A.J. Preller was hired as general manager of the San Diego Padres in August 2014, and in the years since he joined the organization, it has transformed. The Padres used to have a bottom-five payroll every year, but San Diego’s ownership has since given Preller leeway to build it past $200 million. They used to be non-factors in major free agent dealings and landscape-altering trade deadline moves. Now they are baseball’s most constant and unpredictable talent predators.
But for all the flashy deals and big names, the infusion of star power and the explosion of financial commitments, Preller and the Padres have yet to turn their aggressiveness into postseason achievement. Not only have they failed to make deep runs in the fall, they have made the playoffs only once during his time with the team. They have never won a postseason game during that span.
So while Preller in February 2021 agreed to a promotion and extension that made him GM and president of baseball operations for the Padres through 2026, he nevertheless entered this season under ever-growing scrutiny, if not explicit pressure from the organization that hired him. And with his Padres 11½ games out of first in their division entering play Wednesday and staring up at the Los Angeles Dodgers again, Preller doubled down on the thing that made the Padres hand him the reins in the first place: making the big deal when others — possibly even every other executive in baseball — wouldn’t.
In trading for star outfielder Juan Soto, Preller added to a lineup that has underachieved without injured Fernando Tatis Jr., relied heavily on since-cooled Manny Machado early and compiled the lowest on-base-plus-slugging percentage of any National League team in playoff position. He added to his offense the same way he added to his bullpen the day before, with a splashy deal for the biggest name. In that case, Preller traded his closer, Taylor Rogers, and prospects to the contending Milwaukee Brewers for Josh Hader.
Preller did not navigate the high-priced starting pitching market, which he did not need as desperately. His rotation entered Wednesday’s games pitching to the eighth-best ERA in baseball and generating the eighth-most strikeouts per nine innings. But as he has done over and over, Preller added the big name to the mix instead of the quieter one, went for the market’s biggest prize instead of hunting incremental gains. And he did it by hurling prospects Washington’s way in a return its general manager, Mike Rizzo, said Tuesday “exceeded” the Nationals’ ask — an ask Rizzo suggested was so high no one else would meet it.
Soto will get to play on a loaded roster now, get to shuffle and strut with the swagger of a winning team to back him. He will have better protection in the order. He will have more runners on base in front of him. Soto could, for all those reasons, explode down the stretch.
But he also will be on a team under pressure, one led by one of the game’s most respected managers in Bob Melvin, surrounded by some of its more prominent and eye-catching stars. So Nationals Manager Dave Martinez added a message to his goodbye Tuesday.
“I wished him the very best and told him how much we appreciate him,” Martinez said. “What I want him to understand is when he goes over here, you make that team play up to you.”
Soto is walking into a far more complex clubhouse than the one he walked into in Washington, let alone the one he walked out of. When the Nationals called him up in May 2018, he was the rookie in a clubhouse that included Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon and more. The hierarchies were established and predictable, built among largely homegrown stars, besides Scherzer, over time.
The Padres, in large part because of the frenetic fearlessness that characterizes Preller’s approach to roster construction, often have been more thrown together with a big deal here and there rather than the steady rise of a homegrown core.
Tatis signed a massive deal to become the face of the franchise long term, appeared to sulk somewhat as the Padres struggled down the stretch last year, then was injured in an offseason motorcycle crash that has sidelined him for months. He probably will return shortly after Soto arrives as the newest shiny object, a franchise player in his own right who, as a fellow 23-year-old, somehow has a more impressive résumé than Tatis’s very admirable one.
That clubhouse will just have lost Eric Hosmer, the veteran who has been a consistent if not overly productive presence since he signed there to help shepherd the Padres young roster into contention. His departure will leave Machado, an MVP candidate in his own right, as the veteran with the big locker who is expected to show others the way.
Besides Nelson Cruz and Josh Bell, Soto had become something like that veteran in Washington. He inherited Zimmerman’s locker. He was the face of the team. Now, despite being the only position player on the Padres’ active roster to have won a World Series, he will have to find his place again.
And the Padres will have to find themselves again, too. They will have to incorporate the gravity of a massive star into their orbit, and they will have to patch over the loss of Hosmer as they shift to make room. San Diego knows better than most that postseason success is not always proportional to the sum of a franchise’s star power. But Preller and the Padres seem determined to establish correlation.