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Mudville: February 25, 2024 9:41 am PDT

Padrepalooza

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Baseball often is a game of mystery.

And one of the biggest mysteries in the game today is this one: how does A.J. Preller remain GM of the Padres? Not counting the 2020 season (that was a made up season – essentially a spring training season), Preller’s Padres since 2014 have had only one team finish above .500.

The 2023 Padres are under .500, too.

Yet Preller has been essentially lauded as the GM of the decade by a large portion of the media for years and years, in much the same manner that former Padres GM Josh Byrnes was put on the list of must-have GMs by many.

Padres owner Peter Seidler can’t say enough good things about Preller, whose extremely expensive Padres are once again in familiar territory – playing under .500 baseball with the third highest payroll in the game, at $250 million.

But these are the strangest times in baseball, really, the strangest I have ever seen – where reality doesn’t matter.

The two teams ahead of the Padres in payroll have also been dismal failures, the Mets and the Yankees. Yankees GM Brian Cashman is essentially GM for life. I can’t wait to see who is next year’s Carlos Rodon Powerball lottery winner; while Billy Eppler, Mets GM, has the blessings of owner Steve Cohen to commit to a fire sale – even though Cohen will hire someone above Eppler in the off-season, someone who might be worse than Eppler.

I would imagine the conversation in Met Land had to go something like this: “Billy, we are terrible, so here are the keys to the future. Work your magic again.’’

Preller is all sizzle, no steak; but he is consistent, making the most of the sizzle every off-season. Preller is so good at pulling the wool over the eyes of Padres owner Peter Seidler that Seidler gave this incredible endorsement of Preller to my old newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“I’m not afraid to make changes,’’ Seidler told the U-T in July. “I never have been. But I really value stability. And when I know the person as well and the skillset as well as I know A.J. and Erik (Greupner, CEO), they’re not going anywhere. Period. … I believe in stability. It is something that is undervalued, generally speaking, in organizations and maybe particularly in sports franchises. But I’m not for mediocre stability. I’m for excellence. And to me, A.J. is excellence.”

Imagine if the Padres actually won under Preller, who has run through managers Bud Black, Andy Green, and Jayce Tingler – and who now has Bob Melvin pulling the strings during Preller’s long tenure as King of the Padres.

The Fernando Tatis Jr. trade from the White Sox is Preller’s one shining moment; but other than that, his trades have been pretty woeful – as well as his drafts. Preller wins the winter and loses the summer. There was much celebration when he signed free agent shortstop Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280 million deal this past December. Bogaerts is currently hitting .265 and yet somehow has only 37 RBI batting in the middle of the Padres lineup, with over 462 plate appearances.

In fact, you were so bad we are going to let you play the Central Division winner. Dregs vs dregs. Dig deep, fans, for the price of postseason tickets.

Preller collects shortstops. There is Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Ha-Seong Kim, and even Jake Cronenworth. It’s the old Little League approach. The Padres have individual talent – Machado has caught fire and Kim is fun to watch – but the pieces don’t fit together.

All the Nerds slobber over Juan Soto’s .416 on base percentage; but watch him on a nightly basis and something is missing offensively, and he is a mess in left field. He can’t throw, takes weird routes to fly balls, and looks a little heavy to me. Gary Sanchez, after not being offered a contract by the Twins and being cut by both the Giants and Mets, has put up 15 home runs and is the latest favorite player of the month for Padres fans, who are so desperate for a winning franchise they often suspend reality.

Believe me, I worked in that wonderful town for 10 years, and Padres fans are really devoted to their team; when in actuality they should demand more from their team. They are too loyal. I think part of the problem is with the Chargers leaving San Diego, Padres fans are just happy to have a pro team.

The Padres have had 49 sellouts this season and it is one energized crowd; and earlier this week it was a sell-out of sun hats as the latest giveaway was a huge hit. When I was in San Diego I always said you could easily win the fans over for a sell-out by giving them a beach towel – and not much has changed, although now in Petco Park the fans have a delightful venue to watch a game. That’s part of the problem. The weather is so perfect in San Diego, the ballpark is so perfect, the fans will put up with a lot of losing because a night at that ballpark is still extreme fun.

It’s going to be a little more expensive to watch the Padres next year. A mailer went out to season ticket holders this week letting the fans know – “Dear Season Ticket Subscriber’’ – that the price of tickets is going up about nine percent in 2024 after big increases the last two seasons, as well.

The fans thought it would be easy to get back to the NLCS. The Padres lost to the Phillies in five games last year, but more on that later. It’s going to take quite the run to make it to the watered down playoffs. The Padres are in reach of that third playoff wild card, like so many teams.

Preller and Cashman should both send a thank you email to Rob Manfred. The Commish’s watered down postseason gives hope to teams that really shouldn’t have postseason hope; but at least the Yankees, who are 11.5 back in the AL East, are over .500 and went into Wednesday’s action 4.5 games back in the wild card slog.

The postseason bar has never been set lower in the history of Major League Baseball. And here is the scary part: the people in charge are actually proud of it. That says all you need to know about the state of the game. The fans have fallen for it too, but that’s what fans do. Just as a walk-off balk is celebrated like it’s a World Series game winning home run in this day and age, a fan is super proud if his or her team makes it to the postseason as the third wild card.

You were not good enough to win your division. You were not good enough to finish fourth best in your league. You were not good enough to finish fifth best in your league. But hey, you were sixth best – let the celebration begin.

In fact, you were so bad we are going to let you play the Central Division winner. Dregs vs dregs. Dig deep, fans, for the price of postseason tickets.

Just as the stolen base has been watered down, the postseason has been watered down. Errors used to be called errors. That was something we brought to your attention early in the year when my buddy Bob Nightengale reported that the word was out to official scorers to chalk up the hits when possible. Others are finally starting to catch on. On Wednesday I watched an easy ground ball skip under the glove of the Marlins’ shortstop and it was scored a hit. The other day I watched Jake Cronenworth misplay an easy hopper at second and the hitter was awarded a double.

In every way possible, they are cheapening the game and cheapening themselves along the way. Manfred wants to raise batting averages in any way possible.

As far as I’m concerned, you can put an asterisk on MLB, kind of like this MLB*.

The Padres lost three of four to the Dodgers this past weekend in San Diego and did not bring in Josh Hader for a four-out save on Friday. Hader kind of runs the show out there in the bullpen so who knows what the real story was, but on Friday night the Padres were clinging to a two-out, 3-2 lead in the eighth with reliever Robert Suarez laboring through that inning.

Sound familiar, Padre fans? Let’s flash back to Game 5 of the NLCS, October 23rd in Philly. The Padres were clinging to a 3-2 lead in the eighth with the hopes of getting the NLCS back to San Diego. Robert Suarez was on the mound in that 3-2 eighth inning, too. After J.T. Realmuto singled, Bryce Harper came to the plate. No Josh Hader, lefty vs. lefty. You know what happened. Harper hit a magical two-run home run off Suarez, sending the Phillies to the World Series and sending the Padres home. Again. The Padres have never won a World Series.

On Friday it was David Peralta who ruined Suarez and the Padres’ night. Peralta’s double past third (they never guard the lines anymore late in the game) tied the score. After Melvin ordered an intentional walk to load the bases, on his 33rd pitch of the inning, Suarez walked Chris Taylor to force in the go-ahead run. It was 7-3 before the bleeding stopped in the inning, and the Padres lost, 10-5.

The Padres bounced back to win Saturday, 8-3, but trade deadline addition Rich Hill was the loser Sunday in an 8-2 loss; then on Monday Seth Lugo blew a 5-0 lead, surrendering eight runs in the fourth inning, including a Mookie Betts grand slam, on the way to a 13-7 Dodgers win.

The Dodgers scored 34 runs in the four games, and going back to the eighth inning of that first game with a 3-2 lead and two out and laboring relief pitcher, the Padres let it get away with Josh Hader relaxing in the bullpen. That loss set the tone for the series.

What’s going on here?

Lugo, a smart pitcher I know well, whined the Dodgers baserunners were seeing what he was throwing from second base, that he was tipping his pitches. Too bad. Fix it.

Then on Tuesday, the Mariners beat the Padres 2-0 when Logan Gilbert shut them down. Andres Munoz got the save. Gilbert was a first round draft pick of the Mariners in 2018, the 14th pick overall. Seven picks earlier, Preller, who is always heavily involved in the draft, and the Padres made Ryan Weathers their pitching first rounder. He was recently traded to the Marlins. Munoz, who got the save, came over to the Mariners from the Padres along with first baseman Ty France in the Austin Nola trade of 2020. Nola is in the minors.

The National League third wild card remains up in the air and the “contending’’ teams all have many flaws, including the young Reds, who did nothing of substance at the trade deadline and blew a 4-1 eighth-inning lead to the Marlins on Wednesday. Josh Bell, acquired at the deadline, hit a three-run home run in the eighth, his second homer of the day, to tie the game as the Marlins went on to win.

It’s more about losing the third wild card then winning the third wild card. The Padres have picked up ground even though they are losing.

Preller & Co. thought it would be a cake walk to the playoffs this year, but the $250 million Padres can’t get to .500.

When does the bell toll for A.J. Preller?

When does the long time Padres GM, whose teams have had only one full season above .500, become responsible for the expensive mess he has created in the world of creamsicle City Dis-connect uniforms? The price of everything is inflated in San Diego, where a basic tract home can go for $1.7 million; but this team is inflated in ego, price, and accomplishments.

These Padres are playing like so many other sub-.500 teams that A.J. Preller has produced in his time in San Diego. The smoke and mirrors of trades and free agent signings cannot be ignored. Accountability should be the order of the day.

At least it used to be that way in Major League Baseball. Now GMs skate along, selling hope for the future, while the reality of the present smacks fans right in the face and the wallet.

 

Just connecting the dots here, the “dots of excellence,” according to Padres owner Peter Seidler. If these Padres don’t make the watered down playoffs, this is not excellence we are talking about in San Diego.

No, this is ineptitude. Once again.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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