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MadFriars’ Interview: Padres' GM AJ Preller

The Padres GM talks about the process of building one of the best farm systems in baseball.

PEORIA, Ariz. — After beginning his tenure with a flurry of trades that got him anointed the "Rock Star GM" by some Padres' fan sites, A.J. Preller returned to the process that got him the job in the first place; trying to build a quality organization through the amateur draft, international signings and peddling veteran players for prospects.  

Last season the Padres traded pitchers Drew Pomeranz, Fernando Rodney, Andrew Cashner and James Shields for Anderson Espinoza, Chris Paddack, Josh Naylor and Fernando Tatis, Jr. after moving All-Star relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel in the off-season for top prospects Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra. The organization also ate substantial amounts of salary in the Cashner and Shields’ trade and even more in the mid-season deals of outfielder Melvin Upton, Jr. and Matt Kemp to clear playing time on the big league roster for younger players.

While all of Preller’s predecessors have also promised to develop talent internally, the Padres have not only been more aggressive in the amateur draft and in trades under him, but have also spent well over $80 million in the international market since early July, which included three of the four largest bonuses in team history.

The amount of money that ownership is allowing the team to invest in overseas talent is unprecedented.  With nearly $100 million dollars spent overall in amateur talent, the Padres General Manager took some time to explain his theories on developing a quality organization.

MadFriars: When you took over the organization, what was the biggest change, or new direction, that you wanted to go?

A.J. Preller:  I think in general we wanted to have emphasis on the scouting side at the amateur level with a stronger focus in Latin America.  We wanted to be strong on the pro scouting side along with the other non-Latin international markets. It was also equally important that we had a development staff in place that could handle the kind of players and athletes we were going to bring in.

I had an opportunity to chat with Mark Conner, your Director of Amateur Scouting, after last year’s draft and he emphasized the organization’s belief in multiple look throughout the years with various players. 

For example he used LHP Eric Lauer, who was selected late in the first round, as someone your scouts had seen in both high school and in college.  Could you explain what the organization is looking for when you see a player and how it fits into you eventually drafting them?

A.J. Preller: With Lauer that is definitely a good example of having a history and track record with a guy.  Mark had a history with him and was able to see his progress.

When we do that, it gives you more of a comfort level with your selection.  You try to get every angle and aspect of their background covered, but that is also not going to be for every player.

Certain guys are going to come up who just came on the scene, what we call “pop-up” guys and you have to be able to react to those as well. 

How much can you go into the background of player off of the field?

A.J. Preller: It’s part of being a good scout; you try to find out as much as you can.  A lot of it is a judgement call and a “feel” what kind of competitor they are and what they bring to the field.  In many ways it is a subjective call, and every scout is going to bring a different perspective. 

How is the organization able to process all that information into a workable hierarchy?  Some of your scouts are going to have a lot of different opinions.

A.J. Preller: It is definitely on an individual player basis.  A big part of it is just knowing your scouts; some of them are high graders on certain things and others are not.  There are certain scouts that want to sit down with a player and others that want to stay in the background. 

The bottom line is when someone shows up we need to be as prepared as possible so we can make the best decision and I think our scouting staff has been able to do that in the past two drafts.

Ever since I have been doing this the Padres have often stated that they are going to place a big emphasis on international development.  They made a big expenditure for their Dominican facility under Sandy Alderson, but have never really developed a top Latin American prospect for the big club.

Your regime has spent very heavily in the Latin Market this year, what is going to be different this time?  It seems to me an incredibly difficult process because so many of these players are so young.  So what factors are you looking at as compared to the domestic side?

A.J. Preller:  Each arena, or country, is a little different, but ultimately players are players. I think Chris [Kemp, the Padres International Scouting Director] group has done a good job of identifying talent and has found skill sets that are going to play fairly quickly in the professional ranks and really digging and knowing as much about them as people as they can. 

The more you are able to identify talent by the right kind of tools that are going to play - and knowing about their backgrounds and makeups - its going to increase the odds of you making better decisions in different environments. 

We don’t feel this is a crap shoot.  If you are doing a good job from the scouting end, you are going to make good decisions. 

This past year your heaviest investment has been in the Cuban market (Adrian Morejon, Jorge Ona, Michel Baez) and their you aren’t able to get quite the same access as in other countries, which runs counter to your policy of multiple looks over long periods.  How were you able to function there?

A.J. Preller: Each country is a little different.  With Cubans you will get an opportunity to see them in international tournaments. It might be a short burst, but you are still going to get to see them over six or seven days playing against the best in their age group.  

A lot of the Cuban players come over to the Dominican for workouts and if you set things up correctly there you get a chance to see who guys are; but it is definitely a little different because you don’t have the access but you try to make the process go as best as possible for the players.

For example we have seen Adrian Morejon for a long time.  We saw him in the 15U World Championships, we saw him pitch the gold medal game and spent a lot of time with him in the Dominican Republic.  So by the time we went through our scouting process over a  couple years period we felt comfortable making the investment that we did.

On the pro scouting side we’ve noticed you have particularly scouted the Complex Leagues and Lower A-Ball levels fairly hard.  Is the reason because you believed that you can get more value at that level?

A.J. Preller:  Each situation is a little different and we really like the job Pete DeYoung, who is the Director of our Pro Scouting Division, is doing to just try and find value; get good players.  Good players come quickly, whether they are 17-year olds that haven’t played a lot of baseball or 24-year olds that just haven’t gotten over the hump.

Each trade has been a little different.  Some of the trades we made last summer we decided to reach down a little deeper but we felt like we knew those kids well and what they could be capable off.

As you said you also have a different information component when you have to make a decision that quick.  

A.J. Preller:  The other thing too is with some of these guys when you are active internationally you have a history with some of these players.  It doesn’t stop even when they get drafted or sign with another organization. That is what we have tried to emphasize with our scouts a year later or even seven, if an opportunity comes up you want to be able to draw upon those experiences and interactions with some of those players.

Was that the case with Fernando Tatis, Jr. in the White Sox trade?

A.J. Preller: It was a combination of many things.  Both Chris and I had seen him internationally and Pete and his group did a good job of identifying him on the back fields with the White Sox.

He was someone that hadn’t played in a professional game yet - even on the Rookie-Ball level - but he was someone that was a target for us.

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