The Padres are going for it like few teams do

A.J. Preller, San Diego Padres general manager and noted blacktop sniper, is feeling the jumper.

On Sunday evening, two days after Christmas, Preller was in agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays to acquire former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell for four players, three of them among his top 14 minor-league prospects. By Monday afternoon, he’d signed Korean infielder Ha-Seong Kim, and later in the evening had a deal with the Chicago Cubs for Yu Darvish, a Cy Young runner-up last season, and catcher Victor Caratini, who caught all 12 of Darvish’s starts last season.

That’s just what we knew about.

“He’s on a lot of players,” one baseball insider said. “He’s not done.”

This, after a frenetic late-August trade deadline that added nine players (including Mike Clevinger, who promptly blew his elbow), after finding themselves in the general vicinity of the Los Angeles Dodgers with a month left in the season, then on the same field as the Dodgers, briefly, into the second week of October.

For the first time since Preller was hired in 2014, and actually for the first time in a decade, the Padres can see the Dodgers from where they are. They aren’t so sleepy. They are relevant. Still, 72 hours ago, they were not better than the Dodgers. Today, even today, they might not be as good as the Dodgers. But they might be. And that’s the game. Or it’s supposed to be the game. Not everyone participates.

So here’s Preller, from the corner (of the country), shooting his shot again. Again and again. Because, if not to compete, if not to win, if not to chase every season as though it were special and fragile and worth chasing, then what is the point? What is baseball doing here otherwise?

We’re all just going to sit around and hope for 16-team playoffs every year?

Padres GM A.J. Preller, seen here in Texas during San Diego's NLDS matchup with the Dodgers, is aggressively pursuing more stars.
Padres GM A.J. Preller, seen here in Texas during San Diego's NLDS matchup with the Dodgers, is aggressively pursuing more stars. (Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

So that along with the rebuild alibi, the three-year plan that becomes five, that becomes a new general manager and another alibi, there is the relevance alibi, the one that assures a hint of bearing as long as you win close to as many as you lose?

The world changed in ‘20. In about the least significant reflection of that, baseball reached the verge of ‘21 with a single top-10 free agent having been signed, that being the aforementioned Kim. He’s a 25-year-old shortstop and third baseman who played his past two seasons with Kiwoom of the Korea Baseball Organization and is bound, due to Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., for second base. He hit 30 home runs and OPSed .921 for the Heroes.

Meanwhile, agents representing available players are hearing all about the financial perils of owning a baseball team during a pandemic and about the uncertainties ahead. So it is in that world that effort, even a little, stands out.

Preller may occasionally feint to the subtle. More often, or at least more to his nature, he has a few hours like these — grabbing up real ballplayers in a screw-it, you-only-live-once whirl of dream-big intoxication, or trying. It can be breathtaking. And then he shows up to explain it all in a T-shirt two sizes too big and his hair pointed everywhere and his eyes half closed, as though he’d dragged every trade from there to here himself.

Near the end of this particular day, this particular whiplash, Preller — of the small-market, half-the-payroll-of-the-Dodgers (even with Machado’s $30 million per) Padres — appeared to have jumped an institution that makes excellent pitchers expendable when all anyone ever talks about is the dearth of any kind of pitching.

The system that came and got Snell after 73 pitches and 5 ⅓ innings one late October night, after two hits (one of them soft) and nine strikeouts and no walks, has come for him again, this time with him on the verge of a $3.5-million raise. The Rays are often smart about these things. It’s why Snell and the rest of them were still on a field that late October night. In return, they’d receive right-handed pitchers Luis Patiño and Cole Wilcox, and catchers Blake Hunt and Francisco Mejia.

Snell sits near or at the top of a rotation that has Dinelson Lamet, who finished two places behind Darvish in Cy Young balloting, Chris Paddack and, perhaps, MacKenzie Gore, the game’s top pitching prospect. (Zach Davies, along with four minor leaguers, reportedly were going to the Cubs in the Darvish trade.)

And now, Darvish himself. He is halfway through his six-year, $126-million contract. His past two seasons have been closer to what the Cubs expected, and yet now the Cubs appear to be becoming something other than what Darvish might have expected. By contract, he could block a trade to 12 teams. The Padres are not on the list.

What comes next — as Darvish becomes a Padre, and then whatever else occurs to Preller — is something like promise. Already legitimate, already capable and fun and cool, the Padres could actually be one of those teams that escapes the cycle of alibis. Today, they are bigger and better than they were yesterday, and tomorrow could be more of the same. It’s not always how the system — or the people in the system — works.

In that case, the best strategy is this — find the open man.

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