Ex-A’s manager Melvin digging other side of Billy Ball with Pads


In his first season as manager of the Padres, Bob Melvin recently had the very delicate task of navigating a major league locker room full of players fraught with anxiety as the trade deadline approached. General Manager A. J. Preller, who is among the most driven and aggressive executives in the game when it comes to pursuing trades, had signaled his intention to remake his ballclub via the trade market, and he had set his sights on the biggest prize of all: 23-year-old Juan Soto, who had just won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Despite the fact that his club sat a full 12 games back of the first place Dodgers in the NL West, Preller was obsessed with improving his roster. It would be Melvin’s job to make sure the players in his clubhouse, some of whom would almost certainly be relocating to a different city in the next three days, stayed focused on winning baseball games and not on rumored deals.

Preller had long coveted Soto, and had attempted to sign him as a 16-year-old prospect in the Dominican Republic. The Nationals and GM Mike Rizzo succeeded in building a relationship with the teenager, and Soto, who had pledged to sign with Rizzo and Washington, stayed true to his word, foiling Preller’s efforts. Soto’s $1.5 million signing bonus would prove an excellent investment for the franchise, as Soto would debut in the Nats lineup in May 2018 at age 19. He would hit .292/.406/.517 with 22 home runs and 70 RBIs during his rookie campaign as the youngest player in the National League. Players of his caliber are rarely traded at all, much less at the age of 23. As recent events unfolded in Washington, Preller sensed an opportunity to strike. Melvin was put on high alert: Be ready for anything.

Juan Soto’s move to the Padres at the trade deadline last week shook the baseball world. The 23-year old who helped the Washington Nationals win the first World Series title in franchise history in 2019 has compiled numbers in his first five years as a Major Leaguer comparable to the All-Time greats of the game.

The Nationals have been for sale for over a year, when the Lerner family announced that the club would explore the option of taking on new partners or selling the club outright. The family purchased the team from Major League Baseball (who had assumed operations of the team in Washington following a move from Montreal) in 2006 for $450 million. This past April the club was valued at $2 billion, and a sale price may well exceed that figure. The Soto situation is an enormous consideration for potential buyers, who indicated behind the scenes that they wanted some clarity about the franchise’s most valuable asset: Either sign him to a contract whose terms would be known, and could be budgeted around, or trade him and clear his salary off the books. They didn’t want a repeat of the Bryce Harper fiasco, which saw the lefty slugger and franchise icon leave via free agency to Philadelphia without any compensation (they would have received just a fourth round pick, but forfeited that when they signed Patrick Corbin). Rizzo and the Nats would not be burned again.

At 23, Juan Soto has already established his credentials as one of the greatest hitters in the game. Since 2019, he leads all of baseball with a .433 OB% and a .977 OPS. Through the age of 23 his weighted RC+, (a measure of offensive skill adjusted for the productivity and ballparks of the era in which a player competed) is 155. That means he’s been approximately 55% better than the average hitter over the course of his career. His new teammate, Fernando Tatis Jr., ranks just behind him, at 153. Ahead of that pair on the list are names like Ted Williams (185), Stan Musial (171), Mike Trout (166), Albert Pujols (164) and Mickey Mantle (156). Never have two players of such offensive talent been paired in the same lineup when they were both so young. Preller sensed the opportunity to make a historically unprecedented trade, and he would stop at nothing to assure that those two players could join forces. Both were born in the Dominican Republic just 3 months apart (Soto in October of 1998, Tatis Jr. in January 1999), and it was Preller’s mission to see the countrymen together in Padre uniforms.

Bob Melvin had been on the other side of the trade deadline equation in Oakland, where finances drove most decisions, even when the club was competitive and seeking to add talent for a pennant drive. Melvin had left Oakland for San Diego precisely because the A’s had decided that they would have to trade most of their highest priced talent after the 2021 season, a plan they’ve painfully executed. Since the season ended last October, Oakland has traded starting pitchers Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas, infielders Matt Olson and Matt Chapman and closer Lou Trivino. Those transactions effectively lowered the A’s payroll from the $112 million in was in 2021 to the $45 million it currently projects for this season. Melvin is now in charge of a club that already featured two $300 million dollar contract players in Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., and watched happily as the Pads signed San Diego native Joe Musgrove to a five-year $100 million dollar deal heading into the trade deadline weekend.

San Diego native Joe Musgrove had a career record of 29-38 when he was traded to the Padres before the the 2021 season. Last week he was signed to a five-year $100M contract after ascending to the top of their staff and becoming the first pitcher in franchise history to hurl a no-hitter.

The Padres were one of two teams to pay the luxury tax for the 2021 season (along with the Dodgers), and they now seemed intent on blowing past the threshold for a second consecutive year in an effort to win the franchise’s first World Series title. Melvin has never been in a situation where he’s had the luxury of such resources, and now his GM was on a quest to trade for a player who, if he were acquired, would surely demand a contract that would ultimately be among the richest in the history of the sport. Melvin was experiencing life on the other side of the payroll fence, and the grass seemed a very different shade of green in San Diego.

Preller got his man, trading Luke Voit, C.J. Abrams, MacKenzie Gore and three minor league players to the Nationals for Soto and Josh Bell in what’s being called the most significant deadline trade of all time. Posterity will judge the veracity of that hyperbolic statement, but Preller isn’t worried. In the past week, he dealt seven of the top 11 prospects in the San Diego system, and four more players who were recently prospects now in the majors.

Since November of 2019, A.J. Preller has traded 66 prospects or recent graduates from the Padres system. Some have already developed into valuable, inexpensive players; many more are still matriculating through the minor leagues, and could make their impacts in the coming decade. Preller is trying to change a culture in that organization that has led to a .463 all time winning percentage, 29th of the 30 teams in the league over their 53 years of existence. The Padres have made the playoffs just six times in their history, only once during Preller’s seven-year tenure in San Diego. Drastic measures are certainly justifiable in the face of such futility.

Fernando Tatis Jr. has had a lot to celebrate his first three years in the Majors. In 2020 he helped lead San Diego to their first playoff berth in 14 seasons and last year he led the NL with 42 home runs after signing a 14-year, $340 million contract extension. He’s expected to return to a loaded Padres lineup next week after missing the first four months of the season following wrist surgery.

Preller was not content to allow the Soto blockbuster to represent the sum total of his efforts to position the club for its first championship. In the Soto deal, Preller negotiated to have Josh Bell included, a switch hitter with a .302/.385/.493 productivity level thus far in 2022. He also scored Brandon Drury from the Reds, a versatile defender who has played second, third and the outfield this season, and whose .274/.335/.520 line with 20 HRs will augment a Padres lineup that has struggled to score runs.

In those two transactions, Preller provided Melvin with arguably the three best hitters on the trade market. Postseason baseball sometimes comes down to the pitchers trying to shut down rallies in the late innings, and Preller wanted to upgrade that area of his club as well. He checked that box by trading his current closer, Trevor Rogers, and three other players to the Brewers for lefty Josh Hader, who can lay claim to being the best closer in the game over the past five seasons. Hader has been historically dominant as well, and his 15.4 k/9, 4.8 hits allowed/9 and 0.88 WHIP are the best such figures of any reliever who has ever thrown at least 300 IP in the majors.

In the course of a frenzied 72-hour stretch, Preller extended ace Joe Musgrove, traded to get Hader, Soto, Bell and Drury, providing Melvin with roster improvement beyond his wildest dreams. Before the trades, the Padres were 20-1 to win the World Series according to Vegas odds makers. Now they’re 10-1, and Fangraphs assesses their current roster as the best in the National League, surpassing the Mets, Dodgers and defending champion Braves. On Wednesday night, 44,000 Padre fanatics sold out Petco Park to see Soto, Bell and Drury make their debuts in a 9-1 shellacking of the Rockies.

This time last year, even while Bob Melvin was passing Tony LaRussa to become the winningest manager in Oakland A’s history, he was saddled by the financial restraints of a historically low budget franchise. Now in San Diego for his first season with the Padres, he’s at the helm of a team that started the season with the fifth highest payroll in baseball and two players with $300M contracts.

“To be on this side of it, it’s pretty cool,” Melvin commented after the trade was consummated. “You have to tip your hat to AJ for getting all this done. It’s amazing that he has his pulse on every trade that’s out there.” Soto was impressed with his new lineup in San Diego as well, and issued a warning to the rest of the league: “It’s going to be really tough to go through. I wish good luck to the other pitchers.”

There aren’t many owners in baseball who have given their GMs free reign to build the roster without regard to cost, but Padres owner Peter Seidler has done exactly that in San Diego. They were one of two teams to exceed the luxury tax threshold in 2021, and they will surely blow past that mark again in 2022.

“We can look anybody in the eye now,” said Padres owner Peter Seidler. “Whatever it is — starting pitchers, relief pitchers, depth. Whatever our starting nine looks like, any given day, the options we have for Bob Melvin, it’s taken the whole thing to another level. “It’s electric here this year every single night. But it’s going to hit a level that we haven’t yet seen. It’s going to be so much fun here at the ballpark.”

Bob Melvin has been given the keys to the candy store with his new players, and he could feel the fans excitement after their first post-trade contest. “I mean, that was electric,” he said. “And our fans were in it from before the first pitch. I think these guys felt that too.”
“It’s going to be like this. I mean it really has been all year. But when you bring in guys like this, it takes to a different level.”

An owner willing to do whatever it takes to put a championship team together. A General Manager hell-bent on making trades to improve the team at all times. A lineup that features two 23-year-old superstars off to Hall of Fame level starts to their careers. The rest of baseball should take notice, because the San Diego Padres are giving their fans a reason to go all-in and fall in love with this franchise, and it may well prove to be a relationship that has a ring in its future.

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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