As the San Diego Padres play out the string in one of the most disappointing campaigns in major-league history, a club that spectacularly collapsed two years ago must again confront the shakiness of its foundation.
Padres president of baseball operations and general manager A.J. Preller continues to prove himself to be a gifted evaluator and collector of high-end talent. His default setting of simply trying to outwork the competition, however, has not always sat well with managers, players, coaches and other team officials.
Many who have worked for Preller praise him for his work ethic and eye for talent. Many also criticize him for poor communication and a lack of feel. As one former high-ranking official said, the Padres’ guiding philosophy under Preller — if there is one — might boil down to this: “Do more than everybody else at all times.”
Interviews over the past several weeks with more than two dozen current and former Padres employees and others in baseball, almost all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in exchange for their candor, revealed deep cultural issues that start near the top of the organization and, in some cases, filter down to the players.
One player called the season an “institutional failure.” Multiple members of the team spoke of a persistent atmosphere of pessimism as the Padres watched their season slip away. And while numerous people downplayed or rejected rumors of a dysfunctional clubhouse, the overall environment around the team garnered less positive reviews.
“It’s the most toxic,” one former staffer said.
A repeated inability to live up to expectations only exacerbated divisions within the franchise. The Padres opened this season with a $249 million payroll — a franchise record and the third-highest in the majors — coming off a run to San Diego’s first appearance in the National League Championship Series since 1998.
But almost from the beginning, the season unfolded like a nightmare. A team that set out to win its first World Series title has not been .500 or better since May 11. The Padres have not been within 10 games of the NL West lead since Aug. 5.
An official elimination from playoff contention appears inevitable. Less clear is how the Padres intend to address a host of looming questions. What will happen with manager Bob Melvin, whose relationship with Preller one player described as “unfixable”? Do the Padres, carrying a trio of mega-contracts, possess the leadership inside their clubhouse to sustain a successful culture? Can a mid-market franchise such as San Diego absorb a season as disastrous and expensive as this one?
The biggest question, perhaps, is how much longer the Padres stick with Preller, a favorite of owner Peter Seidler’s. If Melvin departs, and if Preller is permitted to hire another manager, it would be the GM’s sixth in 10 full seasons, including Pat Murphy, the interim who replaced Bud Black in June 2015.
“You always take responsibility,” Preller said. “You’re leading the group. It’s a results-based industry.”
Seidler provides greater financial flexibility than some large-market owners give their top baseball executives, yet the Padres have had only one winning record in a full season under Preller. The Padres’ last three opening-day payrolls ranked in baseball’s top 10, and the last two in the top five. Since 2015, Preller has spent close to $200 million between amateur draft picks and international signings, yet all of that capital produced only three All-Stars (infielder Ty France and relievers Emmanuel Clase and David Bednar), each of whom blossomed after being traded away.
Many other prospects were moved for star-caliber performers such as Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Juan Soto. While the arrivals of those players helped fuel the 2022 postseason run, they also compromised upper-level organizational depth.
The Padres, through Sunday, have the second-best rotation ERA in the National League, but they have suffered from a near-historic combination of bad luck and poor clutch hitting. Their 6-22 record in one-run games and 0-11 mark in extra-inning games both are the worst in the majors. Yet the Padres’ talent is such that some believe the team should simply try again with a similar roster.
“I really do think the same group could come back next year and be the complete opposite, win 100 games,” one player said.
“We got to see the absolute disaster scenario of this group of players,” a rival executive added.
Still, how much would really change without a shakeup at the top? Can the Padres achieve buy-in throughout the organization as long as Preller remains in charge?
“You can argue he’s one of the best talent evaluators ever in the game,” a former Padres player said. “But just because you can evaluate talent doesn’t mean you know how to handle people.”
The president of baseball operations
Soon after the 2017 season ended, Preller made an unusual hire. Don Tricker, the Padres’ new director of player health and performance, had come to San Diego from the other side of the world.
Tricker had spent the previous several years as high performance manager for New Zealand’s famed All Blacks, the most successful rugby team of all time. For the Padres, he was at first expected to oversee multiple departments, including the medical and training staff and the analytics department.
His intended role, in a sense, was even broader. The Padres were in the midst of a rebuild, and Preller sought the unique perspective of a man who also had played and coached for the New Zealand men’s national softball team and worked in the information technology industry.
“He was brought in to change the culture,” one former Padres coach said.
To many, though, Tricker became an unsettling presence. He did not possess a medical background, and he was quickly shifted away from analytics oversight because he arrived with a rudimentary knowledge of baseball.
“He may not be the content expert in those areas. That’s why we have … our strength coaches and we have our athletic trainers. That’s their job,” Preller said. “His job is to make sure that they’re asking the right questions, they’re in communication with each other, they’re on the same page big picture-wise.”
Still, almost six years after his hiring, many current and former Padres players, coaches and other employees continue to express consternation about Tricker’s responsibilities. Tricker, especially early on, frequented the clubhouse and sat in on player and staff meetings, quietly taking notes. Some believe he is effectively a spy for the front office. (The Padres do not allow front office employees to speak to the media without permission.)
“I don’t know what Don does, honestly,” one former front office staffer said.
“All he was doing was judging,” the ex-coach said. “He never provided any feedback to any coach or player.”
Not everyone had a poor experience with Tricker. One former staffer said Tricker, as an outsider to the sport, regularly posed thought-provoking questions — why, for example, did the Padres take batting practice that did not replicate the intensity of in-game pitching?
According to multiple members of the baseball operations department, Tricker originally said he hoped to get employees more time off to spend with their families. However, those employees said such assurances gradually disappeared while Tricker’s boss exerted his influence throughout the organization.
“Ultimately, I think it all sounds appealing to A.J., and if you don’t get a win, he goes back to the way he’s naturally wired,” one former staffer said. “He’s wired to outwork everybody on the planet.”
That mentality has taken a noticeable toll. Since 2015, Preller’s first full season as general manager, 29 coaches and managers have departed his major-league staff, an abnormal amount of churn in an industry known for turnover. Meanwhile, Tricker and a number of other high-paid executives have remained, creating more distance between the front office and those in uniform, who sometimes view Preller’s constant push for additional pregame work as counter-productive.
Several people interviewed for this story described a lack of a coherent message from the top of the organization. “There’s no consistency,” a former employee said. Another former Padres staffer added, “I think the philosophy is, get a bunch of athletes and we’re just going to out-athlete the other team and out-ability the other team.”
Others refer to an absence of conventional hierarchy under Preller, 46, who has a reputation as a micromanager. “A.J. likes to be in charge of everything,” one player said, citing Preller’s occasional efforts to move away from traditional batting practice and toward more training against pitching machines. Preller, one former Padres official said, “wants to have a finger on the pulse of his team. He wants to believe in a velo machine before the game if you’re facing a guy throwing 100 mph. He wants to do things differently.”
Preller’s hands-on approach elicits both irritation and admiration. “I think A.J.’s got just a brilliant mind,” an ex-staffer said. “And it’s always on. It’s always like, how can I incrementally make this roster better?” Another former team official noted that many of Preller’s suggestions to the coaching staff — say, that an infielder take extra ground balls to improve his range — were not without merit. Said one Padres player: “Nobody cares about winning and trying to figure this out more than he does. … He’s obsessed.”
But when the Padres fail to win, people around the club say, the same hands-on approach can foster a negative environment. One former staff member said he had never worked in an organization where players dealt with as much veiled criticism. Some Padres coaches, throughout Preller’s tenure, have said they felt nitpicked by the front office.
“It’s hard to be in a situation where you really want to celebrate with people and win with people who you know, when you’re not doing well, are constantly jumping off the boat,” one former Padres coach said. “They’re blaming you for the leak in the raft.”
“I think A.J. is not great at recognizing the culture cost of him putting his finger on the thumb of the coaching staff,” a former team executive said.
Meanwhile, Tricker is not the only Preller hire whose presence continues to arouse suspicion among staffers. Earlier this summer, former Miami Marlins executive Bill Masse joined the organization as a baseball operations advisor and has become a regular presence during batting practice and inside the batting cages at Petco Park — even though the Padres already had three hitting coaches. Former St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, now a Padres senior advisor for player development and the major leagues, has been in uniform with the team for most of this season, an unusual situation for an advisor.
Preller, for his part, said he values a variety of perspectives. But such arrangements, some inside the clubhouse say, still lead to uncertainty and unease.
“In some senses here, I feel that the finger gets pointed at the next guy,” one player said. “Instead of, You’re the head of the organization. You need to take the reins of this, implement some sort of structure.”
Added one ex-staffer: “It’s probably more of a case study in management.”
And nowhere is that more evident than in Preller’s relationship with Melvin.
Melvin, 61 years old and known throughout the game as “BoMel,” was supposed to be the veteran solution, the antithesis of Preller’s previous three managers — Murphy, Andy Green and Jayce Tingler — all of whom were first-timers at the major-league level.
This is Melvin’s 20th season as an MLB manager. He is a three-time Manager of the Year. Upon joining the Padres in 2022, he guided the team to a wild-card berth and playoff upsets of the New York Mets and archrival Dodgers.
The team’s success masked stylistic differences between Preller, a GM who thrusts himself into the team’s day-to-day operation, and Melvin, a manager who is widely respected by his current and former players for his consistency. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts called Melvin, “a great manager, a great guy,” adding that his communication “has been exceptional.” Other players echoed those sentiments.
Yet, as the Padres crumbled this season, the differences between Preller and Melvin created a major disconnect. The rift between the two became one of the worst-kept secrets in baseball. Melvin declined to comment for this story.
“I have a lot of respect for Bob,” said Preller. “You know, you’re never going to agree on everything. You never have that with anyone in baseball operations. That’s healthy. I think there’s always a healthy debate.”
Several Padres people interviewed for this story described circumstances in which Preller told players one thing and Melvin told them another. One player, while careful not to absolve himself and his teammates of blame, likened the situation to a toxic relationship between parents in which the kids suffer.
“If nobody’s on the same page and you’re getting two stories from two different people, there is not trust there,” the player said. “The players are going to feel like, well, who can I confide in? Who can I talk to?”
Preller, in the view of one former staffer, tries to be almost a friend to players, leaving Melvin and his coaches to deliver tougher messages. A person who previously worked with Preller said, “in Oakland, you had a situation with a GM (Billy Beane) who was at 40,000 feet and let the manager manage. A.J. gets to 40,000 feet, and then he’s down at 10,000 and almost like he’s in the dugout on an ongoing basis. And you can’t be that way.”
Preller’s roster construction also created difficulties for Melvin. The Padres played much of the first half with essentially only one position-player reserve beyond the backup catcher. Melvin didn’t have many levers to pull. Most of the Padres’ regulars play every game, and their lineup was essentially cemented once Fernando Tatis returned on April 20 from his 80-game suspension for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance.
That workload perhaps contributed to another divide between the front office and Melvin’s coaching staff. Preller has long stressed the importance of pregame and early work on the field and in the batting cages, saying, “It’s just about having set game plans and purposeful work and intentful work.” This season, especially as the Padres spiraled, was no different. But that emphasis, according to several current and former team members, has been a frequent source of contention in San Diego — including before Melvin was hired. With pregame work, especially in the latter stages of a six-month season, less often is more.
“Sometimes guys run out of gas,” one Padres player said. “I see it. And sometimes the sad part is they (club officials) see it, too. Why don’t you make adjustments?”
The lack of overall depth was perhaps more of an issue in the bullpen, anchored by its own star, closer Josh Hader. Setup man Robert Suarez missed the first half with elbow inflammation. Nick Martinez needed to move from the rotation to the bullpen in April. Left-hander Drew Pomeranz has not pitched since 2021 because of multiple injuries.
Still, Melvin has drawn internal criticism for his bullpen management, according to one former official. The Padres rank 12th in the majors in bullpen ERA and 25th in save percentage. Their one-run and extra-inning records are perhaps attributable to poor luck, but a manager’s decision-making also can influence those outcomes. Then again, Melvin’s teams entered 2023 with a 414-380 record in one-run games, a .521 winning percentage. In his first season in San Diego, the Padres led the majors with a 30-17 record in those games.
“It’s hard. Probably the hardest (season) I’ve had because of the expectations that we had as a team,” Melvin told reporters last weekend in Oakland. “I feel responsible. I feel accountable for what goes on here.”
The larger question, perhaps, is how Preller relates to his managers, and whether he creates a platform for them to be successful. The overwhelming evidence suggests the answer is no.
Preller’s relationships with Green and Tingler also deteriorated late in their respective tenures. Now Melvin might be the next to go.
“A.J. is looking for the guy to push the superstars that he acquired,” one former Padres coach said. “And I don’t know who the right guy is to do that. If it’s not BoMel, then who is it?”
Around baseball, the Padres’ clubhouse is perceived to be a fractured mess, home to big salaries and bigger egos. But team members say the players coexist well.
“I thought the locker room was going to be a complete s—show,” said one player who joined the team this season. “That is not the case.”
“We get along together pretty good,” Soto said. “It’s not like people think.”
Yet, even when players are not squabbling, a team can lack offensive chemistry. The Padres, for all their potential at the plate, never saw their lineup click over long stretches. And leadership questions persist, as they often do with losing clubs.
To the suggestion the Padres have no leader, one team member said, “Or there’s four and they can’t figure out which one it’s supposed to be and therefore none of them are doing it, so it’s like, ‘Who’s the guy here?’”
The Padres’ “Big Four” all are at different stages of their careers. Manny Machado, originally signed in 2019, is in the first year of an 11-year, $350 million extension. Bogaerts, a free-agent addition, is in the first year of an 11-year, $280 million deal.
Tatis, in the third year of a 14-year, $340 million contract, is trying to restore his reputation coming off his suspension. And Soto, acquired in a trade at the 2022 deadline after he turned down a 15-year, $440 million offer from the Washington Nationals, is eligible for free agency after next season.
Soto, 24, is the one performing the best on offense, but his uncertain future with the club has left him “guarded,” according to one teammate, and “trying to figure out where he’s at,” according to another member of the club. Tatis, 69 days younger than Soto, is in no position to take command, considering his age and the standing he lost with his suspension. Bogaerts, who turns 31 on Oct. 1, cannot be expected to own the room in his first year with a new organization.
Which leaves Machado, the oldest and most established of the group.
Machado, 31, is not a classic leader, some teammates say. He is too temperamental, inconsistent in his behavior — as opposed to, say, Adrián Beltré, a player whom Preller knew well from his time with the Texas Rangers. Beltré was a guidepost for his teammates, “cleaning up” whatever issues arose in the clubhouse.
Few such players exist in today’s game, and Machado serves as a positive example in his own way. Since 2015, he is second in the majors only to Paul Goldschmidt in games played.
“I personally think Manny is an exceptional leader,” one former Padre said. “He puts in the work every single day and plays through ticky-tack injuries and shows how important it is just to be on the field.”
“Ultimately, it’s my responsibility that I didn’t play (to the best of my abilities),” Machado told reporters Monday at Petco Park. “The real point of this is we didn’t play good baseball, I didn’t play good baseball and we let a lot of people down in the city.”
Whatever one’s view of Machado, the Padres surely were aware of his strengths and weaknesses as a leader when they awarded him his extension in February. Machado already had played four years with the club, through good times and bad. As was the case with Melvin, few complained about him in 2022, when the Padres came within three wins of reaching the World Series.
Leadership, some with the Padres say, would be much less of an issue if the Big Four had just performed to their career norms.
Their collective underachievement, however, does not fully explain the Padres’ offensive shortcomings. Some with the club believe that because the Padres are so star-laden, they do not play as a unit offensively, focusing more on individual performance than team-oriented goals. The description by one team member — “all superstars and no role players” — might be an oversimplification. But numerous statistics demonstrate the team’s lack of offensive chemistry:
Close and late
(All statistics through Sunday)
Situational baseball is not their strength.
“That’s what (good offense) is — go up there and try to put the ball in play, try to bring that guy in instead of hit 500-foot homers,” Soto said. “That’s what’s been lacking a little bit, just knowing the moment and the situation.”
“We’ve talked about it, addressed it. Everyone’s aware of it. We’re trying,” another player said. “For me it’s almost like, these guys don’t really know how to do it.”
As the Padres accelerated their spending, baseball people began asking one another, “How the heck is a team in the nation’s 30th-ranked TV market pulling this off?” The questions persist. The rumors are continuous: The Padres are short on cash. Seidler is selling off pieces of the club. The team’s limited partners are resisting more capital calls.
Team officials say none of those statements is true. (Seidler, who is recovering from a medical procedure, did not respond to a request for comment.) The Padres’ huge investments in payroll, they say, produced huge spikes in local revenue, fueled largely by booming attendance at Petco Park. The team, commissioner Rob Manfred said in February, will be a revenue-sharing payor for the first time this year. And while payroll is expected to drop in the coming seasons, the Padres’ plan is still to spend more than they did in the past. As recently as 2019, their Opening Day payroll was only $97.2 million.
But for the Padres to keep attendance high, the team likely will need to be more competitive than it was this season. San Diego ranks third in the majors with an average home attendance of 40,372, but its surge stemmed at least in part from the team’s 2022 NLCS appearance and another star acquisition in Bogaerts last offseason.
Another concern: The Padres’ local television revenue is virtually certain to reduce as they shift from a regional sports network that was paying them more than $50 million per year to a national subscription model. Major League Baseball, in response to the Padres’ broadcast partner, Diamond Sports Group, declaring bankruptcy, guaranteed the team 80 percent of its right fees for this season. But the league’s support only applies for 2023.
Against this backdrop, the Padres face several potential defections from their pitching staff this offseason, starting with Cy Young front-runner Blake Snell, a potential free agent. Hader also is eligible for free agency, and Seth Lugo will join him on the open market if he declines his $7.5 million player option. Michael Wacha and Nick Martinez also could become free agents.
The Padres already have $128.4 million in payroll committed for 2024, not including players like Soto who are eligible for salary arbitration. Their annual commitments, according to FanGraphs’ projections, will remain above $100 million through 2029. And while Preller and Co. continue to find young talent — the Padres’ farm system ranked seventh in Baseball America’s midseason rankings — the team will need to keep spending. The system includes two of Keith Law’s top-10 prospects, but its depth remains questionable, according to rival evaluators.
At some point, the Padres will likely need to balance their payroll by keeping more of their prospects, showing greater restraint in their spending, or both. Preller, backed by Seidler, has not been inclined to follow either path. And as he completes his ninth full season, the Padres remain more of a shiny object than a successful major-league operation.
Preller is the fourth-longest tenured head of baseball operations behind the Yankees’ Brian Cashman, St. Louis Cardinals’ John Mozeliak and Nationals’ Mike Rizzo, each of whom has won at least one World Series. The 2023 season is not yet over, and two teams already have made changes atop their front offices.
Seidler, to this point, has yet to betray even a hint of frustration with Preller. But for the Padres to succeed, former and current players and staffers say something in the team’s dynamic needs to change, and that building a culture of trust would be a good place to start.
“Every day, it’s something,” one former Padres player said. “There is an aura of looking over your shoulder there.”
MLB Prospect of the Year: Orioles’ Jackson Holliday tops Keith Law’s awards list
(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Michael Reaves / Getty Images; Denis Poroy / Getty Images; Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)