The Padres waded through reconstruction in 2017, auditioning and, in some cases, committing to youth. In August, they acted on a long-discussed idea by extending manager Andy Green. Having had concurrent talks with their general manager, the team’s owners shifted their focus to A.J. Preller, who, like Green, had recently turned 40.
“I jokingly said to him we need to get this done more quickly than the last one, because I think the last one took seven months to get done,” Executive Chairman Ron Fowler recalled.
By October, an agreement was struck. Preller, like Green, has received a guarantee of three more years. His extension, which was formally announced Sunday morning, keeps him under contract through the 2022 season.
Preller’s original, five-year deal would have taken him through 2019. As with Green, locked up through 2021, the Padres granted rare job security in a year of noticeable staffing turnover for other clubs, most of which have been winning more games. Fowler and Managing Partner Peter Seidler, meanwhile, believe this is the duo to turn a persistent playoff drought into consecutive October appearances.
“As in other business models, when people are doing a good job you tend to want to reward them,” Fowler said. “We felt the extension of his contract would show the confidence we have in him. Frankly, people award long-term contracts to players. We feel we should do it with the people running our baseball organization. We think they’re very good. We don’t want them looking over their shoulders as to a contract being over.”
Since Preller’s hiring in 2014, his tenure has drawn strong reactions around baseball. Even the briefest summaries — from the exhilarating entrance to the blockbuster trades to the embarrassing suspension — depict an eventful time at Petco Park, albeit one filled with losing records. Through it all, ownership remains convinced that their GM’s plan, which has centered on amassing projectable talent, will deliver a winner in the not so distant future.
“The whole baseball operations department’s worked really hard the last few years on the scouting front, the development front, to put the organization in the right direction,” Preller said Saturday. “I love the people I work with, the people I work for, and I see it as a chance to continue building something special here with the understanding that it’s still going to take some time to get where we want to get to.
“With the contract extension, you have the time to follow through on the work we’ve done. … I saw it basically as a vote of confidence in the plan.”
Under Preller, the Padres have assembled one of the game’s premier farm systems. San Diego owes its considerable talent base to a variety of means: record expenditures on international prospects, three domestic drafts and a slew of transactions. The fruit of these efforts have begun to materialize — for instance, center fielder Manuel Margot impressed as a rookie, and 18-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. quickly established himself as an elite prospect — offering unusual hope that the organization could buck its dismal history.
“I have just been really impressed with the way A.J.’s gone about building a baseball operations organization, which is a lot more than just finding high-ceiling-caliber minor leaguers,” Seidler said. “What I particularly look at is the consistency of our minor league operations and our player development, the systems and the people behind it. And moving up from the minor leagues to the major leagues, we get the same consistency. That is only built through things like collaboration and hard work and our passion for our ultimate goal, which is to win a world championship.”
Said Green: “I absolutely love working with A.J. He communicates incredibly well with me. … I think it’s great for us. I knew it was something that was in the works when I was being extended.”
Preller, who honed his eye for talent in the Texas Rangers’ front office, made a memorable impression interviewing for the Padres job more than three years ago. He carried it over into his first offseason, acquiring Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, James Shields and Craig Kimbrel in a few fell swoops. The moves backfired, as did a decision to replace manager Bud Black with Pat Murphy less than three months in. The Padres finished 2015 at 74-88, their worst record in four years.
A reversal began the following winter. Kimbrel was shipped to Boston, netting a package that included Margot. Preller continued to methodically swap veterans for prospects into last summer. Around the trade deadline, a few of his deals came under scrutiny.
A subsequent league investigation found that the Padres had failed to disclose pertinent medical information when sending left-hander Drew Pomeranz to the Red Sox. Preller received a 30-day suspension, the second of his career; while working for Texas in 2010, he was banned a month for violating international signing rules.
Preller returned to work last October. He has appeared undeterred even as the Padres’ rebuild has produced encouraging signs.
“The league office knew what we were doing (with the extension) — no surprises there,” Fowler said. “The issue he had with baseball before we hired him, we talked with the commissioner and he gave us a thumbs-up on the hire. The situation with medical … we made a mistake and there was not malicious intent. People should’ve been in meetings they weren’t at. And ergo, things were said that we didn’t know about. We should’ve. We had a problem, addressed it and moved on. A.J. handled it appropriately and admitted we should’ve had representation at the meeting.
“I think we’ve put together one of the strongest compliance departments when it comes to medical. These issues are off the table as far as I’m concerned.”
At the moment, the pressing issue is how the Padres propose to jump from non-factor to legitimate contender. Ownership is hopeful for a playoff berth by 2020, if not the year before. Internally and externally, officials know a vast amount of work remains.
“When I took over the job, if you’d said three years in we’d be positioned with some nice young players at the big-league level, a farm system that people view as one of the better ones in the game, a staff and big-league manager we think has a chance to be dynamic, a front-office group that makes me better every single day, I think that’s a good place to be in,” Preller said. “Now we have to prove it at the big-league level and continue to grow.”
The message is clear: The Padres intend to grow with the executive who set their plan in motion.
“A.J.’s really earned this extension,” Seidler said. “He’s built a great organization around him, and that’s seen from scouting all the way through Andy Green and the major league staff. Personally, I couldn’t be happier. We’ve got a ways to go, but I think it’s with confidence we extend him and with confidence we think we’re on the right path.”