Who’s running the San Diego Padres?

PEORIA, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 22: (L-R) Owner Ron Fowler, Executive V.P./General Manager A.J. Preller, Manny Machado #8 of the San Diego Padres pose for a photo at Peoria Stadium on February 22, 2019 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
PEORIA, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 22: (L-R) Owner Ron Fowler, Executive V.P./General Manager A.J. Preller, Manny Machado #8 of the San Diego Padres pose for a photo at Peoria Stadium on February 22, 2019 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images) /

One of a series of articles looking at the front office structure of each major league team. Let’s take a deep-dive into the San Diego Padres.

San Diego Padres

  • Executive Chairman: Ron Fowler
  • Executive Vice President, General Manager: A.J. Preller

Fowler’s investments firm purchased the San Diego Padres in 2012 from John Moores. His non-baseball interests focus on beer distributorships based both in Milwaukee and in the Pacific Northwest.

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Preller is the second GM to work for Fowler, the incumbent, Josh Byrnes, having been lured away to Los Angeles following the 2014 season. A Cornell grad, Preller’s background included stints with the Phillies, Dodgers, and Rangers, the last as assistant general manager before signing on with the Padres.

In San Diego, Preller wasted little time trying to upgrade the team’s competitive profile. In his first off-season, he signed two significant free agents, pitcher James Shields and outfielder Justin Upton, and engineered a trade that brought Matt Kemp to San Diego.

The aggressive approach has never really abated. In 2017 Preller signed Wil Myers, a trade acquisition who projected to become a star, to a $102 million extension through 2023. He signed free-agent first baseman Eric Hosmer for nine years at $144 million in 2018, and last year out-bid the field to sign free agent Manny Machado. That move cost $300 million over nine years.

Along the way, Preller has also built a farm system generally ranked among baseball’s best, and possibly the best. That system produced shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and pitcher Chris Paddack in 2019, both of whom are projected for starring roles in the near future. Fans are also fired up about the looming contributions of catcher Francisco Mejia, outfielder Josh Naylor, infielder Ty France, and pitcher Cal Quantrill.

At some point, this all begins to sound like one of those ‘Great Come And Get It’ pitches for big things that are certain to occur at some indefinite date in the future. San Diego Padres fans might be forgiven for thinking that. The only certainty is that Preller’s profligate effort hasn’t brought success yet.

In Preller’s five seasons, the Padres are a collective 349-461 – that’s a .431 winning percentage – and without a single season netting more than the 74 victories produced during 2019.  In none of those five seasons have they finished within 15 games of the division champion.

If that doesn’t sound like a winning course, there apparently is at least one firm believer: Fowler. He gave Preller a three-season extension as GM through 2022.

Forbes estimates the value of the Padres franchise at $1.35 billion, ranking it 17th among the 30. That is, however, substantially below the $1.78 billion average value. Relative to the other teams, It is also in a bit of a decline phase. One decade ago, the Padres ranked 15th in value; they have since been passed by the Blue Jays and Nationals.

The club has been able to improve its revenue stream. That amounted to $277 million in 2019, the 18th highest value in MLB and up to $120 million (56 percent) over the decade. Most of the parts of that stream are about what one expects of a mid-market club. The Padres rank 19th in market revenue, 17th in stadium revenue and 19th in brand revenue.

Under Fowler and Preller, the Padres have operated at a profit. Pre-tax operating revenues annually run between $20 million and $50 million, fueling Preller’s various return trips to the swanky side of the free-agent market.

And despite that very visible spending, Preller has somehow been able to keep the overall payroll within bounds.  When the Padres laid out $142 million on players last season, it marked a franchise record and a $44 million jump just in the past two seasons.

It won’t be the last. The San Diego Padres are projected to open 2020 with a payroll exceeding $152 million. That will still only amount to about $55 percent of revenues, just a modestly high figure. Preller may not win but he sure can budget.

Why, despite importing all that high-end talent and then supplementing it with all those touted farm products, can’t Preller’s teams win? The answer lies in the actual on-field value of those moves, many of which have not lived up to expectations. Based on Wins Above Average, the impact of all of Preller’s personnel moves on team fortunes works out to -4.34 games per year*. A look at some of them makes the point.

  • The six-year extension Preller gave Myers three seasons ago has to date netted -0.5 games of value. It also reportedly has put Myers on the trade block where any team willing to pick up the $87.5 million he is still owed can have him.
  • In the two seasons since his signing, Hosmer has batted .259 and produced a -3.1 WAA.
  • Machado delivered a .256 average with 32 home runs and 85 RBIs in his first season, adding up to a +1.0 WAA, But that was at the first-year discounted cost to the Padres of just $12 million. Machado’s price goes up to $32 million in 2020 and stays there through 2028.
  • The widely discussed 2015 trade that brought in Kemp – in exchange, among others, for Yasmani Grandal — fell flat. Kemp’s two seasons yielded a WAA valued at -2.7 before Preller could ship him to Atlanta. Between 2016 and 2019, the Padres paid Kemp $10.5 million to win games for the Braves and Dodgers.

Going forward, the mission for Preller is to deliver on that Great Come and Get It…and the sooner the better. The only problem is that team in blue up the road, which despite all the high-priced talent imported to San Diego finished 36 games better than Preller’s San Diego Padres last season.

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*This calculation is obtained by determining the net impact of all player transactions on team performance for the season(s) in question. Wins Above Average is a zero-based offshoot of Wins Above Replacement; thus, the final figure suggests the degree of positive or negative movement in the standings attributable to front office moves.