DENVER — The needle the San Diego Padres threaded in the final hours before Tuesday’s trade deadline was not, it turned out, a complicated balance between buying and selling. President of baseball operations A.J. Preller has bought continuously since a pandemic turned the world upside down three years ago, creating a unique opportunity to go big when so many other front offices erred on the side of caution.
The trade-deadline returns have included Juan Soto and Josh Hader. They also have stained the executive’s spotty transaction history in the form of Austin Nola and Mike Clevinger and Adam Frazier, not to mention all of the present and potential value surrendered along the way.
But Preller, like Padres owner Peter Seidler, is not the type of gambler who hurries home after an extended run of bad beats and large losses. He’s the type who heads back to the ATM and reloads. In the end, it came as no surprise that the Padres approached the past two days — after a sweep of the Texas Rangers that highlighted their unmet ceiling — with a certain amount of aggressive abandon.
The Padres, for instance, again inserted themselves where most clubs in their current, midsummer position — multiple games under .500; on the outside of the postseason picture — would care to venture. Whether it was Preller’s typical exhaustiveness, an attempt to drive up the price, or a brief but genuine foray, the Padres at least asked the New York Mets about Justin Verlander before withdrawing from those sweepstakes well ahead of the 40-year-old’s eventual return to the Houston Astros, league sources told The Athletic.
And amid three separate trades Tuesday, it might have been the most un-Preller-like deadline yet.
“Around the edges,” manager Bob Melvin said, “is what we were looking for.”
The needle the Padres threaded, it turned out, was a balance between buying and not buying overly aggressively. There was little sense in risking much more of their future for what remains something of a long shot at the 2023 postseason.
So, as the clock ticked down Tuesday, Preller acquired Scott Barlow, a middle reliever with the experience to be more; Rich Hill, a 43-year-old who can still supply back-of-the-rotation innings; Ji-Man Choi, a left-handed platoon bat and designated hitter-first baseman; Garrett Cooper, a right-handed platoon bat and DH-first baseman; and Sean Reynolds, a former position player with upside as a still-developing, 6-foot-8 reliever. In exchange, San Diego relinquished young left-handers Jackson Wolf and Ryan Weathers, young right-handers Henry Williams and Jesus Rios, teenage outfield prospect Estuar Suero and first baseman Alfonso Rivas.
The Padres, meanwhile, held on to top rental pitchers Blake Snell and Hader — an outcome that was widely expected but not guaranteed. Hader, in particular, was in danger of being moved at certain points last week. Team officials acknowledged that the closer and pending free agent had drawn robust offers from a number of clubs.
A weekend sweep of the Rangers, in a sense, might have helped save him from going. Yet, according to Preller, that three-game surge was only one variable in a larger calculus.
“We had attractive players and very accomplished players, but if we’re gonna move them off this club, we set certain marks. We never got compelled there to really do anything from that standpoint,” Preller said in a video call with reporters. “And then … we feel like we’ve got a team that we think we can win and, if we were able to add to the club, give us a good chance here in the next two months.
“We had a lot of conversation about what was best for this group for this year, for the future, but ultimately we just felt like the deals (we made) were more deals that made more sense to give our team a chance here going forward, solidify some spots that we feel like can help us play in October.”
Each addition was modest. Aside from Reynolds, who made his Triple-A debut in June, only Barlow is under team control past 2023. And each subtraction felt, for now, like a case of clear expendability. Suero might be the best prospect of the bunch, but he is a raw 17-year-old who isn’t unanimously deemed a top-10 talent in San Diego’s farm system.
In the process, the Padres moved to address three areas of their roster. Expectations for the returns should be tempered. Still, the previous bar was strikingly low. This $250 million team has been undone by its inability to hit in the clutch, yes, but also by its lack of depth on the bench and in the bullpen. And the back of the starting rotation — after the addition of the oldest player in the majors and before Michael Wacha’s expected return this month — still looms as a significant concern.
That rotation and that bullpen have also combined to yield the fewest runs of any team. One of the league’s top defenses has buoyed that effort. And a few hours after Tuesday’s trade deadline passed, a prior deadline acquisition flexed his uncommon talent: In the Padres’ 8-5 win over Colorado, Soto walloped two drives to center to record his third multi-homer game of the season and the 15th of his career.
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) August 2, 2023
“The spot we were in, we didn’t even know if we were gonna buy or sell,” the left fielder said after the game. “We were in the middle, but definitely I feel like (Preller) made good moves.
“It’s just telling the guys that we still have hopes and we’re gonna be out there and we just got to come every day, play to win. … It’s just telling us, like, go out there and get it.”
The downside of ultimately not getting “it” is obvious. The Padres could play .600 baseball over the final third of the season, miss the playoffs by a few games and watch Snell and Hader sign elsewhere in free agency, likely leaving the organization with only a couple of compensatory draft picks after the fourth round. The Padres did watch over the last few days as other teams currently outside the postseason picture sold rentals for decent to robust returns — that could accelerate winning as soon as 2024.
The Padres, though, are in a different spot than most organizations. Seidler has invested a record amount of money in 2023. Petco Park is on pace to shatter its season attendance record. And Seidler and his general manager, while they have wagered vast amounts of capital, tend to expect the same in return. Their asking prices for Snell and Hader, according to rival clubs, remained high until the end.
“I think we understand you obviously have the ability to make trades and add players for your future,” Preller said. “We just never really got anything that was that compelling for us on that standpoint.”
Especially when this roster keeps teasing its potential. Sunday at Petco Park, the Padres completed a thorough series victory against a first-place team. Monday at Coors Field, they suffered their latest embarrassing loss in an eminently winnable game. Tuesday, they rebounded as they often have after crushing defeats.
“Peter since Day 1 and A.J., I think they had faith in this team,” third baseman Manny Machado said. “And that faith hasn’t left and we still believe in everyone in the clubhouse. … We’ve put some bumps on the road, but we all know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Obviously, with this deadline, we added some key pieces and some good moves to just make us that much better.”
It might have been a very Preller-like deadline after all. The Padres aren’t just relative long shots to make the postseason. It would surprise the industry, at this point, if they pull off contract extensions with Snell or Hader. It would come as a bigger shock if they manage to extend Soto, now 15 months from reaching free agency himself.
Holding the two rental pitchers might end up being a poor gamble. But other considerations are impossible to ignore, too. As one industry veteran observed, Seidler did not direct Preller to do what the sport’s wealthiest owner has enacted with the Mets: sell and give up on a season that began with so much promise. That had to count for something.
To the men in uniform, of course it did. Late Tuesday, the Padres’ most frequent spokesperson reflected on a series of decisions that preceded their 16th win in 26 games.
“It was big,” Melvin said. “I mean, these are the type of days that should inspire you a little bit.”
(Photo of Juan Soto celebrating his second home run against the Rockies — his third multi-homer game of the season: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)