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The Padres’ A.J. Preller and the art of all-in talent acquisition

Padres GM A.J. Preller isn't so concerned that he now has four players on his roster known primarily as shortstops. “It’s about getting a good player and getting the quality guys who can play for the Padres,” he says. (Gregory Bull/AP)

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Padres’ annual holiday party was scheduled for Thursday night, a fortuitous bit of timing.

A.J. Preller, the team’s president of baseball operations, spent the past week chasing a new superstar, making more nine-figure offers than most franchises have made in the past three years.

He reportedly offered Trea Turner more than the $300 million he took from the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday. The Padres whisked Aaron Judge away for a last-minute meeting Tuesday night before he ultimately chose the Yankees. Late Wednesday night, shortstop Xander Bogaerts agreed to join the Padres on a deal worth $280 million over the next 11 years. So as it turned out, Preller and Co. had Thursday night open to celebrate the end of their months-long wait to acquire another massive superstar.

Not since their blockbuster deal for Juan Soto at the trade deadline more than four months ago had Preller done one of the classic splashy deals. In the interim, he left his colleagues around the industry without reason to wonder whether he and the Padres are the most insane franchise in baseball because of their frenetic pursuit of talent or the sanest of them all.

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Preller, 45, knows he is walking a fine line, not just in terms of accumulating the kind of megadeals that can sometimes transform into sinkholes of inflexibility but by demonstrating his willingness to pivot. Even the teams known for their resources — such as the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Mets and Yankees — do not jump from player to player quite like Preller does. He knows his process can seem impersonal or uncalculating.

“It’s about getting a good player and getting the quality guys who can play for the Padres,” Preller told reporters after admitting the Padres hadn’t really thought about Judge until this week, when their former first-round draft pick, Turner, signed elsewhere. “The risk of it, obviously, is it kind of looks like you’re just in on every player, who’s the next guy? When you don’t sign the player, I think it’s, hey, what’s wrong with this situation?”

The Padres are fresh off the best postseason showing of Preller’s tenure, a National League Championship Series loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. That series stood as an endorsement for both teams of the merits of trying, of paying big money, of going all-in. But not all the moves have been spotless. The Padres committed $340 million and 14 years to Fernando Tatis Jr. when he was 22 years old and had played just 273 career games.

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He has since missed much of the 2021 season with a shoulder injury, gotten in multiple offseason motorcycle accidents that led to a worse-than-anticipated wrist injury that kept him off the field most of 2022, then was suspended 80 games because of a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs — a series of events that have led the Padres to keep a far closer eye on him this time of year and decide he is likely not their shortstop for the immediate future.

Preller’s willingness to procure talent, even without an obvious position available, has been a staple. As he did by moving all-star shortstop Manny Machado to third base to clear room for Tatis, Preller acquires elite talent first and meets needs later, often choosing the potential gain over the risk of someone playing out of position — or of the impact on other players who may have to move to accommodate the acquisitions.

“It’s having some position players and a shortstop that can play different spots. . . . We’re not, like, looking for a shortstop. That’s not the point of this,” Preller said in the wake of the Bogaerts deal. “Obviously with [Ha-Seong] Kim, [Jake] Cronenworth, Machado and Tatis, we’ve got really talented infielders. And we’ve got guys on our roster who can play different spots.”

Bogaerts seems likely to play shortstop for the Padres, who can move Kim to second and Cronenworth to first to give them one of the rangier infields in baseball. Tatis will not return until a few weeks into the regular season, and the Padres have been open about considering him as an outfield option as he was at times during the 2021 season. Bogaerts, 30, will join Soto and Machado to give San Diego one of the more star-studded heart of the orders in baseball.

But he also will provide insurance. Machado has an opt-out in his contract after next season. Soto, whom the Padres almost certainly will try to extend but who seems likely to test free agency, can do so after 2024. They expect Tatis to return to offensive form when he returns from the suspension, but nothing has gone as expected with him. Bogaerts has been one of the best offensive middle infielders over the past half-decade. In fact, only one middle infielder has a better on-base-plus-slugging percentage since the start of the 2018 season. His name is Fernando Tatis Jr.

So even if Bogaerts slows defensively and eventually moves to second or third, he projects to be among the game’s most valuable infielders offensively. Only seven infielders at any position — including often slug-heavy first basemen such as Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt — have a better OPS than he does since the start of 2018.