Assessing 2023 MLB front offices: A.J. Preller and the unlucky San Diego Padres

Despite his team's underwhelming 82-80 record, Padres GM A.J. Preller actually had a productive season. His team's problem seemed to be a remarkable run of ill fortune.
San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller
San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller / Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
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A.J. Preller front office WAA impact for San Diego Padres: +5.9 games. Rank in MLB: t-5. Rank in division: 1.

If you’re surprised to see A.J. Preller’s front office rank this high for 2023 performance ... well ... so am I.

Superficially, it feels like Preller can’t have had an especially good year. His Padres finished only two games above .500, a distant third in their division, and they did so with one of the game’s plushest payrolls.

Preller paid about $3 million per victory in 2023, a mammoth sunk cost in a game where the average price per win is less than $2 million. Meanwhile, his team won seven fewer games than in 2022, when they played for the National League championship.

So how is it possible that Preller’s various short-term moves actually aided the Padres to a level approaching 6 games, as measured by the net Wins Above Average of those moves?

For the record, WAA is used in this series of front office evaluations because it is a zero-based version of WAR, therefore enabling valid approximations of impact against wins and losses.

Three statistics mitigate in Preller’s favor. In tandem, they make an interesting case that whatever was working against the Padres in 2023, it wasn’t Preller’s front office but rather some mysterious undetermined force.

Stat 1: The Padres scored 752 runs and allowed 648. Based on those numbers, they should have won 92 games and (by extension) once again been a playoff entry. Instead, they won 82, an unusual 10-game difference between perception and reality.

In fact not since 2014, when the Oakland A’s underperformed their numbers by 11 games, has any team played in worse "luck," if that’s not too strong a term to describe what undermined the 2023 Padres.  

Stat 2: At just two wins versus 14 defeats, the Padres had baseball’s worst record in games decided in extra innings. Blame what you want (the manager, the bullpen, a choking dog lineup) but, just one season earlier, virtually the same cast of characters was 12-5 in one-run games, MLB’s second-best record. This year, they were the game’s worst.

Stat 3: The Padres played 32 games decided by one run, and managed to win only nine of them against 23 defeats. In the month of May alone, the Padres played seven one-run games and went 0-7, in the process falling from one to eight games off the division pace.  

Again, they failed that miserably with virtually the same cast that went 30-17 in one-run games one season ago, so it’s hard to know where to put the blame.

Overall, the Preller front office made 51 personnel moves impacting a major league roster since the conclusion of the 2022 postseason. Of those moves, 21 helped the Padres, 23 were negative, and seven had neutral value.

As befits a GM with a functionally unlimited budget, Preller spent money liberally in what ultimately turned out to be a vain effort to improve on last season’s NLCS spot. He signed, re-signed or extended no fewer than 21 players on the open market and three of those deals stood out.

The signing of free agent Xander Bogaerts forced Fernando Tatis Jr. from shortstop all the way out to right field, but turned out to be worth it, at least in the short term. Bogaerts delivered a season valued at +2.3 WAA.

Starter Joe Musgrove re-signed through 2027 and went 10-3, albeit in only 17 starts. Musgrove’s 3.05 ERA and +1.1 WAA was mitigated only by his unavailability during August and September.

Meanwhile, starter Michael Wacha signed through 2026 and produced a 14-4, 3.22 season in 24 starts. Again, the only drawback was the classic pitching bugaboo — availability. Wacha missed six weeks in July and August. He was still worth +1.2 WAA.

Here’s the full short-term and long-term statistical profile on the 2023 performance of the Preller front office. Again, all figures reflect group Wins Above Average.

Acquired by trade, waiver claim or purchase:

  • Since October 2022, 7 players, -1.2 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 8 players, +2.7 net impact

Signed as a free agent or extended for multiple seasons:

  • Since October 2022, 20 players, +1.4 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 7 players, +6.5 net impact

System products:

  • Since October 2022, 8 players, +0.1 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 7 players, -1.5 net impact

Traded away, waived, sold, released or lost to free agency

  • Since October 2022, 16 players, +5.6 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 40 players, +9.2 net impact

When a team significantly underachieves expectations, historically the first place to look is at the front office’s long-term impact. Those are the moves made prior to the start of the signing year in question that carry forward. In the case of Preller’s Padres, with their abundance of long-term deals (Manny Machado, Tatis, Blake Snell and Ha-Seong Kim) all entered the season with locked-in-place deals. That’s particularly important.

The thing is that Preller’s long-term impact turned out to be even more important than his short-term impact. In fact, at +16.9 games worth of WAA, it was best in the National League and trailed only the Texas Rangers in all of MLB.

Kim (+3.8), Tatis (+3.6), Juan Soto (+3.4) and Snell (+1.1) all did their parts.

When you delve into the numbers underlying San Diego’s 2023 underperformance, those one-run, extra inning and Pythagorean figures stand out. On paper, Preller’s team ought to have been better than it was.

Next. NY Mets front office scores. How the New York Mets front office fared in 2023. dark