Did A.J. Preller Gamble Away the Farm?

2014-2015 was the offseason Padre fans had been waiting for, but had often wondered would ever happen again. In unloading a number of prospects, they revamped their once-sorry outfield, put a 2014 All-Star behind home plate, and added a 26-year-old third baseman with tremendous (albeit untapped) upside.

But while a number of solid prospects were traded, general manager A.J. Preller accomplished all of these moves without having to move the following: their top three starting pitchers Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, and Ian Kennedy, and their top three prospects Matt Wisler, Austin Hedges, and Hunter Renfroe.

However, there is a potentially huge down-side: they traded away many of their top-name prospects. And while it’s great that they have a surging new offense, some might wonder just how necessary some of these deals were.

Let’s take a look at each of these deals, and where that leaves the Padres now:

Matt Kemp

If memory serves, this is the first trade the Padres have made with the Dodgers since 2006, when they traded a declining Greg Maddux to LA mid-season.

Only this time, they were on the receiving end of talent. In receiving former All-Star outfielder Matt Kemp, the Padres surrendered catcher Yasmani Grandal, pitcher Joe Wieland, and a prospect.

Only Grandal figures to start for the Dodgers next year, and while he has tremendous upside, he has yet to prove himself as a consistent performer at the big league level.

Wieland, 24, is two years removed from Tommy John surgery. In August 2014, he pitched in the majors for the first time in over two years.

San Diego also received backup catcher Tim Federowicz in the deal.

Kemp, 30, slashed .287/.346/.506 with 25 home runs, 38 doubles and 89 RBI. He figures to play in right field, and hit either third or fourth in the batting order.

The only concerns here stem from Kemp’s health: in 2012-13, he missed significant playing time, and his defensive prowess isn’t what it once was. He will probably have to be spelled at least once every 8-10 games, and be removed late in games for defensive purposes.

Also, there were concerns about his being difficult in the clubhouse. Even still, this move boosts the Padres offense considerably, which is why the deal was made.

And as an added bonus, Kemp is going to be pumped whenever he trades his former team, which happens to be in the same division. Los Angeles could live to regret this team for a very long time.

Grade: A-

Wil Myers

This was likely the most surprising move, as not too many people even realized that Myers might be available from Tampa Bay.

But to the Padres’ benefit, he was.

It says a lot that as he was climbing his way through the Kansas City Royals farm system, he was touted as possibly the next George Brett–that’s quite a compliment. In 2012, his final full season in the minors, he smashed 37 home runs with 109 RBI, with a .987 OPS at the age of 21.

Before the 2013 season, he was the centerpiece of a trade for starter James Shields, a move that surprised many in the industry, given Myers’ immense talent. That year, he vindicated Tampa Bay’s confidence in him when, after being called up in June, he went on to win the AL Rookie of the Year award.

Myers had a difficult sophomore season, that was shortened by injuries. Even still, there is little question that the talent remains.

Still just 24, the Padres had to surrender some of their more talented prospects in starter Joe Ross and 2014 first round pick Trey Turner, as well as catcher Rene Rivera. This talented young hitter is now Padre property, controllable through the 2019 season.

He will probably play in center field for them, with the possibility of being the leadoff hitter.

Still, there are concerns:

  • His defense will be a downgrade from the light-hitting Cameron Maybin and Will Venable.
  • His skill-set is not typically what you would consider in a leadoff hitter. This might put unneeded pressure on him.
  • Consider that for all of his talent, you have to wonder why, at the age of 24, he has already been traded twice. This is mere speculation at this point, but could it be that he has attitude problems which make him a difficult teammate?
  • Turner and Ross are very talented, and losing them to Washington (the third partner in this 3-team swap) could end up haunting them down the road.

Time will tell if the Padres made the right move. A lot will depend upon whether Myers can tap his amazing potential, and not make fans rue the day they traded Turner and Ross.

Grade: B+

Justin Upton

On the one hand, this may be the best trade the Padres made. On the other hand, it could be the worst.

It could be the best because of all the three outfield acquisitions, he is both the healthiest and most established. At age 27, he has already hit 164 career home runs, hitting 20 four different times, with a solid career slash of .274/.354/.476, and two Silver Slugger awards.

So then, why might it be the worst trade? Because he could just be a one-year rental: after 2015, Upton becomes a free agent. If he plays true to form, Upton will get a lot of money next offseason from a big-market club. Sure, the Padres can make a run at him, but given that most big hitters would prefer not to play half their games at Petco Park, I wouldn’t bet on it.

In exchange for Upton, the Atlanta Braves received left-handed pitching prospect Max Fried, who missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery, AAA infielder Jace Peterson, and lower level prospects Mallex Smith and Dustin Peterson. This is a pretty talented bunch to surrender for one year of Justin Upton.

If it had been me (and yes, I know it wasn’t), I don’t know that I would have made this trade. I would have preferred that they kept Seth Smith, a left-handed bat who is cheaper, who was signed to a two-year extension, and handles his bat very well.

Of course, the prospects sent to Atlanta could fizzle (returning from rotator cuff surgery is hard so Fried could be out for a while, and Jace Peterson was not impressive in a mid-season call-up), and Upton could have a career year and lead San Diego to their first World Series championship. There are so many intangibles on this trade, but given what they gave up, my grade for Preller is…

Grade: B- (A in the short term, C- in the long term).

Derek Norris

Like the Myers trade, this was something of a surprise. Since Norris is not known for his defensive skills, Preller obviously only had one thing in mind when he acquired him: offense.

Norris made the All-Star team for the first time last year, hitting 10 home runs to go with a .270/.361/.403 slash. But when you look a little deeper, there is reason for concern:

  • Most of the damage he did was against lefties (.863 OPS, vs. .699 against righties).
  • He slumped badly in the second half (8 home runs, .879 OPS in the first half, vs. 2 and .638 in the second half).

Also, the Padres surrendered some very solid pitching prospects for him: Jesse Hahn, 25, who went 7-4 with a 3.07 ERA in 14 games (12 starts) for the Padres, and reliever R.J. Alvarez, who flashed a 1.13 ERA in ten late-season appearances.

But since the Padres are stocked pitching-wise (again, they still have their top three starters, closer Joaquin Benoit, up-and-comer Kevin Quackenbush and others), Preller obviously figured the trade was worth it.

And don’t forget, as the former longtime assistant G.M. of the Texas Rangers, Preller got to see plenty of Norris when they played against the A’s, and so has an inkling of what he is capable of doing as he matures. He’s still just 26, and figures to only get better offensively.

Grade: B+

Will Middlebrooks

This trade will either be remembered as either a huge steal or largely insignificant. Hence, it was worth the risk of trading away career backup catcher Ryan Hanigan.

A star in the minor leagues, Middlebrooks had a promising rookie season in 2012. He hit 15 home runs with 54 RBI, a .288 batting average, and .835 OPS in 75 games.

Since then, he has struggled mightily. In his sophomore campaign, he regressed to .227 with just a .271 OBP. Last year, he batted only .191 in 63 games.

At 26, what will Middlebrooks do? Will he continue his downward trend? Or, will he find his untapped potential in the lower pressure environment of San Diego?

Either way, this deal was worthwhile, given (a) the small price, and (b) the fact that Yongervis Solarte is waiting in the wings, should Middlebrooks fail.

Grade: B+

Overall

On the whole, this is a vastly improved Padres baseball team. For the first time in nearly a decade, this team is relevant in terms of high expectations.

Yes, they are heavily right-handed, but first baseman Yonder Alonso’s health is improving. With the added hefty bats, the pressure on him to perform is diminished, and if he can remain injury-free, he can provide the left-handed extra base power the team was always hoping for.

Also, Alexi Amarista figures to see the bulk of the starts at shortstop (barring another trade), and Will Venable will get in some spot starts as the fourth outfielder.

It is true, however, that another dependable left-handed bat would bring some needed balance.

Yes, the outfield defense will take a hit. But if you want to contend, you need offense, an area where the Padres were sorely lacking.

No longer will manager Bud Black be depending upon Venable and Maybin to provide production that they simply are not capable of providing; now, their most likely role will be in providing late inning defense, spot starts, and/or pinch running, which they’re best suited for anyway.

All told, the 2015 San Diego Padres will be a contender. Yes, some of these moves are risky. But all trades are. Yes, they have depleted their farm system.

But don’t forget that a prospect merely means that a player has potential. They don’t always work out.

Remember the names of the two prospects the Padres sent to Chicago to obtain Carlos Quentin (keeping in mind how good he was then)? Neither do I.

Remember the four prospects the Padres acquired for Jake Peavy? There’s Clayton Richard who was mediocre at best, and…who?

Remember the three prospects the Padres got for Adrian Gonzalez just four years ago? Only one of them, Casey Kelly, is still on their roster, and he’s coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Remember the package the Padres procured from the Reds for pitcher Mat Latos? Three years later, only one of them, Alonso, is still on the team, and unless there is substantial improvement, he may be hanging by a thread.

Lesson: Unless his name is Ken Griffey Jr. or Chipper Jones (i.e., can’t miss), prospects are for trading. With a good scouting system, the farm clubs will replentish themselves in almost no time at all. Preller knows this. He cashed them in, and now, the San Diego Padres are a team to be reckoned with.

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