Pa Jake Mintz
Posted by FOX Sports MLB

At first glance, Padres the list looks like something a teenager would build on MLB The Show.

“oh yeah Blake Snell was great in the 2020 World Series, we need him. no Joe Musgrove from here? Let’s trade for this guy. Yu Darvish throws like 100 different pitches! Very cool! Trent Grisham made a big mistake in a big place? He should not be underestimated! waitJuan Soto available? Yes, absolutely, whatever the Nazis want. Give them my house.’

This is the European football approach to team building: develop talented youngsters, transfer them to other teams for money or to famous players. Depending on who you ask in the baseball industry, this is either a brilliant strategy or completely out of touch with reality; wonderfully cunning or unnecessarily risky.

The prototypical approach to building a formidable, sustainable contender in MLB these days is usually: (1) build a homegrown star or two, (2) supplement it with a handful of deep pieces from your farm system, (3) make a flashy free agent signing, and (4) ) to wrap things up with a “Go for it” deal. It’s simple, really. Just follow these steps. Anyone can do it, even you. But make sure you get those homegrown stars. It’s all about those homegrown stars.

Look around after the season and you’ll see this recipe everywhere. Houston built a dynasty around Jose Altuve and Alex Bregmanthen continued it with Kyle Tucker and Jeremy Peña. The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias, Tony Gonsalin, Will Smith and Gavin Lux. Even Metzwho won 101 games with a lineup overhauled over the winter by Steve Cohen’s spending spree still relies on franchise stalwarts like Jacob deGrom Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil and Pete Alonso.

But the Padres and general manager AJ Preller more or less gave the strategy a huge middle finger. While most teams see their prospects as future members of their major leaguers, Preller has used his farm system to build a very different team.

Only three players on San Diego’s NLDS roster were originally drafted or signed and then drafted by the Padres. There is Luis Camposano, a young and unproven catcher the Padres drafted in 2017; Stephen Wilson, a reliable player signed for just $5,000 as a senior in 2018; and Adrian Morejon, a 23-year-old Cuban flamethrower who was given an $11 million bonus by San Diego in 2016.

Both are shortstops Ha Sung Kim and reliever Robert Suarez technically began their baseball careers in San Diego, but Kim was signed out of Korea at age 25 and never played a game stateside in the minor leagues. Suarez, 31, spent half a decade in Japan before joining the Padres.

The entire pitching rotation — Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, Mike Clevinger and Shawn Manea — was acquired via a trade of prospects. A third of the starting lineup — Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury — just joined San Diego a few months ago at the deadline. Austin Nola, Jake CronenworthGrisham and Yurikson Prafar traded for everything. Manny Machadoclosest to the stable central part of the club Fernando Tatis Jr. on the ringworm suspended list, a big-money free agent was signed.

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Whatever you call it, master plan or crazy build, it’s all the vision of one man: GM AJ Preller. The fourth longest-tenured catcher in baseball, Preller was named the Padres’ top job in August 2014 after a decade with the Rangers. He earned a reputation as a farm system whisperer during his time in Texas, and most expected him to do the same in San Diego: fill the minor leagues, develop a slew of prospects and make the Padres, long one of MLB’s least relevant franchises, prominent for one time.

But Preller left almost immediately. Just a few months into his tenure, he went wild at the 2014 Winter Meetings, riding and causing a storm. In a few short days he added Will MyersMatt Kemp and Justin Upton in three different deals for a host of prospects, building a reputation as an unpredictable mastermind.

That era of Padres baseball failed, and Preller learned from his mistakes — sort of. He lay dormant for several years, quietly building an impressive farm system that is considered one of the best in baseball. But instead of patiently waiting for those players to make big contributions, Preller picked up his cell phone and returned to the trade market like the Kool-Aid Man.

The svelte 45-year-old with flowing hair always looks like he’s in desperate need of sleep or has just woken up from a great night’s sleep. In an industry dominated by overworked 40-year-old Ivy League graduates, Preller could be a big boss. Some consider him a mindless madman, some a creative master; Preller is the most polarizing executive in baseball.

He created a roster of players who didn’t go through the farm together, didn’t learn to lose and win as a unit. These are not friends for life, groomsmen, best men. There’s nothing wrong with a group of talented colleagues coming together to do something impressive in the office. Your associates don’t have to be your friends.

But in 2021, that strategy backfired as the Padres spent September putting together a remarkable L collection, dramatically falling out of playoff contention. Gone is captain Jace Tingler, replaced by longtime Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin.

After a decade in The Bay, spent squeezing value out of every corner of the Oakland Coliseum, Melvin found himself faced with a new and surprising task: holding together a disparate group of mercenaries that his predecessor had failed to do.

As managers often do, Melvin drew on past experience. In 2001, he was the bench coach for the world champion Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that had risen from the wilderness just three years earlier through the expansion draft. It was an old team, an experienced team, a team of players relatively unfamiliar with each other. But Melvin says there was one, clear unifying factor that held it all together.

“All these guys were brought in to win the World Cup. It brings everyone together.”

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Whether Melvin can help pull off the same magic 21 years later remains to be seen. This is a gigantic task. Standing in their way are the Mets and their two-headed monster. Other than that, the Dodgers juggernaut. They are likely to be followed by the defending champion Braves.

When the games get bigger, the lights get brighter, and the tension builds, a sense of true unity in the dugout or clubhouse can really make a difference. Teams that have “been there together” have an advantage. Pujols, Molina and Wainwright enjoy a decade of trust. The Padres have less this October than any other club.

Maybe it won’t matter and Juan Soto will hit 16 homers by summertime. Either way, it’s a fascinating baseball experiment that will no doubt bring some judgment on Preller’s shoulders.

Jake Mintz, Louder Half @CespedesBBQ, is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan who lives in New York, so he lives a single life for most of October. When he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.


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