Last fall, following his club’s third last-place finish in five years, Padres general manager A.J. Preller and his staff gathered in a freezing, sub-level meeting room beneath Petco Park.
The Padres normally hold their end-of-season staff meetings in a spacious auditorium on the upper floors of the ballpark. But this time, for reasons no one can quite remember, the auditorium was unavailable.
Instead, members of the Padres front office, pro scouting department and research and development group put on their winter wear, walked down a ramp to below field level and took their seats in a frigid room with no direct sunlight.
There, they plotted the course for the 2020 season.
“It started in the basement of Petco and went from there,” Preller said, laughing. “It was about 30 degrees when we were down there for three days. (If) that spurred on good or bad ideas, I don’t know.”
The Padres had not made the playoffs since 2006 or had a winning record since 2010. They had suffered five straight losing seasons since Preller took over as GM. Andy Green, Preller’s first managerial hire, was fired with eight games remaining in 2019. The day after the season ended, Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler told a group of fans “heads will roll” if the team did not show marked improvement in 2020.
After a failed attempt at playoff contention in 2015, Preller steered the team into a rebuild in the summer of 2016. From the outset, he circled 2020 as the year the Padres would start to contend.
He oversaw the construction of the game’s No. 1 farm system to that end. Under his watch, the Padres set a new record for the largest contract in franchise history three years in a row—Wil Myers’ six-year, $83 million extension in 2017, Eric Hosmer’s eight-year, $144 million contract in 2018 and Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300 million deal in 2019—to create a veteran core to lead those up-and-coming prospects.
But after graduating six of the top 10 prospects from their vaunted farm system in 2019, including No. 1 prospect Fernando Tatis Jr., and adding them to a crop of young, homegrown players and big-dollar signees, the Padres’ win total increased by just four games, from 66 to 70.
In order to win in 2020 and meet Preller’s timeline, he and his staff were going to have to make some changes. The time to trade their prospect depth to reshape the major league roster had come.
In that frigid, below-ground meeting room, “Slam Diego” was born.
“We were all bundled up just talking baseball for hours, trying to put together some target lists,” Preller said. “Some of the pieces that are on the field right now came out of those conversations, for sure.”
From the time a team sheds the final established pieces of its roster, it generally takes four years until they are ready to contend for the postseason.
The Pirates kicked their rebuild into overdrive in 2009 and began a run of three straight postseason appearances in 2013. The Astros stripped away the final veteran pieces of their roster in 2011 and were back in the playoffs in 2015. The Cubs charted a similar course, bottoming out in 2012 and then winning the World Series in 2016. The Braves and Athletics tore it all down after the 2014 season and returned to the postseason in 2018.
By that standard, the Padres are right on schedule. They began rebuilding in earnest when they traded James Shields, Fernando Rodney, Drew Pomeranz, Matt Kemp, Andrew Cashner and B.J. Upton in the summer of 2016, and now they stand among baseball’s best teams in 2020.
More than that, the Padres have become one of baseball’s most exhilarating teams.
The Padres ranked among the major league team leaders in runs, home runs and stolen bases from start to finish during the abbreviated 2020 season. They became the scene for dugout dance parties and wild comebacks, notching 20 of their first 32 wins in come-from-behind fashion.
In their signature moment, they hit a grand slam in four consecutive games in August, setting a new major league record. Just over a week later, the Padres made six trades involving 26 players at the trade deadline, cementing their place as baseball’s most buzzworthy team.
“It’s the most exciting team in baseball by far right now,” righthander Mike Clevinger said after the Padres acquired him from the Indians on Aug. 31. “This is definitely kind of the place to be right now.”
For San Diego to be the “place to be” in the baseball world is remarkable. The Padres had just five postseason appearances in their first 51 seasons and, only recently, had a stretch lasting more than three years—from June 2015 to March 2019—where they didn’t have a winning record for even a single day.
Now, in a season rife with anxiety and set against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, they have become one of baseball’s powers.
“We got really good, talented players who are playing to their ability. That’s something we’ve been waiting on here in San Diego,” said Myers, the Padres’ longest-tenured player. “It looks like it’s finally coming to where guys are hitting their strides, figuring things out. The plan is coming together.”
The plan began in 2016, but the final steps to put the franchise over the top were taken last fall.
Specifically, they fixed the offense. For all the young talent the Padres had amassed and big contracts they gave out, they finished 27th in runs last season and struck out more than all but one team, mirroring their results from previous seasons.
Outfielder Tommy Pham, whom the Padres acquired from the Rays during the offseason, bluntly described during spring training his impression of Padres hitters from when his teams played them.
“From when I played against San Diego last year, what I saw outside looking in, (they) didn’t do a good job controlling the strike zone,” Pham said. “. . . You have to give yourself a chance. Strikeouts are a part of the game, don’t get me wrong. I strike out a lot, too. But make the pitcher work for it. Go down with a fight.”
Adding players who could control the strike zone was Padres management’s primary goal when they met at the end of last season—especially if those players could hit lefthanded.
To do that, Preller leaned on his scouts and analysts. He swung three trades based on their recommendations during those end-of-season meetings: acquiring Pham and lefthanded-hitting shortstop Jake Cronenworth from the Rays, lefthanded-hitting outfielder Trent Grisham from the Brewers and switch-hitting second baseman Jurickson Profar from the Athletics.
“We needed to get lefthanded sticks and some guys who had some different offensive approaches,” Preller said. “I think when you look up at Grisham, Profar, Cronenworth—obviously Pham is righthanded but has very quality at-bats—we felt like adding them to the Myers-Tatis-Machado-Hosmer group, that would just be a more effective offense going forward.”
Pham was an established veteran, but the rest came to San Diego as a product of Preller trusting his staff. Pro scouts Keith Boeck and Dominic Viola scouted Cronenworth heavily in the minors and pushed for the club to acquire him with Pham.
The Padres had liked Grisham since high school, and scouts Spencer Graham and Luke Murton and analyst Dave Cameron tracked Grisham’s progress and ultimately led the staff-wide push to acquire him with righthander Zach Davies.
Scout Tim Holt and the Padres R&D department tracked Profar from Texas to Oakland and concluded he was worth giving up two prospects for and tendering a contract, when most others considered him a non-tender candidate.
“The big thing is A.J. trusts people,” pro scouting director Pete DeYoung said. “It starts at the top with A.J. asking questions, really wanting to know more.”
The results came immediately. Cronenworth emerged as the National League Rookie of the Year favorite. Grisham blossomed into a premier on-base threat as the Padres’ primary leadoff hitter and starting center fielder. Profar, after a slow start, replaced an injured Pham in left field and became one of the Padres’ top hitters over the final six weeks of the season.
In each case, the Padres traded homegrown players to get those pieces they needed. The total trade output was middle infielder Luis Urias and outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who predated Preller’s arrival; and lefthander Eric Lauer, second baseman Xavier Edwards, catcher Austin Allen and outfielder Buddy Reed, all of whom were drafted under Preller’s watch.
“The goal was always to win at the major league level,” Preller said. “We all felt as a group that, yeah, it was time to start turning an interesting farm system into a team that’s going to be really fun and competitive at the major league level.”
It was Preller’s first wave of trading young homegrown players and prospects to build for 2020. It wouldn’t be his last.
Preller had a rebuild in mind when he took over as GM at the end of the 2014 season. He and his staff inherited a 77-win team with a decent group of starting pitchers and a few promising prospects, but not enough organizational talent to overtake the Dodgers or Giants, who were about to win their third World Series in five years, in the National League West.
At first, Preller was ready to start the rebuild right away. The Padres initially dangled starting pitchers Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy in trade discussions after the 2014 season, but they didn’t get the offers they wanted.
So Preller and his staff pivoted. They decided to go for it, using the young big leaguers and prospects the team had to trade for established veterans. They acquired Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel and Derek Norris in trades and signed James Shields to what was then the largest contract in franchise history. The overarching idea was that if it worked, the Padres would be a playoff team. If it didn’t, the in-house starting pitchers and acquired veterans could be spun off for prospects later.
It didn’t go quite as planned. The Padres went 74-88 in 2015 and finished fourth in the division. Kemp and Norris regressed so badly their trade value became minimal. Ross injured his shoulder on Opening Day 2016 and didn’t pitch the rest of the season, erasing any trade value he held. On the other end, young players the Padres traded away, such as catcher Yasmani Grandal and prospects Trea Turner and Max Fried blossomed into stars in their new organizations.
But the seeds of better days ahead were still planted. The Padres got two first-round draft picks as compensation when Kennedy and Upton left as free agents after the 2015 season. That fall, Kimbrel was traded to the Red Sox for a package of prospects who would serve the Padres well in trades down the road.
In 2016, the rebuild got fully underway. Scouting director Mark Conner, armed with three first-round picks, began the process of stocking the farm system through the draft.
International scouting director Chris Kemp amassed a decorated international signing class at a cost of more than $80 million including overage taxes—the second-largest expenditure ever for a single international class. And DeYoung oversaw the Padres exodus of veterans in exchange for prospects, many of whom would pay dividends later. For Rodney, they got Chris Paddack. For Cashner, they were able to bring back Josh Naylor, who would later play a role in another key trade.
And in the organization’s crowning achievement, they acquired Tatis from the White Sox before he had ever played a professional game as one of two players for Shields.
“A number of ingredients that stood out were just the body, the athleticism, kind of the way he carried himself and the way he played the game, with the . . . exciting kind of energy,” DeYoung said of Tatis. “The energy he brought to the game we’re certainly seeing manifest itself at the big league level now, but there were signs of that even back then as a 17-year-old on the back fields in Arizona.”
When Preller and his staff went to Arizona for instructional league that fall, they saw Eric Lauer, Buddy Reed, Cal Quantrill, Joey Lucchesi and Hudson Potts from Conner’s draft class; Adrian Morejon, Gabriel Arias, Jorge Oña, Jeisson Rosario and Ronald Bolaños from Kemp’s international signing class; and Tatis, Naylor, Javy Guerra and Logan Allen from DeYoung’s veteran-for-prospect trades, all playing together on the back fields of the Padres’ complex in Peoria.
All would eventually reach the majors for the Padres or be used in key trades. In some cases, they were both.
In that moment, standing on the back fields, Preller saw the foundation for brighter days ahead.
“We looked up that instructs and we had a totally different feel as an organization,” Preller said. “I think everybody in the organization started getting clearer picture of, ‘OK, this is the vision. Now let’s try to go execute this.’ ”
As those players and others matured under the watch of farm director Sam Geaney and the Padres’ player development staff, the stature of the organization’s farm system grew. It went from the No. 9 system entering 2017 to the No. 3 system entering 2018 to the No. 1 system entering 2019. The best of those prospects would rise to the majors, and the rest would be used in trades when the time came to compete—the tried-and-true formula for all successful rebuilds.
But there was a problem. For all the talent the Padres developed, the team didn’t play good baseball where it counted in the majors. The homegrown youngsters were part of that, as were the players the Padres had signed to be their veteran core—Myers, Hosmer and Machado all underperformed badly in the initial seasons after signing their big contracts.
The Padres finished in the bottom-third of Major League Baseball in errors three years in a row, and advanced defensive metrics weren’t much kinder. Baserunning gaffes were regular occurrence. Opposing scouts routinely noted that Padres hitters didn’t battle—one went so far as to joke if you got two strikes on them, it might as well be three because they were done.
The Padres had a promising group of players on paper, but those players habitually underperformed once they reached San Diego.
That’s where Jayce Tingler and his staff came in. A bilingual 39-year-old, Tingler rose from a Dominican Summer League manager all the way to assistant GM in the Rangers organization. He developed a reputation for being able to effectively communicate with people from different backgrounds. As a player in the minors, he had 221 walks against just 95 strikeouts in four seasons.
Dickerson, the bench coach, would oversee the infielders. Kirby, the first-base coach, would oversee the outfield defense and baserunning. Damion Easley, who was previously on the staff, was elevated to hitting coach and brought instant credibility with his 17-year major league career.
From the moment Tingler and his staff arrived in spring training, their message was clear: The Padres were going to start playing disciplined baseball.
“We talked about being able on the offensive side to get on base. And how do we win those 2-2 and 3-2 counts and not be a team that punches out all the time?” Tingler said. “Defensively, what do we want to look like? We want to be a group that plays our positions well, that gets good reads, that gets off the ball. That can catch the ball, throw the ball to the correct bases. And how do we back up and how are we going to run our fundamentals? . . . That was just the discussion throughout the offseason of what we want our identity to be.”
The message stuck. Machado, Hosmer and Myers all cut their strikeout rates by more than 5% and had bounceback years as a result of substantially improved plate discipline and approaches.
Tatis became one of baseball’s most reliable defenders after leading the majors in throwing errors a year ago. The new acquisitions transitioned seamlessly, adding an element of dynamism to the lineup, speed on the basepaths and versatility in the field.
“The way the players have been able to make adjustments and understand they have somewhere to be,” Tingler said, “we believe that’s a big part of winning baseball.”
It was because those players were playing winning baseball that the Padres entered the weekend of the trade deadline with the second-best record in the National League, firmly positioned as buyers.
Preller, just as he did in the fall, reached into the deep well of homegrown talent the Padres had built and used it to acquire a series of impact players: righthander Mike Clevinger, closer Trevor Rosenthal, first baseman Mitch Moreland and catchers Austin Nola and Jason Castro as well as the relief trio of Austin Adams, Dan Altavilla and Taylor Williams.
In the process, he sent out eight of the Padres’ Top 30 prospects as well as Quantrill, Naylor and third baseman Ty France, who all ranked in the Top 30 entering the 2019 season.
By the time the trades were done, the only core players on the 2020 Padres who came up through their system were Tatis, Paddack—who were both acquired in trades originally—and righthander Dinelson Lamet.
The team was built through the farm system, but in effect, that farm system had been most valuable to the club as trade capital.
“There were a lot of players we wanted, and there were a lot of players that other teams wanted from us,” Preller said. “That’s a compliment to our scouting and development staffs. Because we had really attractive players, we were able to find a way to make trades.”
There is no singular moment that turned the Padres into contenders, but there is a line of events that are all connected. Without their 2015 buildup, they don’t get the extra draft picks and acquired prospects to jump-start their rebuild.
Without those extra draft picks and prospects, they don’t develop into baseball’s No. 1 farm system. Without that No. 1 farm system, they don’t generate a homegrown crop of young, controllable major leaguers. And without that crop of young, controllable major leaguers in addition to top prospects, they don’t have the pieces to make the big trades that put them over the top.
And none of that, in all likelihood, matters if Tingler and his staff don’t come in and get the core players playing a better brand of baseball.
But all those things did happen, and the end result is an exciting, young team that has most of its top players under contract for the foreseeable future. Tatis, Paddack, Cronenworth, Grisham and Nola are all under team control through 2024. Machado, Hosmer, Myers, Clevinger and Lamet are all under contract through at least 2022. Pomeranz, who was re-acquired as a free agent based on conversations during those end-of-season meetings as well, and Emilio Pagan are signed through 2023, giving the Padres two potent high-leverage relief arms.
And more talent is on the way, with top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore nearing his big league debut and flamethrowing righthander Luis Patiño, another product of Kemp’s 2016 international class, ready for a larger role after making his debut this summer.
All the pieces are in place for the Padres to have a sustained run of success. It won’t be easy, not with the Dodgers in the division, but Preller and his staff showed they have the willingness and ability to make the moves needed to push the team higher.
After how well things went last offseason, bundling up and talking baseball in freezing temperatures may just be the M.O. moving forward.
“We were down there and had some good conversations at least,” Preller said, chuckling, “so I dunno, maybe we’ll be back down there this year.”