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The Padres Won the MLB Trade Deadline by Not Risking Much at All

San Diego made a flurry of trades over the past 72 hours that heavily revamped the roster. But even with all that movement, the Padres managed to hang on to their prospect core—and their budding superstars.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For all the reasons Zach Kram outlined last week, the 2020 MLB trade deadline was destined to be relatively quiet. The 16-team playoff—which was expanded due to the COVID-shortened regular season—reduced not only the number of sellers, but also the incentive for second-place teams to spend big to try to overtake the division leader. At each of the past three deadlines, we’ve seen at least one player on a Hall of Fame trajectory—Zack Greinke, Manny Machado, Justin Verlander—move to an eventual pennant-winner. But as much as I’ll be on the ramparts shouting for Lance Lynn when his career timeline intersects with my getting a Hall of Fame vote, no such player was available this year.

In short, you’d need to be a little bit of a daredevil to go all in at this deadline. And given that the modern MLB general manager is an Ivy League quant, viewing risk with an actuarial dispassion, many front offices were content to pursue a wild-card spot rather than cut the brake lines and shout “Wild card!”

Thus, San Diego Padres GM A.J. Preller stepped into the breach.

In three days, Preller engineered six trades involving 23 players, plus three more to be named later. The Padres entered this season with a well-established catching tandem of Francisco Mejía and Austin Hedges, and will go to bed on Monday with an entirely new tandem of Jason Castro and Austin Nola. A team that 12 months ago had more first-base types than it could use traded for Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland.

And on Monday, the Padres sent six players to Cleveland for the best player to move at the deadline: pitcher Mike Clevinger. The nine-player deal for Clevinger came less than 18 hours after a seven-player deal that brought Nola and two others down the coast from Seattle. (Back in the 1940s, the Los Alamos national labs ran a series of experiments that placed a radioactive plutonium core between a pair of neutron-reflecting beryllium hemispheres. If those hemispheres touched, the core would emit a blast of radiation. You can imagine what Preller and Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto are in this metaphor.)

These trades are fun not just because they’ve markedly improved one of baseball’s most exciting teams, but because trades are fun in and of themselves. The smart way to play poker is to fold and fold and fold unless you’re sure you’ve got a great hand, in which case you bet heavily enough to get everyone else to fold before you actually have to show your cards. But nobody who plays cards with their buddies every Sunday night actually operates like that, because it’s boring as hell. We crave action, and the Padres have provided more of that than anyone could have hoped for.

But for all the spark and verve and bluster of the past 72 hours, the Padres are unlikely to move up in the standings as a result of these trades. San Diego is five games out of first place, farther from the division leader than any other second-place team in the bigs, and while the Dodgers stood pat at the deadline, they did call up global top-five prospect Gavin Lux to play second base. FanGraphs gives San Diego a 98 percent chance of making the playoffs, but just a 5.7 percent chance of winning the division.

So why did Preller go all in at the deadline? Why did he mortgage his team’s future when the postseason was already in the bag and the Dodgers look so implacable?

In short, he didn’t. There’s a fine line between “all in” and “merely aggressive,” and Preller never crossed it. In all six trades, the Padres only let go of one prospect ranked in the top 100 by, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus: speedy outfielder Taylor Trammell. Trammell gained something of a cult following after back-to-back Futures Game appearances in 2018 and 2019, in which he showcased a combination of speed and beguiling on-mic charisma. When San Diego shoehorned itself into the Trevor Bauer–Yasiel Puig trade last July, Trammell was the big prize, worth shipping out Franmil Reyes and borderline top-100 arm Logan Allen to acquire. But Trammell only hit .234/.340/.349 in double-A last year, and none of the three outlets mentioned above saw fit to rank him higher than fifth among San Diego’s prospect pool this year, or higher than 60th overall.

The only other traded player to make a top-100 list was shortstop Gabriel Arias, who appeared at no. 94 on the BP ranking and was among the six players who went to Cleveland for Clevinger. Arias could grow into an impact hitter as a middle infielder, but he’s still got a long way to go developmentally and is expendable on a team that has Manny Machado and Fernando Tatís ensconced in two infield positions until the end of civilization. Joey Cantillo, also bound for Cleveland, is interesting as a big-framed left-hander with limited velocity and a track record of success in the low minors, but he’s still years from being majors-ready even if everything goes right.

Moreland cost the Padres two prospects: pitcher Hudson Potts and outfielder Jeisson Rosario. But because of 40-man roster rules—which require clubs to add prospects to a 40-man roster by a certain point or risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft—San Diego may have lost these guys anyway this offseason. Instead of settling for that, though, Preller turned them into a player who’s hit .255/.336/.489 over the past three seasons and can fill the offensive void Tommy Pham left when he broke his hamate bone.

And while the three big leaguers headed to Cleveland—catcher Austin Hedges, first baseman/outfielder Josh Naylor, and pitcher Cal Quantrill—all have enticing skills, the Padres still upgraded at all three of their positions this weekend.

The sheer volume of players headed out makes it a near certainty that Preller will come to regret at least one of these trades in five years’ time. All the more so considering the sterling developmental track record of some of the Padres’ trading partners; the quality of Cleveland’s pitching development in the high minors, for instance, could elevate Cantillo and Quantrill to no. 1 starter status in a couple years. After all, that system developed Clevinger from more humble prospect origins.

But the Padres had more useful young players than they could hold on their roster, let alone use. What Preller did this weekend continues a trend of consolidation that dates back at least 12 months, in which he’s repeatedly pulled off the video-game trade ideal: Many players of limited value for fewer players of higher value. Reyes and Allen turned into Trammell. Hunter Renfroe, Xavier Edwards, and Esteban Quiroz turned into Pham and Jake Cronenworth. Preller’s also not afraid of challenge trades; in November he sent a young, cost-controlled pitcher and a young, cost-controlled position player (Eric Lauer and Luis Urías) to Milwaukee for a young, cost-controlled pitcher and a young, cost-controlled position player (Zach Davies and Trent Grisham). And at least so far, the Padres look like they’re winning that deal.

Has Preller’s wheeling and dealing over the past 11 months landed a legitimate superstar? With respect to Clevinger, who’s pitched like an ace but has also thrown more than 126 innings just once in his career, no. Nola’s playing like the second coming of Buster Posey now, but he’s also a 30-year-old with fewer than 400 big league plate appearances who couldn’t hit or catch until 2017.

But the Padres already have stars, which they’ve acquired either through free agency (Manny Machado) or internal development (Tatís and perhaps Chris Paddack, both trade acquisitions developed internally from the low minors). These new trades served to surround those stars with a deep cadre of above-average or better supporting players.

Heading into the deadline, the Padres were a good team with several obvious flaws: a bullpen that has struggled to hold a lead with all-world closer Kirby Yates on the shelf; a starting rotation that’s big on stuff but short on experience, with a big question mark at the no. 5 spot; a Pham-shaped hole in the lineup at left field and/or DH; and a humongous, sucking offensive maw behind the plate. All of those problems have been fixed, using very little apart from bench players and second-tier prospects. On the surface it looks like the Padres went berserk at the deadline—but in the long run, they didn’t risk very much at all.