego’s baseball community, A.J. Preller has become a Messiah of sorts, and his flock of believers can’t wait for this new beginning to unfold.

A.J. Preller, 37, has called the shots for the San Diego Padres since last August, and I wish I had been a fly on the front office wall when he was officially named general manager. That’s because it must have been entertaining to watch this interesting dude from Long Island stand up to a notoriously stingy ownership and explain that things should be done “his way.” I’m not sure if Frank Sinatra could have done it better. A.J. Preller has emerged as an individual who, like a young Vito Corleone, frequently makes an offer that can’t be refused.

A Cornell graduate who was the assistant general manager for the Texas Rangers when the Padres came calling, A.J. Preller could easily be categorized as one of those new-breed executives, like his pal Jon Daniels or Theo Epstein. But nothing could be further from the truth. Preller is “old school,” and as a former pro scout, feels at home on the road. The scruffy curly hair looks like he just got out of bed, but the man seldom sleeps. Over the last several months, Preller has made whirlwind visits with key staff members throughout the Padres minor league system, analyzing players and poring over reports. But it was the varsity’s dreadful offensive woes that needed immediate attention. And it didn’t take long for the new “bishop” in town to create what would seem to be a small miracle.

Losing out in the Pablo Sandoval and Yasmany Tomas sweepstakes didn’t phase A.J. Preller. His next move to go after Matt Kemp of the Dodgers was successful, and L.A.’s new boss, Andrew Friedman, was even convinced to pitch in $18 million to help cover Kemp’s hefty salary for the up-coming campaign. Off to Chavez Ravine in exchange was Yasmani Grandal, a promising young catcher who has been dogged with injuries and a PED suspension. Now, Preller was on a roll and full of optimism after San Diego hosted the well-publicized Winter Meetings last December. All of his initial deals were designed to put more runs on PETCO’s new scoreboard, which will have the largest video display in the National League. And the rapid fire moves reminded longtime Padre observers of Trader Jack McKeon, the cigar-puffing GM who molded San Diego’s first World Series entry in 1984. The Padres new-look outfield includes Wil Myers and Justin Upton, and power-hitting catcher Derek Norris was brought in from Oakland. The amazing part was that the Friars best bargaining chips — starting pitchers Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross — remained in tact after the dust had settled.

An unexpected encore came when A.J. Preller finally inked his first notable free agent in durable hurler James Shields. The $75 million package calls for “Big Game James” to earn a modest $10 million in a slightly back-loaded pact. The addition makes San Diego’s rotation, already a formidable force, as one of the best in baseball.

“This organization is ready to win now,” judged Shields, a resident of Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County.

The veteran right-hander clearly enjoys center stage, and delivered another comment that delighted the large group of reporters.

“I’ve been telling guys I could hit my whole career,” quipped the former Tampa Bay Devil Ray and Kansas City Royals star. “Now I’ll get the chance to do it every five days.”

I might be wrong, but Shields could have picked up on Preller’s competitive nature and figured the pair had something in common. But nobody knows A.J. like Don Welke, a baseball “lifer” and super scout who has served as both a mentor and father figure. Welke, 72, is best known for his working relationship with Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick in Toronto and Baltimore, where the twosome developed championship teams. While he was with the Dodgers in 2003, the veteran talent guru met Preller, who was working as an assistant in baseball operations.

“A.J. is the brightest young guy I’ve seen in my 47 years in scouting,” praises Welke, who helped discover John Olerud, Pat Hentgen, Josh Hamilton and Neftali Feliz. “We used to talk baseball at Jerry’s Deli on the beach until three or four in the morning.”

When Preller was climbing the ladder and hired by Daniels in Texas, Welke moved along with him. Then, not surprisingly, the tag team partners would settle together again in San Diego. That’s what makes A.J. so unique. He’s a listener who absorbs knowledge and stores it in his memory bank to implement later. It makes sense then, that when Preller was given carte blanche authority to handle baseball affairs, he wasn’t going to run the Padres like Brian Cashman did with the Yankees during the George Steinbrenner era. Despite all the wheeling and dealing, the Friars projected payroll for 2015 will hover in the economical neighborhood of $100 million. The Dodgers will continue to contribute in smaller amounts through the duration of Kemp’s contract. Myers, still considered a budding star, won’t be arbitration eligible until 2017. Norris was an All-Star for Oakland last season but will still be under team control several more years. As for Upton, the soon-to-be free agent figures as a one-year rental. Padres 2013 first-rounder Hunter Renfroe, however, could be ready to fill that spot in 2016.

The San Diego media doesn’t know quite what to make of A.J. Preller just yet. While he’s constantly on his cell phone, calls are seldom returned. At press conferences, he dresses casually and probably wishes he were somewhere else, like near a ball diamond. Welke calls his protege a “baseball rat,” and I get the impression that A.J. would prefer to be in his element, perhaps wearing shorts and a straw hat while soaking in a game somewhere in Latin America. While he was with the Rangers, it should be noted that Preller was an architect of the organization’s successful program in the Dominican Republic, a project that has fallen short of expectations for the Padres. His fluent Spanish was perfected by mingling with ordinary folks in an informal atmosphere, and an expertise in international scouting was quickly developed.

Maybe the San Diego Padres ownership should be lauded for scouting A.J. Preller. They found a brilliant baseball mind with unique instincts for the game who last played organized baseball in high school. After doing their homework, they discovered a driven, blue-collar guy with intelligence and plenty of self confidence. And even more important, they knew their hire wasn’t afraid of a stiff challenge.

“We wanted someone who would take on a David versus Goliath role,” said Padres President Mike Dee.

Obviously, the Friars got their man, and long-suffering supporters in “America’s Finest City” should get ready for a wild ride this summer.

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