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The GM Never Sleeps: A.J. Preller Just Had an Unprecedented Trade Deadline

The Padres general manager just exchanged 26 players, breaking his own record for a three-day span. It’s the latest example of how he’s become one of the most aggressive decision-makers in MLB.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In a three-day span starting on Saturday and ending at Monday’s MLB trade deadline, the second-place San Diego Padres dealt or acquired roughly an entire team’s worth of players. In six separate transactions, the Padres imported Mike Clevinger and Greg Allen from Cleveland; Austin Nola, Austin Adams, Dan Altavilla, and Taylor Williams from the Mariners; Jason Castro from the Angels; Mitch Moreland from the Red Sox; and Trevor Rosenthal from the Royals. That’s four relief pitchers, two catchers, and one outfielder, first baseman, and starting pitcher apiece. To do that, the Padres parted with catchers Austin Hedges and Luis Torrens, reliever Cal Quantrill, outfielder Josh Naylor, infielder Ty France, and nine prospects ranked fifth, 11th, 12th, 16th, 18th, 20th, 25th, 29th, and 39th on FanGraphs’ preseason Padres prospect rankings. They also added or subtracted three players to be named later, which is nice, because I’ve named more than enough players in this paragraph already.

If you weren’t doing the mental math, that’s a total of 26 players exchanged by Padres general manager A.J. Preller, including Clevinger, the biggest name to change teams at the deadline. And yes, that trade volume is as historic as it sounds. The table below, based on data provided by Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference, lists every three-day span in major league history in which one team swapped at least 15 players (except for the 16-player transfer in 1899 between Barney Dreyfuss’s two teams, the Louisville Colonels and the Pittsburgh Pirates, which sent Honus Wagner to the Pirates). The counts of major leaguers acquired or dealt include any players who ever earned big league playing time, whether before or after the trade. Aside from the George Steinbrenner–helmed ’84 Yankees, all of these teams—except, perhaps, for the 2020 Padres—were coming off or in the middle of losing seasons.

Most Combined Players Traded for or Traded Away During a Three-Day Span

Start Date End Date Team Players MLer Dealt Dealt MLer Acquired Acquired_MLer
Start Date End Date Team Players MLer Dealt Dealt MLer Acquired Acquired_MLer
8/29/2020 8/31/2020 Padres 26 -- 16 -- 10 --
12/18/2014 12/20/2014 Padres 24 22 14 14 11 9
12/10/1975 12/12/1975 White Sox 20 19 11 10 11 11
7/29/2000 7/31/2000 Orioles 18 13 7 6 11 7
2/10/1916 2/12/1916 Cubs 16 16 0 0 16 16
12/9/1996 12/11/1996 Tigers 16 13 8 6 8 7
11/18/1997 11/20/1997 Tigers 16 13 9 8 7 5
12/4/1984 12/6/1984 Yankees 15 15 8 8 7 7
12/5/1988 12/7/1988 Rangers 15 13 10 8 5 5

No other GM in major league history has moved more than 20 players in any three-day span. Preller has now done it twice. Four months after his hiring, in December 2014, he exchanged 24 players, acquiring Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris, and others in a series of six trades that cost San Diego Yasmani Grandal, Max Fried, and many other less notable names. If we count catcher Ryan Hanigan twice—Preller traded for him on December 19 and then flipped him to Boston the next day—that 2014 total would rise to 25. Which means that Preller’s 2020 tally would have been either tied with or one behind his 2014 mark if not for his buzzer-beating, one-for-one trade for Williams, whom he pried free from the Mariners (and fellow trade-dependent GM Jerry Dipoto) in the second swap between those two teams in two days. Essentially, in the moments before the deadline, 2020 Preller told 2014 Preller to hold his beer, then broke his own record for frantic trading activity, topping every other team’s trade return in the process.

In a sense, Preller’s Padres tenure has come full circle: The Padres are once again baseball’s biggest story because of a Preller-led overnight overhaul. But the circumstances of those two trading outbursts are dramatically different. When Preller went all in for the first time, he was a rookie GM on the verge of his first full season. Now he’s the eighth-longest-tenured head of a baseball operations department. During his first frenzy of wheeling and dealing, he was trying to turn a team that had been bad for years into a winner without undergoing a drawn-out rebuild. Five losing seasons later, that inevitable rebuild is behind him, and the Padres are finally a legitimately contending team. In other words, the first Prellerpalooza was a product of Preller trying to take a shortcut to October with a losing roster he inherited; the second is Preller trying to put the finishing touches on a winning team he painstakingly constructed. The one common element the two trade orgies share is Preller’s willingness to risk his reputation in a burst of activity that no other GM has ever rivaled.

In some respects, Preller looks like most MLB GMs: He’s a white guy who went to an Ivy League school. In others, he’s a singular figure with a seemingly insatiable and sometimes destructive desire to find and accumulate talent. As Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel wrote in their recently released book, Future Value, Preller’s “tirelessness and bravado” blend with his “observed and rumored idiosyncrasies” to produce an impression of a “shrewd, eccentric, baseball genius”:

… he barely sleeps and is apt to call his employees at all hours, he has a photographic memory, he sometimes travels with a neck brace to wear on planes to help him sleep, he’s an excellent break dancer and pickup basketball player, sometimes hooping as early as four in the morning. He’s rumored to have among the most American Airlines miles of anyone in the country, after being based in Dallas for so many years when working for the Rangers. On consecutive days in 2017, the two of us saw Preller on opposite ends of the country (draft coverage in the Southeast, then an Extended game in Arizona) wearing the same thing he had the day before: mesh basketball shorts, a Team USA Baseball workout shirt and a bucket hat, accessorized with a giant, gas station beverage and a plastic grocery store bag that appeared to be filled with a second set of clothes.

The authors added that they spotted Preller at a high school showcase a few days before the Padres hired him, and again at a high school tournament a few months later, even though the players on display couldn’t be drafted for at least eight months. It’s rare for a GM to make in-person appearances of that nature—upper-level decision-makers have whole departments to run and tend to delegate lower-level looks—but Preller’s appetite for talent knows no bounds. However, his eagerness to color outside the lines of the typical office-based, risk-averse executive’s standard operating procedure sometimes violates league regulations and vaults his teams into ethically questionable territory.

Longenhagen and McDaniel noted that while “old-school scouting types” laud the Padres GM’s approach to player evaluation, they also “broadly question how far Preller seems willing to go,” and with good reason. The 43-year-old executive has at least twice been suspended by MLB, once with Texas in 2010 (when his international scouting department improperly negotiated with a player who was himself suspended for falsifying his age), and again in 2016 (for failing to disclose medical information about Drew Pomeranz, whom the Padres had dealt to the Red Sox). Longenhagen and McDaniel report that Preller’s teams have been subject to suspicion of other chicanery related to international scouting and medical disclosures, and that Preller has possibly been fined for running afoul of scouting strictures on at least one other occasion.

Without valorizing Preller’s tendency to skirt the rules or his seemingly extreme conception of work-life balance, we can still say that the legal kind of cowboy behavior he’s exhibited in terms of transactions has been a breath of fresh air in a league in which most front offices adopt a more prudent approach. When he pushed his chips in for the first time, prompting Kemp to call him a “GM rock star,” Preller may have been following an ownership mandate to win without delay; alternatively, he may have gotten the job by promising immediate returns instead of a more measured do-over. Either way, the quickie playoff plan didn’t work.

“As one would expect, given their rebuilding rush job, the Padres are a tacked-together team with a roster that’s rough around the edges,” I wrote at Grantland in February 2015, citing the team’s underwhelming infield, defensively challenged and injury-prone outfield, and heavily right-handed lineup and rotation. I was probably being too generous: Just a few months later, the Padres were sellers en route to yet another 70-something-win season, and Grantland (and Ringer) contributor Rany Jazayerli was savaging Preller’s attempt to skip the steps required to build a playoff foundation. Yet Preller’s approach had, however briefly, made a major story out of a team that, until Preller took over, was best known for being unknown. It was refreshing and fun for the nondescript, sad-sack Padres to be buyers, and although the premature push likely delayed their arrival as a real threat, it didn’t derail Preller’s plans permanently (and indirectly led to them landing Fernando Tatis Jr.).

In the intervening years, Preller continued to break with tradition. In 2017, the Padres promoted three Rule 5 players from A ball or below to their big league roster, an unprecedented demonstration of stockpiling talent at the expense of present competitiveness. One of those players was Torrens, who formed part of the package sent to Seattle on Sunday for Nola. Early in 2018, the Padres signed free agent Eric Hosmer to an eight-year deal; Hosmer seemed like an odd fit for the Padres’ roster and a long shot to look good from a dollars-per-WAR perspective, but the nine-figure outlay signaled that the Padres were ready to assert themselves. A year later, San Diego signed Manny Machado, adding an actual marquee name to a franchise that had long been starved for superstars. All the while, Preller was putting his prowess in scouting and player development to good use in assembling a farm system that was the best in baseball prior to the 2019 draft and has stood second only to Tampa Bay’s since then.

The farm system has paid dividends via homegrown, international signees such as Luis Patiño, Adrián Morejón, and Dinelson Lamet (whose signing predated Preller’s tenure). But it’s also enabled the Padres to trade surplus pieces for other teams’ talent. According to Roster Resource, more than 60 percent of the players on the Padres’ 40-man roster (or 45-man IL) and active roster were acquired via trade, second only to the perpetual-motion-machine roster of the low-payroll Oakland A’s. Preller is still wheeling and dealing in the way that he was from day one, but now he’s doing so from a position of strength and efficiently harnessing his almost obsessive urge to pick up players.

Although the club’s young core and impressive crop of prospects promised postseason appearances ahead, the 2019 team tanked after a feint at contention, and there was pressure on Preller, who’s signed through 2022, to translate that potential into success this season. That may have helped motivate his latest spree. This time, though, the moves made sense on every level. The Padres’ playoff odds were boosted by the expanded playoff format more than any other team’s, but they’ve hardly needed the help: Even under the 10-team playoff format, the Padres would have been in wild-card position as the deadline neared.

What’s more, the Padres occupy the sweet spot for deadline dealing. Under the 16-team playoff format, division winners suffer from being forced to play an extra round, but second-place teams prosper from substituting a best-of-three series for what would have been a one-game wild-card coin flip. The Padres project to be better than any team they might face in that first round, and their recent upgrades give them a better chance to advance. They’re leading the majors in runs scored and park-adjusted offense, which would be firsts in franchise history. (They’ve never ranked higher than sixth in wRC+.) The pitching staff—particularly the bullpen—was a relative weakness, but Clevinger and a quartet of relievers papered over those problems.

According to FanGraphs’ playoff odds page, the acquisition of Clevinger added roughly 11 percentage points to the Padres’ expected regular-season winning percentage, and approximately 1.4 percentage points to their World Series odds. Not only are the 22-15 Padres virtual locks to play in the postseason for the first time since 2006, but the newly retooled team boasts better odds of feasting on the big cake than any team except the division-rival Dodgers, who were almost idle at the deadline but remain baseball’s best team. Better yet, the Padres currently project to be the best non-Dodgers team in the NL in 2021, and Clevinger, Nola, and other reinforcements under team control for multiple future seasons will help them win in a window that’s only just opening.

In their frenzied deadline revamp, the Padres didn’t deal any members of their current core, any inner-circle prospects, or, arguably, anyone who hadn’t been rendered redundant by the emergence of a superior player. They’ve put themselves in an improved position to win in 2020 and beyond, and they’ve done it in a fashion that reflects the strengths of their uniquely aggressive architect. This is a club that smashes unwritten rules by swinging at unexpected times, sets records for launching grand slams in consecutive games, and catches balls in unlikely locations. It’s also a team that pounces on concentrated trade opportunities with an unparalleled lack of restraint. Thanks to elevated pitcher injury rates, 40-man roster crunches, and the difficulty—in the absence of a minor league season—of filling a 28-player postseason roster by promoting players from within, the 2020 trade deadline turned out to be busier than expected. But nobody could keep pace with the Padres. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to outmaneuver a GM who doesn’t sleep.