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A.J. Preller Is Breaking All the Rules

A.J. Preller
A.J. Preller, Seattle Mariners v San Diego Padres | Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

A.J. Preller cares not for your conventional wisdom. No, the San Diego Padres' general manager is proving trade by trade and signing by signing that he's a paradigm-shifting force in Major League Baseball. With three moves in 24 hours this week he's completely changed the balance of power in baseball and put the Padres firmly in World Series contention for the next few years.

This offseason, MLB teams were expected to reduce payroll after losing money across the board in 2020. Conventional wisdom suggested they would hold tightly to their younger, cheaper players and eschew risky blockbuster deals. Trades were expected to happen later in the offseason, if at all. Apparently San Diego's GM missed that memo.

When the league has zigged, Preller has zagged. There are basic rules to this kind of thing; he's breaking them and forging a new path. Over the past six months he's forever changed the expectations for what a general manager can accomplish.

Everyone knew the Padres had to add starting pitching this offseason after Mike Clevinger underwent Tommy John surgery. But most thought San Diego would find a low-cost innings-eater in free agency or have to mortgage the future on a short-term solution. Consider those expectations shattered.

Between Sunday night and Monday evening Preller added Blake Snell and Yu Darvish to the front of his team's rotation. In doing so, the Padres became the first team in baseball history to acquire two pitchers in a single offseason who finished top-two in Cy Young voting in the prior three seasons. Snell won the AL Cy Young in 2018 and Darvish finished second in NL Cy Young voting in 2020.

Perhaps most shocking is that fact that Preller didn't have to empty his farm system to get both players. The Padres held on to six of their top seven prospects yet managed to land two aces. In fact, if you include the deal for Mike Clevinger at the trade deadline, the Padres got three front-line starting pitchers -- who are all under contract through 2022 -- and only surrendered one top-100 prospect in the process. That's mind-blowing. It's just something that has never happened before.

Just to add more fuel to the fire: over the past five months, Preller has added Snell, Clevinger, Darvish, catcher Austin Nola and several bullpen arms and only gave up two top-100 prospects to do so. It's been a stunning roster transformation for the Padres, who still have a loaded farm system.

Darvish was brilliant in 2020, posting an 8-3 record, a 2.01 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 93 strikeouts in 76 innings. The 34-year-old also averaged a career-high 95.9 mph on his fastball. Snell is a big-time lefty with big-game experience. In 17 starts during the regular season and the playoffs, he went 6-4 with a 3.16 ERA. He averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine and opponents hit only .216 against him.

Conventional wisdom says when you trade for a top-line starting pitcher with years of team control you have to give up the bulk of your top prospects. Preller has now done that three times and has managed to hold on to the cream of the Padres' farm system. Top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore is still there, as are infielder C.J. Abrams, catcher Luis Campusano, outfielder Robert Hassell and lefty Ryan Weathers.

In the Snell deal, Preller did have to send fire-balling righty Luis Patino to the Tampa Bay Rays and he is a legit top prospect. But the other players in the deal are either far from the majors or were blocked from finding playing time in San Diego. For Darvish he sent the Chicago Cubs starter Zach Davies, then added four prospects to the transaction. All four guys are young and have upside but none were ranked in the top-10 of the Padres' farm system. It's stunning that's all Preller had to give up.

As if that wasn't enough, the Padres also signed power hitting Korean infielder Ha-seong Kim to a completely manageable four-year, $25 million deal. He'll be added to a prolific lineup led by Silver Slugger winners Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado.

Teams around the majors are cutting payroll to make up for the losses suffered during 2020's shortened, fan-less season. Preller saw an opening and he took it. Eschewing the herd mentality, he made moves to make his team demonstrably better and increased San Diego's payroll by nearly $30 million. At the same time, he's put the Padres in a dead-heat with the Dodgers as the best team in the National League.

Over the past six months A.J. Preller has redefined expectations for general managers across baseball. He's remade an already good Padres team into an elite force capable of competing for multiple World Series titles. And he's done it without mortgaging his team's future.

All that's left is for the Padres to live up to the standard of excellence set by the man who put them together.