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Rarely has a new GM treated his roster so much like a blank canvas as A.J. Preller did last winter. He traded liberally from his own farm system, committed to uncharacteristically large payrolls well into the future, and signed or traded for every famous name he could—acquiring the first five names on his Opening Day lineup card, along with his Opening Day starter and the back of his Opening Day bullpen. He covered the middle of that canvas but, in the absence of more time or resources, left the corners unfinished. The masterpiece was a counterfeit, and the Padres lost 88 games and their long-time manager. No rebuild in the 21st century looks more like a fantasy-baseball roster flurry than this one did.

What went wrong? It's not so simple as to say Preller's acquisitions disappointed. It's also not so simple as to say that the few holdovers that remained weren't good enough to support a playoff push. It's simple enough to say it was both.

The table below displays all major (and most minor) offseason additions, with preseason PECOTA projections versus actual 2015 production:

Position Player

Projection (TAv, WARP)

Actual (TAv, WARP)

Matt Kemp

.301, 3.0

.273, 2.7

Justin Upton

.295, 3.6

.294, 3.2

Wil Myers

.284, 2.9

.288, 1.0

Derek Norris

.276, 2.3

.263, 1.9

Will Middlebrooks

.258, 0.7

.221, 0.4

Melvin Upton

.252, 0.6

.283, 1.5

Clint Barmes

.223, 0.3

.244, 0.7

Pitcher

Projection (ERA, WARP)

Actual (ERA, WARP)

James Shields

3.27, 1.6

3.91, 0.7

Craig Kimbrel

1.33, 2.4

2.58, 1.2

Shawn Kelley

3.01, 0.6

2.45, 1.2

Brandon Maurer

3.55, 0.2

3.00, 1.2

Brandon Morrow

3.38, 0.8

2.73, .05

It's not as though Preller's acquisitions, one-by-one, forgot how to play baseball upon arrival in San Diego. These weren't meltdowns, and it wasn't an injury plague sweeping through the clubhouse. They were a bunch of players who almost systematically hit their 30th- or 40th-percentile projections—particularly the marquee guys.

Kemp hit .250/.291/.382 in the first half, but recovered in the second half by OPSing .868 with 15 home runs down the stretch. If you use Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average, which rated Kemp as an above-average corner defender, it looks like he had a fine season. (Switch to UZR or DRS for defense and he narrowly escaped the bowels of sub-replacement level.) San Diego owes Kemp just over $18 million annually through 2019.

Myers provided so-so offense when healthy, but surgery on his left wrist caused him to miss the heart of the season, as he played in just three games from May 11th through September 3rd. Myers also has a problem on defense, as his glove doesn't fit in center field—where the Padres tried to force him early in the year, with Kemp and Justin Upton occupying the outfield corners—and his bat might not fit at first, where the Padres stuck him later on.

Shields and Kimbrel were supposed to help round out an excellent pitching staff. Shields racked up a career-best 25.1 percent strikeout rate, but his walks also ballooned to a career-high 9.4 percent, and he allowed 33 home runs. There are positives going forward, like good ol' regression, which should help lower the home run rate next season (Shields' HR/FB was an abnormally high 17.6 percent). There are also negatives, like his age, which clicks up to 34 on December 20th, and his salary, which remains steady at $21 million through 2018. Kimbrel's problems were more cosmetic—home runs, too, as he allowed as many (six) as he had in 2013 and 2014 combined—and there's little reason to expect he won't return as a shutdown closer in 2016.

All of the Padres newcomers didn't underperform, of course. Derek Norris didn't necessarily provide the offensive punch that was expected, as a June through July slump dinged his overall numbers, but he improved behind the dish, both in his ability to throw out would-be base stealers (34 percent) and in his pitch framing (+83 strikes, 11th in the majors). Justin Upton didn't have the age-27-pre-free-agency breakout Preller and Co. probably dreamed up in their Petco offices, but he did turn in a typical Upton campaign, which ain't all bad. Older brother Melvin, a contract-based tax thrown in as part of the Kimbrel trade, actually played a serviceable center field upon returning from the DL in early June, and his .283 TAv—albeit in only 228 plate appearances—was his best mark since 2007. Shawn Kelley and Brandon Maurer, both buy-low bullpen options, were good in mid-to-late relief roles.

Add up the left and right columns on the above table, and the projection side wins by about 3.5 WARP. That means the Preller Guys underperformed, but not in disastrous fashion. The problem with Preller's plan, however, was that there was little room for any underperformance. He needed Kemp to stay healthy, hold his own defensively, and hit like he did last year in the second half (.309/.365/.606); he needed Myers to adapt adequately to center while recapturing his rookie year bat; he needed the junior Upton to have that breakout campaign; and he needed Shields to give the pitching staff 225 innings of vintage Shields, which generally equates to a 120 or 130 ERA+.

When none of those things happened, the Padres were left spinning their wheels, like in year's past, only this time with a brand name offense and worse pitching. Consider the following table, which includes the precious few players who snuck through Preller's upheaval unscathed:

Position Player

Projection (TAv, WARP)

Actual (TAv, WARP)

Yonder Alonso

.270, 1.2

.271, 1.1

Jedd Gyorko

.271, 2.4

.252, 0.7

Alexi Amarista

.232, 1.0

.205, -0.2

Yangervis Solarte

.255, 0.2

.266, 1.4

Will Venable

.259, 0.7

.246, 0.1

Cory Spangenberg

.230, 0.0

.268, 1.2

Pitcher

Projection (ERA, WARP)

Actual (ERA, WARP)

Andrew Cashner

3.25, 1.4

4.34, 0.4

Tyson Ross

3.62, 0.6

3.26, 3.6

Ian Kennedy

3.58, 0.7

4.28, 0.1

Odrisamer Despaigne

3.03, 0.8

5.80, -0.7

Joaquin Benoit

2.20, 1.3

2.34, 1.7

Kevin Quackenbush

2.64, 1.0

4.01, 0.8

If there's a theme here, it's not so much underperformance—the projections still beat the actuals, but only by about one WARP—but that this group just wasn't that good to start. It's odd to say, in an offseason like Preller's, that the GM just didn't do enough. But the GM didn't do enough.

The most puzzling part of Preller's plan was his work—or lack thereof—on the infield. Other than adding bit-player Clint Barmes as a free agent and trading Ryan Hanigan for Will Middlebrooks—who was badly miscast as a Big Pickup—Preller stood pat, which meant that Alexi Amarista, a versatile 5-foot-6 sparkplug poorly equipped for everyday work, was installed as the starting shortstop. His predictable no-offense approach was especially heartbreaking under interim manager Pat Murphy, whose affinity for a bat handler near the top of the order—combined with his quest for trying to cycle through every possible lineup combination in a single season—landed Amarista first or second in the order 10 times. Amarista's double play partner, Jedd Gyorko, was the only position player holdover to project as league-average or better, but he struggled early and lost playing time. He did turn things around as the season progressed, popping 13 second-half homers while squaring the ball up consistently.

Yonder Alonso showed the suspect value of a power-free first baseman—he actually had his best-case year, but that's a barely league-average stick—while Middlebrooks as a concept was scrapped and sent to El Paso. And a rotation that was, perhaps surprisingly, a projected weakness in the spring, collectively failed to meet even those projections. The overlapping risk of Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow turned out to be too risky with not enough overlap, and there was no depth to save the Padres from Ian Kennedy (who allowed 31—31!—home runs in only 168 innings) or Odrisamer Despaigne, whose guts and guile and occasional Eephus nearly added up to an ERA of 6.

***

Preller is likely to develop into a solid GM—he's young, smart, and he's earned a reputation in Texas, and in his debut year in San Diego, as a tireless worker (and occasional rule bender). Further, he's yet to really settle in and focus on what should become his bread-and-butter: player development, the draft, and specifically, the international game, where he spent a good chunk of his time while in the Rangers organization. That said, he was tasked with (or tasked himself with) turning the Padres around in a single offseason, a team that probably didn't have the core in place to warrant such a drastic shakeup. Preller's valiant attempt flopped spectacularly—to the point that the Padres didn't even actually improve at all in the short term, while handcuffing themselves in the long. That's a job that would have been tough for an experienced team-builder like Billy Beane or Theo Epstein to pull off, though, and it left Preller with too many odds and ends to form a cohesive unit—his squad looked dangerous on paper but it lacked polish in practice.

When the plan went awry in part because the new guys didn't live up to expectations and in part because the rest of the team wasn't that strong, Preller doubled down, firing his manager and interim-replacing him with Triple-A skipper Murphy while holding on to just about everyone at the trade deadline—he actually acquired a LOOGY, Marc Rzepczynski, for an unrealistic pennant run—when everyone expected a major sell-off. There's something to be said for having the conviction to stick with the process, but there's also something to be said for adjusting when things don't go as envisioned.

The Padres find themselves in an interesting position heading into the offseason. Considering how much last offseason's aggressiveness caught (nearly) everyone off guard—and, for that matter, how the team's trade deadline inaction caught everyone off guard—it'd be folly to guess what Preller will do. Minus Justin Upton, who is expected to earn a qualifying offer then bolt for free agency, all those big name acquisitions from last winter are under contract, and outside of Ian Kennedy, another free-agent-to-be, the majority of the pitching staff is set to return. There's not much immediate help expected from the farm, as players like Trea Turner (a desperately needed shortstop), Matt Wisler, and Joe Ross are lost in a cloud of trade dust. There might be a payroll pinch, too, as just four players—Shields, Kemp, Melvin Upton, and Kimbrel—are set to earn north of $65 million combined, a figure that would surpass the Padres' Opening Day payroll in five of the last 10 years.

The job, which involves navigating the sometimes too-hands-on approach from higher-ups like Mike Dee, has become even more difficult than it was a year ago. But Preller's nothing if not creative, and he's likely already cooked up several scenarios to improve the team while making budget. The hope—among Padres fans tired of mid-70-something win totals—is that Preller has learned some lessons during his first year as general manager. Luckily for him, he gets another year or two before that new GM smell wears off.

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lewist
10/29
Yep that about sums it up. Nice article
dutt22
10/30
Thank you, tlw.