Beneath the apparent precision of contract figures, service time calculations, Wins Above Replacement, projected stats and prospect rankings, there is something downright Paleolithic about how MLB executives build baseball teams. They trawl around high school diamonds, tiny college stadiums and far-flung fields looking for the players to sustain their needs. They try to snap up the best ones before anyone else. Then, they keep roaming until they spot someone with something they need more. And then, when that need is identified, they try to barter and convince their fellow hunter-gatherer of talent to make a trade.
The most energetic talent seeker in the baseball world, perhaps the most energetic it has ever seen, pulled off his gaudiest swap yet on Tuesday. In a trade of historic proportions and import, San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller offered the Washington Nationals five cherished but unseen treasures for Josh Bell and one Juan Soto, a famous gem of a player whose quality hasn’t been matched in roughly 80 years.
In dealing the five highly rated young players and first baseman Luke Voit, Preller pried away a player no one has ever managed to trade for. According to MLB.com’s Sarah Langs, Soto is the first player to make multiple All-Star Games and change teams before turning 24.
Soto’s availability was the product of circumstances — the Nationals preparing to be sold, and bucking at Soto’s rejection of an extension offer — that few could have foreseen coming to a head so quickly. It’s even possible those exact circumstances wouldn’t have resulted in a deadline trade at all if Preller weren’t built for this moment.
In an environment where so many teams hoard players with the slightest hint of potential, and shy away from high-profile risk, Preller is “not afraid.”
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said as much after striking the deal. Whether you believe him or not, the Washington executive in the awkward position of working for an outgoing ownership group said he “set the bar very, very high” and pulled the trigger to send away the second coming of Ted Williams only when “one team exceeded it.”
What seems to set Preller apart from his MLB GM brethren is a wholly different — and wickedly simple — idea of how to best mine potential and turn it into success.
How Preller made the Padres MLB's most fun team
Described as swashbuckling, hyperactive and eccentric, Preller’s overarching ethos is to always be Doing Something.
It’s not always the best way to run a baseball team. Since taking over the Padres in 2014, he has presided over an attempted rocket fuel buildup that didn’t work, the ensuing teardown, a free agent spending spree and now two midseason trade bonanzas for the ages. It has not yet produced a deep playoff run; the Eric Hosmer deal was roundly viewed as a bad decision when it was signed; Wil Myers is languishing on the fringes of the roster and Trea Turner (who went from San Diego to Washington in the deal to acquire Myers) is a superstar.
It is, however, a great way to enliven a franchise too dull to warrant being called “dormant.” The Preller era Padres have become a riotously fun team — the early 2000s Red Sox with less facial hair, the ‘90s Cleveland teams with better uniforms. And not content with the occasional winning season, they’re now in position to truly challenge for the city’s first World Series title for at least the next three Octobers.
Let’s talk about those next 2 1/2 years. That’s an important window in the Soto saga. He can reach free agency, and spark a potential $500 million bidding war, after the 2024 season. The implication of the Nationals’ decision to trade him, if it wasn’t purely for ownership change reasons, was that the team couldn’t assemble enough talent around him over that span to make it worth offering the sort of extension it would take to keep him. Fearful of becoming a version of the Angels, the thought goes, they put Soto with his value as high as it would be — three potential Octobers of helping his potential new team.
Of course, there’s a lot you can do in 2 1/2 years. For instance, you could draft, sign or trade for most of the players it takes to assemble the historic haul for Juan Soto. Four of the six pieces in the return joined the Padres organization in the past 2 1/2 years.
LHP MacKenzie Gore: Drafted 2017, 1st round SS C.J. Abrams: Drafted 2019, 1st round
OF Robert Hassell III: Drafted 2020, 1st round
OF James Wood: Drafted 2021, 2nd round
RHP Jarlin Susana: Signed Jan. 2022
1B Luke Voit: Acquired March 2022 (for a player drafted in 2020)
Now, Gore and Abrams are major prospects that this particular deal wouldn’t have gotten done without, but you can see the confidence that allowed Preller to reel in Soto: Wherever Rizzo set the Nationals’ bar, he was going to offer the shiny young players to sail over it.
Player identification and player development
You might be under the impression, based on his heavy expenditure of them, that Preller places a lower value on prospects than his peers. That’s not the case. Instead, he cultivates an almost fiendish appreciation for them.
Minor league scouting experts Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel wrote in their book, "Future Value," of Preller’s reputation for showing up in more far-flung places to watch players than any other GM.
“Perhaps Preller’s gaunt, olive face and steely eyes are simply easier to identify at the field than most other GMs,” they wrote, “but he’s the one most often seen by scouts, and it’s not close.”
The legend of Preller’s scouting emphasis goes back to his days building the Texas Rangers' international scouting system, and includes some instances where he crossed ethical and legislated lines. At its best, though, Preller’s fervent pursuit of extraordinary ability can result in counterfactual bait of the highest quality, like when he traded an aging, expensive James Shields to the Chicago White Sox for Fernando Tatis Jr. before the burgeoning superstar had even played a professional game.
Or when he traded six players who may never make so much as an All-Star team for Juan Soto.
In acquiring the two youthful linchpins of the Padres lineup, Preller showed two sides of the same coin. The appeal of a player whose full potential is unknown can be thrilling, intoxicating. As modern front offices have converted scouting and prospect rankings into formulas and dollar values — sometimes farcically estimated down to the decimal point by rudimentary public approximations — the very idea of a young player’s unknown ability has become tangibly valuable.
Perhaps the most potent force in 2020s baseball is increasingly advanced player development, the practice of helping young players raise and reach their ceilings. The results of the most successful practitioners — the Astros, the Dodgers — can reinforce the idea that a brood of young, cheap players will produce a star. Just add coaching and wait.
That mindset would naturally lead teams to hesitate when asked for five potential stars in the making, to balk at clearing Rizzo’s bar for Soto. But for Preller, whose Padres haven’t proven particularly adept at player development, word that Soto was on the block just represented a clearer opportunity.
What the Padres excel at, and what the Rangers excelled at when Preller was in town, is talent identification. Ideally, your franchise would be great at both, but in the meantime, know your strengths. The strength of the Padres' farm system — depleted by many other win-now trades — was the buzz around players like Wood and Susana. They were enticing when the Padres signed them, but they have become hugely desirable in their handful of months in the organization, and under the microscope of pro ball.
The gap between Preller and company realizing their potential and everyone else realizing it? That, combined with Preller's willingness to leverage it, is the currency that secured Soto for San Diego.
The energy that won the Padres Juan Soto
Preller is most in his element when the game’s machinations are at their most primal. See player, get player.
Sometimes that’s a 6-foot-7, 18-year-old outfielder at the IMG Academy who might make it to the second round of the draft. Sometimes it’s a 23-year-old hitting savant who has been in the majors for more than a fifth of his life, whose only appropriate comps are Hall of Famers.
All those days on high school bleachers and Dominican back fields undoubtedly give Preller more perspective than most on just how different those players are, how promise does and doesn’t connect to eventual stardom.
If you sit back and wait, someone already in your organization might well find the path to Cooperstown. If you sit back and wait, you certainly won’t make as many public mistakes.
Preller is comfortable, apparently more comfortable than any other GM, jumping at what he sees.
And that requires the enormous amount of energy that everyone remarks upon when Preller’s name comes up. Because it means identifying the good in C.J. Abrams, Robert Hassell III or James Wood, then also seeing what we don’t know — how they might fare against elite competition, how they might fall short. It means seeing exactly how good Juan Soto is — how rare a superstar he is to find on the trade block.
It means doing whatever it takes to bring him home. And then it means getting on a plane to go find more young baseball players who may or may not turn into a star, one way or another.