If the San Diego Padres could combine Kevin Towers’ knack for pinpointing valuable veterans with A.J. Preller’s eye for raw talent, the team could create the quintessential general manager.
In the Padres’ history, no one has lasted longer than Towers did, nor has any general manager reached his level of success. Preller has had far less time to mold the Padres into a contender but has had financial leeway that Towers could never have imagined.
In 1995, Towers succeeded Randy Smith as the Padres general manager and lasted until October 3, 2009. During the time that Vice Chairman and CEO Jeff Moorad tried to corral the cash to buy the team, he showed Towers the door. Calling Towers a “gunslinger,” Moorad indicated he preferred a more deliberative process and turned to Jed Hoyer to lead the way. Just two years later, Hoyer moved on to the Chicago Cubs, where he presided over the team’s first world title since 1908.
Towers, who relished the gunslinger moniker, spent 14 seasons as the Padres’ general manager and called himself “a Padre at heart” as he walked out the door. The team drafted him in 1982, and he rose through the ranks to Triple-A, where injuries derailed his career on the mound. He moved from the field to scout for the Padres in 1990.
With KT at the helm, the Padres won the West four times and ascended to the World Series in 1998 despite having limited financial leeway. To put that into perspective, the Padres have made it to the playoffs a grand total of five times. In his last year, the team ranked next to the bottom with a payroll of under $43 million. The year of the Padres’ second appearance in the World Series, the team ranked 14th in payroll at $45 million.
However, Towers had less than stellar results from the draft, Matt Bush, being the poster child for his miscues. He left pitchers like Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver on the board when he made Bush a first-round pick in 2004. In reality, the onus for the decision falls more to owner John Moores, who had decided by then that he didn’t want to ante up for the aces to be.
Of course, Towers and his staff should have delved more deeply into Bush’s character. Not long after the draft, the first-round pick got into a bar fight in Arizona and was suspended. A troubled young man, he ended up in prison after injuring a 72-year-old man while driving under the influence. Since then, he reportedly turned his life around and has pitched for the Texas Rangers out of the bullpen.
Other first-round picks include Mitch Canham, Kellen Kulbacki, and Matt Antonelli. However, in 2002 he chose Khalil Greene as the 13th pick. Until the arrival of Fernando Tatis Jr. last year, Greene had been the gold standard at shortstop since Ozzie Smith’s departure in 1981. In 2004 Greene came in second in voting for the National League Rookie of Year with 3.2 WAR and a slash line of .273/.346/.446.
However, Towers added critical players to the roster that helped drive the team to their second World Series appearance, including Kevin Brown, Greg Vaughn, Wally Joiner, Sterling Hitchcock, Chris Gomez, and Quilvio Veras. Those integral components of the 1998 run joined Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, and Andy Ashby, Smith’s contribution to the team’s success.
In 1999, Towers drafted Jake Peavy, who developed into a real ace and helped lead the team to NLW titles in 2005 and 2006. Under Towers, the team made it to Game 163 in 2017, which ended in a defeat that still sticks in the craw of Padres fans. Without the team’s success in 1998, the odds that San Diego voters would have voted to approve the bonds to build Petco Park, one of the most famous ballparks in all of baseball, would have been lower than zilch.
Post-Padres, Towers worked for the New York Yankees briefly and then became the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2010 to 2014. Two years later, he was diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer. All of baseball mourned the passing of Kevin Towers in January of 2018 at 56. He’d earned a reputation as an ambassador for the game as a baseball lifer.
After Hoyer’s departure, Josh Byrnes took over for a brief period as general manager. But on August 6, 2014, the Padres pivoted again, hiring A.J. Preller. He graduated from Cornell University (summa cum laude by the way), where he met Jon Daniels. When Daniels became the general manager for the Texas Rangers, he hired his former fraternity brother, who rose through the ranks to become Director of International and Professional Scouting. In his last year with the Rangers, Preller estimated that he’d spent more than 300 days on the road scouting and likened himself to other “field rats.”
The Padres interviewed multiple candidates for the position, which had lacked continuity since the departure of Towers, and Preller got the nod. At the time, he said he relished the challenge of leading the Padres to their first World Series Championship.
Early on, Preller gained notoriety for his “Prellerpalooza.” He added Matt Kemp but subtracted Yasmani Grandal; acquired Wil Myers for Trea Turner, Joe Ross, Burch Smith, and Jake Bauers; signed James Shield, who whiffed as the supposed ace of the staff but yielded Tatis Jr.
On balance, this flurry of trades hurt the Padres as much as it helped. Since then, the team hasn’t even reached .500 in the win-loss column and has finished last in the division three of the last four years.
Towers, a scout at heart, did more with less, while Preller has had access to sums of money unheard of in San Diego. Over the next three years, the Padres will dole out $67.5 million to Myers (a man without a position so far), and Eric Hosmer still has six years (including 2020) on his $144 million contract. Last month, Connor Byrne, said this about Preller on mlbtraderummors.com.…
Nobody can accuse Preller of sitting on his hands. Unfortunately for him and the Padres, the abundant trades Preller has swung haven’t yet led to any real progress in the standings for the long-suffering franchise.
In September 2016, Preller made headlines again when he was suspended for 30 days by Major League Baseball without pay for lack of disclosure regarding medical information in the trade of Drew Pomeranz to the Boston Red Sox. Of course now, thanks to the revelations of cheating on the part of the Houston Astros and those same Red Sox, Preller’s mischief looks like child’s play.
On December 3, 2017, the Padres and Preller agreed to a 3-year extension. Team executives had promised fans a competitive year in 2020 and moved the needle up to competing in 2021. Obviously, for the Padres and the fan base, Covid-19 chose a lousy time to shut down baseball until further notice.
The first of a promised wave of young talent reached the big league team last year. Fernando Tatis Jr., stolen from the Chicago White Sox in the trade of Shields, wowed crowds with his flashy (if imperfect) defense at short and his prowess with a bat and on the base paths. A big Texan called Chris Paddack took the mound in 25 games and showed definite promise of better days.
Preller’s drafts have been top-heavy with pitchers, and the next wave should include MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patino. However, top prospects also include shortstop CJ Abrams, outfielder Taylor Trammell, and catcher Luis Campusano. Under Preller, the Padres farm system has risen to the top or near the top according to multiple evaluators. This year, according to MLB’s Pipeline Farm System Rankings, the Padres come in second behind the Tampa Bay Rays.
However, an extension of Myers and as well as Hosmer’s exorbitant salary, have not paid off so far and have been almost universally panned. Although the signing of Manny Machado demonstrated the Padres’ commitment to winning now, he too had a down year after signing a 10-year deal worth $32,000,000. According to spotrac.com, Machado ranks eighth on the list of highest-paid MLB players, rarified territory for the San Diego Padres.
Historically, Kevin Towers’ tenure would be considered the glory years for the San Diego Padres. A.J. Preller has had six years to Tower’s 14, but he has had financial resources far beyond those granted to Towers. Neither, of course, has produced that illusive Commissioner’s Trophy. If a mad scientist in a lab could combine the skills of both Kevin Towers and A.J. Preller, she could create the perfect general manager.