When the San Diego Padres Padres hired A.J. Preller as their fourth general manager in five years, his reputation was as a scout. In the Texas Rangers system, stories of his time traveling the world looking for the next big star had elements of legend to them.
He arrived in August 2014, to a farm system that had a number of interesting prospects, but few who seemed like future stars.
After his first high-profile offseason yielded a handful of magic beans, Preller has spent the last three years remaking the organization to find, develop and rely on star-level players.
Preller spends as much time in amateur and minor league parks as anyone else in his role. We caught up with him, predictably, between fields 3 and 6 at the Padres’ Peoria complex.
MadFriars: This year you brought in Eric Hosmer. How was this part of your plan to build a bridge from a highly regarded minor league system to the Padres winning at the major league level?
A.J. Preller: A lot of our discussion as a baseball ops group was about adding a bridge player this offseason; adding another quality player. He’s a guy we felt, hopefully, will align with a lot of waves of players who come through. The quality of the player, obviously, was the most important thing. But then from an age standpoint, a makeup standpoint, we thought a lot of those things lined up to make a long-term investment. With what we’ve got going on in the system, we thought he was a guy, looking at free agent classes and trades, we thought was a guy who fit us really well.
We were joking that you can’t, after years of losing, suddenly just tell everyone in the clubhouse, ‘Okay, it’s 2019, we want to win a World Series.’
A.J. Preller: Exactly, it has to be part of a process. We talked about layering in the right players at the right time. There are different ways and different players to do it, but it really depends when the right players are out there for the group.
It’s very rare that you see a team with a lot of last place finishes, and then all of a sudden, they want to go all in. Usually, there’s a layering effect. There are guys you develop through your system, players you trade for and ones through free agency. We felt like, with Hosmer, now is the right time to add him.
The Padres minor league system is regarded well publicly, but in some ways, you may have even had more depth and talent that hasn’t hit the national stage yet. How does that influence how you will build on the major league level in the next few years?
A.J. Preller: It’s always part of our discussions because you always have to know your own players. That [depth] is the part that’s really exciting for us. A lot of the fanbase these days is pretty well-educated and a lot know the top prospects. But I think the fun part for us is knowing the levels two or three below the Double-A level and what you have coming, and being able to make decisions based on that.
You have some surplus areas, you have depth and competition. That’s a big part of our build, that factors into all of our decisions is what’s coming all the way through the system.
Your group – more than other Padres leadership groups in the past – seems to focus on signing and drafting not just future big leaguers, but impact players.
A.J. Preller: In general there are a lot of ways to evaluate players, but you also try to be as consistent in the way you do it throughout the organization. You want to try to get as many “aircraft carriers” as you can. The type of guys that have a chance to become championship caliber players. We’ve tried to stress that with the “good enough” player, you’re going to fall short.
When you are in the NL West and competing against organizations like the Dodgers, they have a lot of plus to plus-plus type players. We’ve scouted that way, but I don’t think that you shoot for the moon and throw caution to the wind. There is also a lot of homework that goes into it; making sure you have as much information as possible. But we are definitely looking for guys we think are going to take us to that place we want to go.
Last year when we spoke, you talked about the number of looks – the number of times that your scouts have seen a player. Could you elaborate on that a bit? The organization isn’t only looking at the upcoming 2018 draft, but the next three or four down the road.
A.J. Preller: Obviously history is important and you want to stress that in all three areas; the international, amateur and pro ranks. I ask a lot of questions and our scouts do a great job of answering those questions.
When you have more information, it helps you make your decision and you’re more comfortable with your decision. That’s what we’ve tried to focus on the last three years.
Through the weekend, you may have had more employees out between the fields than on the fields. It strikes us that bringing everyone together in one place, sharing information, is a piece you have brought to the table.
How have you built that into the culture and what was your reason to focus on it?
A.J. Preller: Spring training is really a unique time. It’s the one time where you really get everyone in one place, so we try to make the most of the opportunity. It lets everyone have a chance to see what we have in the system before they go back out in the field.
The scouts get to see the progress of some of the players that they have signed. From a chemistry standpoint, it’s important. A lot of times, when you’re on the road scouting, it’s a lonely job and you’re by yourself and can feel like you’re not a part of an organization. Seeing all the guys on the backfields helps with that. It’s something we’ve made a part of our program the last few years.
One thing that has also been noticeable is the additional coach at every level. Besides putting more money into signing players internationally, is that also something you spoke about increasing?
A.J. Preller: It’s something that Ron [Fowler] and Peter [Seidler, the Padres owners] have stressed a lot. In my daily conversations with Ron, as we talk about planning, it’s that you make an investment in the player, but these guys obviously don’t develop themselves.
You can bring in the most talented young player in the game, but you’ve still got to develop them. It’s hard to go from, whether a player in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, or the high school or college ranks and become a big leaguer. We put a lot of time and emphasis on having quality staff and quantity, with numbers of guys who are able to impact these players. We’ve tried to bulk up those areas. I think both sides – the scouting side and the development side – has played a role in the system getting better the last couple of years, and part of that is the guys we have out here.
When you sign players that are from countries where they don’t speak the language and have very different cultures what types of things are you putting in place to ease their transition?
A.J. Preller: I think it really comes out of our staff members like Vicente Cafaro, Jason Amoroso, Vinny Lopez at the lowest levels of the system, and so many others who put a lot of time and effort into seeing these players’ growth, both on and off the field. It’s a huge cultural assimilation being away from their families and familiar things.
We get caught up between the lines a lot of the time, but we stress that these are people, they’re young kids and it’s our job to develop them professionally, to be championship-level players, but hopefully also championship-level people. And we have a whole team of people who that’s their job.
Going back to your days with the Texas Rangers, you had a reputation for pushing younger players to higher levels. Do you feel that is part of fostering the transition you were speaking of?
A.J. Preller: It really comes down to the individual. When you are signing players that you think can compete against older players, then that’s probably because you’re signing the right players. That is a big part of it.
We’re not going to push someone to the point that they’re going to drown and impact their development in a negative way. We put a lot of time and effort into knowing these guys as people, and the guys we feel like can handle the challenge, we’re going to try to accelerate the progress of the gifted. In a lot of cases, the really good ones, I think that’s what they want.
This winter, the Padres’ player development staff it got raided pretty heavily by other organizations who put them into major league roles. What did you take from having guys like Luis Ortiz, Michael Collins, Mark Prior targeted for those roles elsewhere?
A.J. Preller: It’s sad to see them leave and they’re talented staff members. But when other teams are coming and asking, that tells me you have quality employees who are doing something right. I think the bigger thing we take pride in, it’s making sure that we have the next man up.
On the pitching side, for example, Steve Lyons, Eric Junge, those guys have worked hand-in-hand with Mark [Prior] the last couple of years. And when you’re really building a successful program in place, you’re trying to develop the people who can do the job better than you. We try to focus on that throughout the system.
I think when you’re doing it right, you’re going to continue to have people come in and try to take your employees, and that’s good because it creates opportunity. The most important thing is to have guys underneath them that can step into their roles; and we have that.
One last important question – our friends at the Darren Smith Show have been giving Marty Caswell grief over claiming you share her penchant for chain food. Please tell us you are not a fan of Olive Garden?
A.J. Preller: [laughs] I’m a fan of any chain restaurant. I’ll man up. Olive Garden unlimited breadsticks and salad bowls.
I’ve dug in more than a few times.
[Sorry Darren – Marty was spot-on with her reporting yet again!]
John Conniff and David Jay conducted the interview.