Padres Offseason Outlook, Part 3 (Or, Grading Preller)

One year ago, new Padres general manager A.J. Preller rocked the baseball world: he aggressively remade his team’s outfield, signed a coveted free agent starting pitcher, and then traded for one of the top closers in baseball.

A year ago, I graded Preller’s moves. While it usually takes several years to determine whether or not a trade was successful, one season nonetheless provides a nice vantage point to see how these deals have worked out for the teams involved.

Matt Kemp: This was the first of the big blockbuster trades made by Preller. In acquiring Kemp for catcher Yasmani Grandal and pitcher Joe Wieland, he was making s statement that this was going to be a different San Diego Padres baseball team.

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Kemp suffered from a horrible start, hitting just one home run in the first two months. In May, Kemp left people wondering if Preller had done a sequel of Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi (i.e., one of the worst trades in the history of baseball), when he batted .186 with a .225 On-Base percentage and a horrid .217 slugging percentage.

Meanwhile, Grandal, the centerpiece of the trade for the Dodgers, had a huge first half, swatting 14 home runs with a .927 OPS.

But in the second half, the tables were turned: Kemp went on a roll, hitting .286 in the second half with 22 home runs from June-September, and he reached 100 RBI for the third time in his career, while Grandal floundered after the All-Star break, hitting just .162.

So one year is not conclusive. But given Kemp’s horrid outfield defense, his arthritic hips, and his hefty contract (four years remaining for which San Diego owes him nearly $60) and Grandal’s upside (he’s still only 26, and his strong first half is indicative of things to come), it’s clear that long term, the Dodgers got the better end of this deal.

Grade: C-

Wil Myers: While the trade for Kemp was the most newsworthy, the deal for Myers was the biggest surprise. Just 23 at the time, Myers was still a promising young hitter with the Tampa Bay Rays, and most experts were surprised that they would be willing to trade him.

But given Myers’ immense talent, it cost the Padres plenty: they were forced to part with 2014 first round draft pick Trea Turner, top pitching prospect Joe Ross (brother of Tyson), and others in a complex, three-team deal that included the Washington Nationals.

The immediate results have not been promising. Myers missed over 100 games with a nagging wrist injury. Given that this was the same injury that also hampered his ’14 season in Tampa, the Padres should be concerned about Myers’ future.

Meanwhile, Turner, 22, sped through the National’s AA and AAA teams, and made his major league debut. He could very well be their starting shortstop in 2016, and beyond. This is especially disappointing, given that he is (a) a shortstop, (b) left-handed, and (c) a potentially solid leadoff hitter—all of which the Padres desperately need. It’s no wonder that Preller allegedly tried to re-acquire Turner at the July 31 deadline.

Ross also debuted in Washington, pitching in 16 games (13 starts), striking out 69 in 76.1 innings, while sporting a fine 3.64/1.11/.223 slash.

And like Turner, he’s also just 22.

Still, one year is not conclusive. Ross’ arm could blow out, Turner could turn out to be a bust, and Myers could overcome his wrist problems and realize his potential. But for now, this looks to be a potential bust.

Grade: D-

Justin Upton: As with many other Padre watchers, I was surprised by the Myers trade, and I concluded that this meant they were out of the race to obtain Upton.

But the very next day, Preller did it again, announcing that he had acquired “J-Up” for the following prospects: infielder Jace Peterson, left-handed starter Max Fried (then the Padres #3 prospect), infielder Dustin Peterson, and outfielder Mallex Smith.

Clearly, the goal behind acquiring Upton was to win it all in 2015. Judging upon that criteria alone, the deal was a failure. This is so even while Upton generally played well: yes, his batting average was down (.251), and he actually performed better at Petco Park (.277/.360/.506) than on the road (.225/.312./.402).

Equally surprising as the initial trade for Upton was the fact that Preller did not trade him at the July 31 deadline, when the Padres were clearly out of the pennant race.

Meanwhile, the results for the Braves’ return was mixed: Jace Peterson became the Braves’ everyday second baseman. After playing serviceable baseball for the first half, he faded after the All-Star break to finish with a .239 batting average with a .315 OBP, 12 stolen bases, and 34 extra-base hits.

Max Fried, 21, did not play, as he is still recovering from Tommy John Surgery.

Dustin Peterson, 21, played his first season at High-A ball.

Mallex Smith, 22, batted .306 with 57 stolen bases as he split his season between AA and AAA.

In other words, time will tell whether or not these young talents will work out for the Braves. The one saving grace for the Padres is that they will receive a compensatory draft pick for losing Upton. But that aside, even if none of the young players obtained by Atlanta don’t amount to anything, this looks like one that Preller should have passed on. They would have been far better off keeping Seth Smith, a left-handed bat, in left field.

Grade: D

Will Middlebrooks: Obtained to be the regular third baseman, Middlebrooks was demoted in July, never to be wear a Padre uniform again.

However, this was a low-risk, high-reward deal since it only cost them Ryan Hanigan, a career back-up catcher, to get Middlebrooks. Given the Padres needs at the time, this was a risk worth taking.

Grade: C

Derek Norris: In his 2014-15 revamp, Preller traded away both of his main backstops, Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal. But not to worry, as he quickly turned around and sent Jesse Hahn and R.J. Alvarez to Oakland to acquire Derek Norris, a catcher with good offensive upside.

2015 was an interesting year for him. He had the second highest number of starts among NL catchers, and hit 14 homers with 62 RBI. But uncharacteristically for him, his walks (and hence his OBP) were down, with a career-low 35 and .305, respectively. At 26, though, he probably has not yet reached his peak offensively, so the Padres have little reason to be worried.

On the A’s side, Hahn pitched well for the first half of the season, sporting a 3.36 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, before ending his season with elbow inflammation. Meanwhile, Alvarez was a disappointment, sporting a 9.90 ERA in 20 relief outings.

All told, this was the best trade that Preller made in 2014-15.

Grade: B+

Craig Kimbrel: This trade was puzzling, and showed Preller’s overconfidence heading into 2015. However, this was a team that already had Joaquin Benoit, the previous season’s closer, and potential stoppers in Kevin Quackenbush and Brandon Maurer.

An All-Start closer, Kimbrel’s highest ERA in the three previous seasons was 1.61, and his highest WHIP was 0.91. So his 2.58 ERA and 1.04 WHIP makes his first season as a Padre look like a disappointment. Not so. He still converted 39 of his 43 save opportunities. 

The Padres also inherited the overpriced contract of Melvin Upton, Jr., who had been a bust in Atlanta after signing a five-year contract in 2012. But in San Diego, he posted modest numbers in part-time play, batting .259 with a .757 OPS in 87 games.

In return, the Padres sent two of their bad contracts to Atlanta, in Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin. They subsequently dumped Quentin, while Maybin did just what Upton Jr. did: he rebounded in new surroundings, posting respectable (if unspectacular) numbers: .697 OPS with 23 steals and 10 home runs.

The Braves also received a few minor leagues, most notable being 22-year-old pitcher Matt Wissler. He looked slightly overmatched in 20 big league games (19 starts), posting a 4.71/1.46/.280 slash.

So player for player, the deal is a wash. However, the clincher was the salary the Padres took on to complete the deal: $46.35 million for Upton, and $34 for Kimbrel, both over three years. This will surely hamstring Preller’s efforts to improve going forward, unless Kimbrel is traded. Given that many clubs would love to have him, this could happen.

In the meantime, they’re stuck with Upton, who is either a decent everyday center fielder or an over-rated fourth outfielder. Either way, he’s overpaid.

Grade: C+

In sum, the Padres are worse off for the trades that Preller made—and this is assuming that Myers is able to recover his wrist injury. If not, his tenure could very well set the team back 3-4 years.

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