The Padres’ real problem lies with GM A.J. Preller not going for it at trade deadline

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Why didn’t you fix the rotation. AJ?

Why didn’t you fix the rotation. AJ?
Image: Getty Images

The Padres were the story of the weekend, as the implosion of a team that was most people’s second favorite tends to be. Fights in the dugout, late-inning meltdowns, and a sweep at the hands of the Cardinals that leaves them three and a half games back of the wildcard with just 13 games to go (and three teams to leap). Not only all of that, but there’s the angst everyone feels, secure in the knowledge that the Cardinals will beat the Giants — one of the league’s best stories — in the Wild Card game. And it’ll probably happen after Brandon Crawford gets attacked by a bird at short in the top of the 8th to let through a dribbler that scores two. Look in your heart, you know it to be true. You did this to us, Padres.

When a team face-plants as hard and as loudly as the Padres have, when they’ve been one of the louder teams since last November (in a good way), there’s a rush to find some unquantifiable reason to explain it. Surely there’s too much talent here to just simply go balls-up. So it must be the manager and a lack of leadership. Because admitting the talent wasn’t as good as most of us thought before the season would be admitting to being wrong, which is anathema to most baseball observers. And I was wrong too, as I didn’t see “barely over .500” coming for the Padres either.

So you get think pieces like this, or this, all claiming to have inside knowledge that the clubhouse is near rotten and Jayce Tingler (I probably don’t spend enough time thinking about there being a Major League Baseball manager named “Jayce Tingler”) is overmatched. And those things may be true. Tingler has never been at the helm for a full MLB season.

But the idea that the Padres lack veteran leadership… that’s a little harder to get to. Eric Hosmer has been to two World Series. Manny Machado has been to the playoffs with the Orioles and made a World Series with the Dodgers. Tommy Pham has been through this. Yu Darvish and Blake Snell have as well. Mostly it just sounds like everyone’s pissed off because they’re getting their ass handed to them every night lately.

But they’re not getting their ass handed to them because Tingler is confused, nor because the players hate each other. It’s because they’re throwing Jake Arrieta or Vince Velasquez out to the mound on the reg with as straight of a face as they can manage, which is only ever going to end one way. And the truly strange thing is that we know A.J. Preller, once he decides to go in, almost always goes all-in. And yet, at this deadline, he didn’t.

The Padres were rumored to be in on Max Scherzer, though how close that came to being a reality is highly questionable. Still, this is the team that’s lauded as still having the best system in baseball, and they didn’t even really have to strip it of all that much to get Darvish and Snell. And if it wasn’t Scherzer, they wanted José Berrios badly. Didn’t get him either. In fact, they didn’t get any pitching to support their crumbling rotation.

As exciting as Snell and Darvish were at the time of acquisition — and still are — neither is known for being a durable, 200+ inning workhorse. Especially coming out of last year’s abbreviated season, counting on health from anyone was a longshot. This is only the second time Joe Musgrove has gone above 115 innings in a season. The staff was never going to get through the year unscathed.

The Padres pen has had to throw the most innings in the NL by some 41 more than the next-ranked Cubs, and the latter team starts a couple of hobbits and an Ewok in their rotation right now. They’re in Rays territory, but whereas the Rays only have one guy who has thrown more than 50 innings out of the pen, the Padres have six. They can’t spread it out the same way, and it’s no wonder guys like Pierce Johnson and Tim Hill have been Three Mile Island on the mound the past month.

Preller might tell you that making yet one more trade simply for the opportunity to have Walker Buehler or Kevin Gausman rub your ass in the moonshine for one game isn’t worth it. But that wouldn’t explain the Adam Frazier trade when they already had Jake Cronenworth. At the time, they weren’t sure what they might get out of Fernando Tatís Jr. and his disappearing shoulder joint. But how could they be any more sure of what the rotation could and would be? On deadline day they had a four-game lead on the second wildcard spot, but that didn’t feel secure enough to stop them from getting Frazier when they already had second base filled. Why not the rotation?

Preller has been reluctant to take from the top of their system, but not everyone on that list fits on this team going forward. Luis Campusano definitely fits as a catcher, but where might they crowbar C.J. Abrams unless Tatís’ move to the outfield becomes permanent? The rotation looks to be pretty filled for the next year or two, especially with MENSA cardholder Mike Clevinger coming back next year. So even if MacKenzie Gore actually gets back to the form that made him untouchable (a big if), is there a spot for him?

It’s just so strange that Preller, who embarked on two separate trading sprees six years apart, decided this was the moment to push away from the table. It’s hard not for everyone to regret that choice after watching Arrieta put his whole body into throwing 86 MPH cans of tuna to the plate. 

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