Beneath the apparent accuracy of contract numbers, service time calculations, wins over substitution, projected stats and prospect rankings, there’s something downright Paleolithic about the way MLB executives build baseball teams. They scour high school grounds, small college stadiums, and faraway grounds in search of players to support themselves. They try to find the best before anyone else. Then they keep wandering around until they spot someone with something they need more. And then, when that need is identified, they try to barter and convince their talented hunter-gatherer companion to make a trade.
Baseball’s most energetic talent scout, perhaps the most energetic he’s ever seen, made his most showy trade yet on Tuesday. In a business of historic and significant proportions, San Diego fathers general manager AJ Preller offered on Washington nationals five cherished but unseen treasures for Josh Bell and a John Sotoa famous gem of a player whose quality has not been matched for some 80 years.
In dealing with the five highly rated young players and first baseman Luke Voit, Preller removed a player no one ever managed to trade. According to Sarah Langs of MLB.com, Soto is the first player to make multiple All-Star Games and change teams before turning 24.
Soto’s availability was the product of circumstances — with the Nationals preparing to be sold and opposing Soto’s rejection of an extension offer — that few could have foreseen happening so quickly. It’s even possible that those exact circumstances wouldn’t have resulted in a delay trade at all if Preller hadn’t been built for that moment.
In an environment where so many teams are hoarding players with the slightest hint of potential and avoiding high-profile risks, Preller is “not afraid”.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said the same thing after closing the deal. Whether you believe it or not, Washington exec in awkward position of working for incumbent ownership group says he ‘set the bar very, very high’ and pulled the trigger to dismiss second-comer Ted Williams only when “one team got past her”.
What seems to set Preller apart from his MLB GM brethren is an entirely different — and wickedly simple — idea of how best to harness potential and turn it into success.
How Preller made the Padres MLB’s funniest team
Described as swashbuckling, hyperactive and eccentric, Preller’s overall philosophy is to always do something.
This is not always the best way to run a baseball team. Since taking over the Padres in 2014, he’s presided over an attempted rocket fuel buildup that didn’t work, the ensuing takedown, a free agent spending spree and now two trade bargains from mid season for ages. He has yet to produce a deep playoff; the Eric Hosmer deal was downright considered a bad move when it was signed; Wil Myers languishes on the fringes of the roster and Trea Turner (who moved from San Diego to Washington as part of the Myers acquisition) is a superstar.
It’s a great way to liven up a franchise that’s too boring to justify being called “dormant,” though. The Preller-era Padres have become a great fun team — the early 2000s Red Sox with less facial hair, the 90s Cleveland teams with better uniforms. And not content with the occasional winning season, they are now in a position to really challenge for City’s first World Series title for at least the next three Octobers.
Let’s talk about the next 2 1/2 years. This is an important window into the Soto saga. He can reach free agency and spark a potential $500 million bidding war after the 2024 season. The implication of the Nationals’ decision to trade him, if it wasn’t just for change reasons of ownership, was that the team couldn’t muster enough talent around him in that time to make it worth offering the kind of extension it would take to keep him. Afraid of becoming version of the angelsit is believed they have put Soto with his value as high as possible – three potential Octobers to help his potential new team.
Of course, there are a lot of things you can do in 2.5 years. For example, you can draft, sign, or trade for most of the players needed to assemble Juan Soto’s historic transport. Four of the six returning pieces have joined the Padres organization in the past 2 1/2 years.
LHP MacKenzie Gore: Draft 2017, 1st round
SS CJ Abrams: Draft 2019, 1st round
DE Robert Hassell III: Drafted 2020, 1st round
OF James Wood: Draft 2021, 2nd round
RHP Jarlin Susana: signed in January 2022
1B Luke Voit: acquired in March 2022 (for a player drafted in 2020)
Now, Gore and Abrams are major prospects without whom this particular deal wouldn’t have happened, but you can see the confidence that allowed Preller to win over Soto: wherever Rizzo put the helm for the Nationals, he was going to offer the youngster brilliant players to navigate on it.
Player identification and development
You might get the impression, based on its heavy spending, that Preller places a lower value on leads than its peers. This is not the case. Instead, he cultivates an almost devilish appreciation for them.
Minor League Scouting Experts Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel wrote in their book “Future Value” of Preller’s reputation for showing up in more remote locations to observe players than any other GM.
“Perhaps Preller’s gaunt, olive face and steely eyes are simply easier to identify in the field than most other GMs,” they wrote, “but it’s the one scouts see most often, and it’s not close.”
The legend of Preller’s emphasis on scouting dates back to when he was building the Texas Rangers international scouting system and includes some instances where he crossed ethical and legislative lines. At best, however, Preller’s ardent pursuit of extraordinary ability can result in counterfactual bait of the highest quality, as when he traded an aging and expensive James Shields to the Chicago White Sox for Fernando Tatis Jr. before even though the budding superstar played a role. professional game.
Or when he traded six players who might never earn as much as an All-Star team for Juan Soto.
By acquiring the two youthful mainstays of the Padres’ roster, Preller showed two sides of the same coin. The attraction of a player whose full potential is unknown can be thrilling, intoxicating. While modern front offices have converted prospect scouting and rankings into formulas and dollar values - sometimes far-fetched estimated down to the decimal point by rudimentary public approximations – the very idea of a young player’s unknown ability has become tangibly valuable.
Perhaps the most powerful force in 2020s baseball is increasingly advanced player development, the practice of helping young players raise and reach their ceilings. The results of the most successful practitioners — the Astros, the Dodgers — can bolster the idea that a brood of cheap young players will produce a star. Just add coaching and wait.
This mindset would naturally lead teams to hesitate when asked about five potential stars in the making, to be reluctant to clear Rizzo’s bar for Soto. But for Preller, whose Padres haven’t proven particularly good at player development, the fact that Soto was on the block simply represented a clearer opportunity.
What the Padres excel at, and what the Rangers excelled at when Preller was in town, is identifying talent. Ideally, your franchise would be excellent in both areas, but in the meantime, know your strengths. The strength of the Padres’ farming system — exhausted by many other winning trades now — was the buzz around players like Wood and Susana. They were attractive when the Padres signed them, but they became extremely desirable within a few months in the organization and under the professional ball microscope.
The gap between Preller and the company realizing their potential and everyone else realizing it? That, combined with Preller’s desire to capitalize on it, was the motto that secured Soto for San Diego.
The energy that won the Padres Juan Soto
Preller is most in his element when the game’s machinations are at their most primitive. See player, get player.
Sometimes it’s a 6-foot-7, 18-year-old outfielder from IMG Academy who could advance to the second round of the draft. Sometimes it’s a 23-year-old hitting savant who’s been in the majors for more than a fifth of his life, whose only proper compositions are Hall of Famers.
All those days on the high school bleachers and Dominican backcourts undoubtedly give Preller more perspective than most on how different these players are, how promise connects and doesn’t connect to stardom. possible.
If you sit and wait, someone already in your organization just might find the way to Cooperstown. If you sit back and wait, you certainly won’t make so many public mistakes.
Preller is comfortable, apparently more comfortable than any other GM, jumping on what he sees.
And it requires the enormous amount of energy that everyone notices when Preller’s name comes up. Because it means identifying the good in CJ Abrams, Robert Hassell III or James Wood, then also seeing what we don’t know – how they might fare against elite competition, how they might fail. It means seeing exactly how good Juan Soto is – how rare it is to find a superstar in the trading block.
That means doing whatever it takes to bring him home. And then it means getting on a plane to pick up more young baseball players who may or may not become a star, one way or another.