A.J. Preller: A Whole New Ballgame
Photo by Scott Wachter/San Diego Padres
Rockstar general manager A.J. Preller has built the Padres into a team to talk about. But having a candid conversation with this guy isn’t easy—when the conversation is about anything other than baseball. No sidetracking into what local neighborhoods he likes or whether he’s even tried a fish taco. He has nothing to say about dating in San Diego. Or learning to surf, or the weather. Take his picture? Style him in a suit? Uncover a softer side? Make attempts, and you’ll strike out. The man’s attention is on baseball. Scouting. Players. Positions. Lineups. Wins. That’s where this guy’s head is. Completely focused on baseball, with an East-Coast kind of intensity. Everything about Preller, even back to childhood games with his kid sister, is rooted in a passion for baseball. As much as we’d like to see him take a surfing lesson or have a beer with us (believe us, we tried), he’s here for one reason: to win baseball games. A lot of them. If he’s going to reveal anything, it’s scouting reports. And you know what? It’s probably for our own good. Who cares what he eats or what he wears. This is A.J. Preller, the guy who is giving us a whole new ballgame.
On three different occasions this winter, television crews and eager reporters packed the auditorium on the garden level of Petco Park, the room where the Padres roll out their big guns.
This is where the team introduces their most prominent acquisitions—players who’ve been either traded for or signed to big free-agent contracts. In years past, the room has gathered dust. But not this off-season.
That’s because first-year general manager A.J. Preller essentially turned his room into baseball’s version of Disneyland, announcing one notable attraction after another: Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, and James Shields, among others.
During these press conferences, the room radiates with smiles from the player, his family, ownership, and manager Bud Black, who in his previous eight seasons has never visited the auditorium this much. The atmosphere is relaxed—that is, except for the architect of the deals that brought these players to San Diego: Preller himself.
“Those press conferences are really about the players,” Preller says on a quiet March morning in Arizona, where the team prepares for the 2015 season. “Those are fun days for the players, their family, the organization, and the fans. For me, I think it’s more about letting them have their day, and letting me be just in the background.”
But when Preller was hired by the Padres in August, the anonymous days he once enjoyed were essentially stamped with an expiration date. That’s what happens when one of your newest acquisitions, Kemp, who once dated Rihanna, dubs you the “Rockstar GM” for the world to see—a sound bite and headline that will live forever.
The way that Preller went about reshaping the roster with a series of dizzying deals in December, adding former All-Stars and a Rookie of the Year, is noteworthy on several fronts. First, it brought an unheralded limelight to the Padres, a franchise that had fallen far off the radar in terms of relevance (the Padres last made the playoffs—baseball’s real season—in 2006).
The second detail, and possibly the most stunning of them all, is Preller pulled off all of this despite having never previously held the job.
But Preller, 37, tackled this gig with the same tireless work ethic that has served him so well as he climbed up the ranks in baseball, drinking in as much information as he could, surrounding himself with smart people with strong opinions, empowering the staff he inherited, and always operating with a sense of humility.
“He’s not a politician, he’s a producer,” says Texas general manager Jon Daniels, who has known Preller since he was 17.
“I understood that in taking this role there were going to be different responsibilities, and one that goes with the job is being in the forefront a lot more than I was before,” Preller admits. “But I don’t look at this in a negative light. I always want to make sure the focus is on the team, staff, and front office.”
Before a morning workout at the team’s training facility in Arizona, Padres president and CEO Mike Dee is asked about Preller’s frenetic winter, one that saw him burying himself in meetings with front office staff or flying to Latin America to evaluate players, or, ultimately, filling the roster with superstar talent.
“A.J. is a winner,” he says. “You can feel it.”
Dee would know. He was instrumental in hiring Preller away from the Rangers. Dee assembled the list of general manager candidates to interview last summer, some of whom had held the job before and many who had spent more time in baseball’s front office than Preller.
Preller might have appeared out of place on the list, but not to people inside the game. He had spent the last 10 seasons with the Rangers, most of them helping establish the Rangers’ Latin American presence. Preller combed the countryside finding players at a time when other teams were slow to do so. He even taught himself Spanish, as a better means to communicate with players on their own turf.
The Padres, looking to build an international profile, were intrigued by Preller and his reputation as a top-notch scout. He blew the team away during his two interviews, impressing Dee, the team’s lead investor, Peter Seidler, and executive chairman Ron Fowler.
“He really has an eye for talent. But it is one thing to go see talent that’s been identified by people and it’s something else to go to the Dominican Republic and be on the front line,” Dee says. “A.J. would circle back and spend time with the players’ families, almost like a college football coach. This led us to believe we could accumulate the best talent pool.”
A.J. Preller observes a team workout at Padres spring training in Peoria, Ariz.
That’s exactly what Preller did this off-season, pulling off a handful of stunning trades, ones that added Kemp, Upton, Myers, and several others. And then in February, when everyone figured Preller was done, he added Shields, the top free agent pitcher on the market, the final piece of a stunning rebuild.
“We thought we’d get maybe 60 percent of what we were looking at. He basically got everything he set out to,” Fowler confesses, still sounding astonished.
And on top of that, Preller has something else going for him.
“When we brought A.J. in, we found someone who embraced the task,” Fowler adds. “He wasn’t afraid of the San Francisco Giants or the Dodgers. He just had this David–Goliath mentality that he wanted to do it. He had this sort of look and this swagger about him.”
That look Fowler describes is one Preller’s older sister, Jennifer Preller-Sherowski, 39, knows all too well. He grew up with it, she remembers.
“From a very young age, my brother was very focused,” says Preller-Sherowski, the mother of four boys who adore their uncle. “He watched baseball, he read about baseball.”
Not just content with knowing the players on his beloved Yankees, Preller—who was raised on Long Island—insisted his sister knew plenty about them as well, even if it wasn’t her cup of tea.
“He used to drill me on the players on the Yankees to make sure I knew their first, last names and the positions they played,” Preller-Sherowski says. “If I didn’t do as good as he hoped, it would make him angry and we’d have to try again.”
Jon Daniels got to know this look as well. Preller met Daniels during their freshman year at Cornell. They became roommates and fast friends, bonding through their love of both baseball and basketball.
“He doesn’t play defense,” Daniels says of Preller’s basketball skills, noting how competitive he is.
While at Cornell, Preller served as an intern with the Phillies, writing a three-credit paper on baseball in Latin America. He eventually landed an unpaid gig in the Arizona Fall League, which led to a job in New York with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who was then working in on-field operations for Major League Baseball.
“The only thing that I focused on, wherever I was or whatever I was doing, was making the department, organization, and team as good as it possibly could be,” Preller says.
His first big break came when he was hired by the Dodgers to work in baseball operations. It was during this time that he met someone who would prove influential on his career.
Don Welke, now 71, was a well-respected scout with several teams. He took a liking to Preller, then 35 years his junior. The two huddled late into the night to talk baseball and scouting, either at the Pantry Café in downtown Los Angeles or Jerry’s Famous Deli in Marina Del Rey.
“He became like a son to me,” Welke says of Preller.
It didn’t take Welke long to see Preller was wired differently, especially with the way he viewed the game and how quickly and naturally he took to scouting. The two were later reunited in Texas and now Welke works with Preller in San Diego, his right-hand man.
“People can do it or they can’t,” Welke says. “You either have a feel for this or you don’t. For whatever reason, he picked it up right away and picked up on every little bit of knowledge and put it to use.”
So far, that knowledge has paid off for the Padres, a team now expected to contend for a playoff spot in 2015. During his first five months on the job, Preller lived in a downtown hotel. Finding a strong pickup game of basketball rated as more important than finding a house. He has since moved to a house near the coast, somewhere between Oceanside and Solana Beach (he’s a private guy).
The new GM is just now at a point where he can finally enjoy his new city and surroundings. His parents and sister and her sons, Riley (seven years old), Colby (five), Casey (three), and Rory (one), were in San Diego in early February to help him get settled in his new home. The boys toured Petco Park with their uncle, fully clad in Padres gear that Uncle A.J. hooked them up with shortly after taking the job.
To be sure, San Diego is beginning to feel like home.
“I got a little taste for it the last few weeks before spring training,” Preller says of exploring San Diego. “San Diego seems like such a great city. I’m looking forward to having a home and a place to stay and being a part of the city and community.”