There is complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work, and that’s worth more to most of us than money.
— Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success
I was away for a week when I heard the news that the San Diego Padres wanted A.J. Preller to lead their organization, and that Preller wanted to do it. It’s an outcome I always thought of as possibly unlikely — not because I doubted Preller could do the job, but instead because I questioned whether the 37-year-old would ever choose budgets and sponsor meets and media over the floppy hat and court shoes and Judesca Profar’s living room for the dozenth time, and a dozen more, if that’s what it takes.
It would be safe to assume that those three components Gladwell wrote of, the three things that he insisted in Outliers are what work must offer in order to truly satisfy, would lead a scout to chase one of those 30 GM desks, to cheerfully trade in the chain-link fences and the necessarily delayed shot at gratification and the solitude of the scouting wilderness to find that ultimate baseball satisfaction (not to mention the cash gravy). Still, I wasn’t sure — from purely a fulfillment standpoint — Preller, a scout’s scout who prefers doing his work behind the scenes, would see it that way.
I’ve mentioned a time or two that I’m not not very good at doing nothing — though Preller is exponentially worse at it — and part of my week away included a couple full-day drives. On one of those, to help fight through the monotony of the road, we listened to Outliers in the car.
In it Gladwell talked about the “right place, right time” opportunities that, in conjunction with their gifts, gave us Bill Gates and the Beatles and others, and I thought about the circumstances that led Preller, second in his class at Cornell, to this moment.
There was the friendship he developed with Jon Daniels at the Ithaca university.
The dogged determination to get into baseball that led to the internship he scored with the Phillies as a college junior (and by “scored” I mean “created for himself”).
The chance to work with and learn from and be pushed by Frank Robinson and Don Welke and John Hart — and Daniels.
The circumstances that led Tom Hicks to turn the Rangers’ reigns over to Daniels and to hire Preller from the Dodgers.
The state of talent-mining in Latin America that Preller capitalized on (Hicks: “JD had hired Preller the year before, and had the Dominican buzzing”), and the Rule 4 and Rule 5 drafts and the Darvish chase and a hundred other bullet points that led the Padres, focusing their search primarily on “who was going to be able to bring impact talent to the organization,” to target Preller as a GM candidate, and then a finalist, and then the right man.
At the right place and at the right time.
Just like a winning coaching staff in the NFL, you don’t keep a successful MLB front office — especially a relatively young one — together forever. Texas hasn’t won a title — and I suspect the idea of unfinished business to see through was something that factored in for Preller and that he had to overcome internally before saying yes to San Diego — but one strike short doesn’t make your baseball operations group any less smart or any less hard-working or any less productive. This was going to happen, eventually, and it’s fairly surprising that it didn’t sooner.
But since the Rangers’ consecutive World Series appearances, after which you’d have expected other teams to come after their front office talent offering opportunities at promotion, here’s the complete list of teams who, in the four ensuing years, have replaced their General Managers:
Winter of 2011-12: Padres, Red Sox, Cubs, Angels, Orioles, Twins, Astros
Winter of 2012-13: White Sox
Winter of 2013-14: Nobody
Summer of 2014: Padres
Of the eight GM changes in the four years preceding Preller’s hire, four involved internal promotions, leaving only four clubs who went outside for someone to take over the reins: The Cubs (reeling in the high-profile Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer tandem from Boston), the Angels (bringing Jerry Dipoto over from Arizona), the Orioles (recycling Dan Duquette), and the Astros, who reportedly targeted Rangers Assistant GM Thad Levine before hiring St. Louis executive Jeff Luhnow.
Of those, only Luhnow had not been a GM before.
The Rangers hadn’t been raided since their back-to-pack pennants, but by all accounts they almost were (when Jim Crane, a year after trying to buy the Rangers, was said to have chased Levine — and possibly Preller), and aside from Houston’s search every other instance of GM turnover involved a promotion from within or the hiring of a former GM.
There just haven’t been a whole lot of situations in which Rangers officials were basically passed over.
As for the vacancy that Preller’s departure leaves in Arlington, will the Rangers promote from within? He was one of two Assistant GM’s advising Daniels, along with Levine, but setting titles aside, it’s Preller’s leadership on the scouting and player development side that will need to be addressed. Does Pro Scouting Director Josh Boyd get an expanded role, overseeing not only that effort but also the amateur and international scouting departments? Does Senior Director of Minor League Operations Mike Daly, whose niche has long been in Latin America, see his responsibility grow? What about Minor League Field Coordinator Jayce Tingler, a rising player development star in his own right?
There are others. Daniels told reporters last week: “We’ve got some really talented and capable people who in my opinion have been ready for that next step. They’re going to spread their wings a little bit. I view it as an opportunity for them and all of us, including myself, to grow.” Evan Grant (Dallas Morning News) suggests San Diego actually did the Rangers a favor, forcing the organization to introduce an “outside voice” into its innermost “circle of trust” — even if that voice belongs to someone already in its employ.
As for the risk of losing some of those folks to the Padres, there appears to be clearly defined restrictions in that regard, though the exact nature of those limitations hasn’t been reported. What we know:
Here’s a thought that concerns me: Yu Darvish’s contract is probably going to expire after the 2016 season. Even under a liberal reading of the above, it appears that any hiring restrictions the Padres might have with regard to Rangers executives would expire no later than that time. Preller was at the forefront of the effort to scout and recruit and land Darvish, and so was Boyd, who taught himself Japanese.
Boyd and Preller’s relationship predates their time with the Rangers.
Boyd, who grew up in Southern California, spent four years scouting for the Padres.
You can expect Preller, who told Padres President & CEO Mike Dee during the interview process that “[a]s long as you have the quality of pitching that we have, you have a chance to win every night,” to push ownership to go as hard after Darvish two and a half years from now as he did here two and a half years ago. Having Boyd on board makes sense for several Padres-centric reasons, not the least of which might be a second recruitment of the ace righthander.
I hope Boyd stays. And I would really like Darvish to want to extend his deal here before we ever get to 2016.
(Beltre, who is close to Preller in age and was in the Dodgers organization at the same time, is free after the 2016 season, too. And now I need to change the subject.)
Another Rangers official who could be a fit with the Padres, if permitted to go, is Special Assistant Scott Littlefield, a huge scouting presence in the Texas front office who, according to Jeff Wilson (Fort Worth Star-Telegram), lives in the San Diego area. Notably, Littlefield spent five years as a scout with the Padres previously (2005-09), including one as their national crosschecker.
Know who else had stints with the Padres, as players? Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux. And the two pitching instructors who could theoretically be viewed as Maddux’s heirs apparent, Rangers bullpen coach Andy Hawkins and AAA pitching coach Brad Holman. And Special Assistant to the GM Greg Maddux.
Jim Callis (MLB.com) considers it a “[r]easonable assumption” that “some of Texas’s connections with Latin American free agents and buscones will be following Preller to San Diego,” but again, that could be a couple years from happening.
And considering Preller’s expertise internationally, no matter what you think of the powerful front office infrastructure he leaves behind — and it is strong, without question — with the new CBA restrictions on doing business in Latin America, international relationships are more important than ever, as is the ability to develop advantages under the modified, restrictive rules. While Preller’s departure doesn’t strip Texas of its identity and mentality on the international front, he’s now an added competitor, and will be a formidable one, and eventually may lead others to follow him.
You may not recognize names like Kim and Saab and Halabi and Aquino and Colborn and Furukawa, but pay attention if they pop up in trail notes separated by ellipses detailing Texas defections to San Diego. It’s their work the last few years that have made the Rangers, some might say, outliers on the international landscape. In a positive sense.
Some have painted Preller as an outlier of another type. Stories surfaced toward the end of the Padres’ interview process and certainly after the Preller hire that he and the Rangers had been punished years ago for some unidentified incident involving scouting on the international side. According to Ken Rosenthal (Fox Sports), the alleged violation “stemmed from negotiating with a player who had been suspended for an age/ID discrepancy,” though Dee said the Commissioner’s Office gave Preller a “clean bill of health” and others said Preller was “penalized for a relatively minor infraction and question the validity of the process that led to his suspension, noting that baseball no longer employs the investigators who built the case against him.” That part is interesting.
Daniels commented a week ago on the allegations Preller has had to address: “I’m defensive because I care about him and because I know the truth. He works his butt off. That’s why he’s been productive, not because of any underhanded stuff.
“Are we aggressive? Is he aggressive? Absolutely. But we’re far from the only ones. He was one of the first young American guys to go down there and change the way business is done a little bit. That has ruffled some feathers.”
Questioned about the incident in his introductory San Diego presser, Preller said that “ultimately, MLB felt there were no violations” and that the investigation may have been triggered by a case of another franchise’s “sour grapes on missing out on signing an international player.” Baseball America speculates that the player in question could be Dominican righthander Rafael DePaula, who was suspended in 2009 for presenting false age data before signing late in 2010 with the Yankees for $500,000.
Ironically, New York traded DePaula (and former Ranger farmhand) Yangervis Solarte to the Padres for Chase Headley three weeks ago, while Preller was still interviewing with San Diego.
As for how Preller will be as a trading GM, that’s a question that can only be answered with time and with track record. He does draw on experience, even if he wasn’t the one calling the ultimate shots in Texas. Asked by Lin what he picked up professionally from his longtime friend Daniels, Preller said: “I learned a lot of things from JD, but two things really stand out. The first was that he was really good at seeing what our competitive window was. When we first went in there, we probably misevaluated that and helped out the Padres a lot with the Adrian Gonzalez-Chris Young trade (the Rangers received Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka). JD and I probably thought we were a lot closer than we really were to winning at that time. Pretty quickly, we realized we made a misevaluation. The second thing about JD is he’s a tremendous decision-maker. You have to be willing to make the tough move, the tough trade, and be right more than your competitors. He’s shown he can do that.”
And now Preller will be expected to show the same thing.
When asked on MLB Network Radio if he plans to help get Preller’s trade history started, Daniels said that there are players in every organization that baseball operations officials disagree on, and he joked with Preller that he fully expects him to come after some of those that he always liked more than Daniels does himself.
I can hear the conversation now.
“You love him. Give us a lot.”
“You don’t love him. Take less.”
Answering the question seriously, Daniels referred to the six-player trade Texas made with Oakland (Carlos Pena and Mike Venafro for Gerald Laird, Ryan Ludwick, Jason Hart, and Mario Ramos) two months after Grady Fuson arrived from the A’s as the Rangers’ new Assistant GM, and to the deal that Padres GM Jed Hoyer made with his former Boston colleagues a year after taking the San Diego job, sending Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox for Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly, Reymond Fuentes, and Eric Patterson. (Hoyer then became the Cubs’ GM a year after that, and about two months later he acquired Rizzo from the Padres.) It just makes sense that Preller, as familiar with the Rangers system as he is — and as instrumental as he was in scouting and acquiring so many of the organization’s big league and minor league players — would find a comfort level in talking trade with Daniels, knowing what the Rangers’ needs are and in fact what Padres players the Rangers like.
I’m not sure what the Padres’ 40-man roster conundrum looks like this winter, and though San Diego has a strong farm system, if there’s room to add a couple prospects to the big league roster this winter, the conversation between Preller and Daniels could be relatively open. Preller knows who the Rangers’ roster bubble guys are — he’d been at the center of deliberations on that very issue — and there might be an opportunity where he can help Texas relieve a bit of its impending 40-man jam. Unless the talks were to involve someone like Andrew Cashner (highly unlikely), roster addition candidates like Jorge Alfaro and Luke Jackson aren’t going to be discussed, but then you get to names like Ryan Rua, Jerad Eickhoff, Spencer Patton, Phil Klein, Will Lamb, Jon Edwards, Martire Garcia, Alex Claudio, Hanser Alberto, Odubel Herrera, Tomas Telis, Kellin Deglan, and Drew Robinson. You’re not going to be able to package three of those guys to get Tyson Ross, but if Preller finds an opportunity to offer Texas a player it covets — he should know what that list looks like, too — and can grab a couple of those names in the process, it would be less than a shocking development.
The Padres are excited about what Preller will work to accomplish with their organization, and they should be. Peter Seidler, one of the franchise’s lead investors, said after hiring Preller: “What resonated with me was his passion for baseball, his creativity and his work ethic. All those three things were off the charts. I love a creative approach to a problem or to an objective. I think the creative way he articulated that, how he was going to build this, the winning formula he had in mind, impressed all of us.”
Right there, wrapped up in one comment, are those three Gladwell components to creative work that can inspire greatness: Complexity. Autonomy. And the relationship between effort and reward. Seidler and the Padres have set the table for Preller to feast.
“I really want our staff to think about being cutting edge,” Preller said when introduced as the Padres’ new GM. “I look forward to being that type of group, being next-wave, being ahead of the curve. . . . Usually when you get an idea or thought that works, within a year 10 other teams are copying that or doing the same thing. That’s why you constantly have to hit on ideas that give you a competitive advantage and, when the competition catches up, hopefully hit on the next idea to take us where we need to get to.”
Preller acknowledged that he’d heard others characterize him “as this maverick out in the middle of nowhere, doing my job. [But] the biggest thing is, can you connect people? That’s what we did with the Rangers and that’s what I want to do with the Padres.”
“I want Padres fans to understand that it’s not going to be smooth sailing from Day One,” Preller said. “But I can promise you we’re going to have the hungriest, hard-working group of employees in the game. I feel pretty confident that once we get going in that direction, we’re going to be doing some pretty special things here.”
Effort, and reward.
Daniels talked in his MLB Network Radio spot about Preller’s work ethic and his preparation and his knack for “always looking two steps ahead as far as how to beat the competition, looking for where the value is, looking where other people aren’t looking,” and that’s not an indictment of anyone else still here. The sky is not falling, and nobody’s saying it is. But the Rangers have lost an important voice, and having one fewer of those than you had before is a loss. A.J. Preller is always thinking about ways to beat the competition, which is sometimes deciding that a Class A outfielder in the Oakland system (and banned from entry into the U.S.) is a pitcher, or agreeing that a shortstop from Curacao isn’t one, and now the Rangers are part of the competition.
In the e-book on the Rangers’ front office group I wrote two and a half years ago, Daniels talked about Preller’s potential to take on the role he now has: “Veteran baseball men, some of whom may have been biased against guys with A.J.’s profile (Moneyball didn’t help in that regard), would regularly say he’s one of the best baseball minds they’ve been around. That’s huge praise from a veteran guy to a young guy with no on-field experience. I’m convinced he could be a top GM in the game now, and if he put the same time into it, a top GM in the NFL.
“That may sound crazy, but he’s got a handle on the big picture that not many do.”
He could be an NFL GM, in at least Daniels’s estimation.
He’s the best basketball player you’ve ever seen on the back fields.
He taught himself absolutely fluent Spanish in the space of two months, an enormous edge in some of the most fertile talent territories in the world, almost none of which are subject to the draft and thus stage scouting and player procurement efforts built largely on grinding work ethic and nurtured relationships.
He can do just about anything you’d want a baseball operations official to do.
He would be a huge asset at your business, too.
Preller called Pat Gillick, John Schuerholz, Terry Ryan, and Hart the best General Managers of the last two decades and noted that they had one important thing in common — “the ability to connect the organization from top to bottom.” While Preller is justifiably praised for his ability to evaluate player talent (one industry source told Corey Brock (MLB.com): “I cannot think of another GM in baseball who can out-scout him,” though that’s sort of like moving Adrian Beltre across the diamond and calling him the game’s best-throwing first baseman, isn’t it?), Daniels told local reporters that “what that misses is just how gifted he is at . . . building a staff, hiring people, creating a philosophy and getting everyone to buy in and feel good about it.”
During the interview process, Padres Executive Chairman Ron Fowler was blown away by the priority Preller placed on doing just that in San Diego. “You have to have consistency throughout the organization in terms of how you’re going to do things,” Fowler acknowledged. “I’ve never been with an individual who understood personnel at all levels of baseball to the extent that A.J. Preller does. It was an unbelievable education in terms of who does what to whom, and how it gets done.”
Fowler and Seidler and Dee committed an eye-opening five years to Preller to get it done, after which they heard him say, publicly: “I learned a lot in Texas, and having people on the same page top to bottom is the most important lesson I bring with me. . . . One of the things I want our staff to understand is you don’t have Jed Hoyer guys or Josh Byrnes guys. You have Padres guys.”
Though presumably having been around Preller no more than a few times, Brock captured the 37-year-old perfectly. “In the end,” Brock wrote (missing an opportunity to go with “at the end of the day,” a crutch phrase that Preller will throw down on you about every other sentence), “Preller stood out among the candidates as a result of his words, background and what he has planned for the organization. There was a quiet passion with Preller, a sense of intensity, like he was ready to get started right there and then.”
That will be missed. Just because your organization might have that sort of passion and intensity and drive in abundance doesn’t mean you ever want to lose any of it, especially when the loss comes in the form of someone who had helped set the overall tone.
In Daniels and Levine, Daly and Boyd, Welke and Kip Fagg, Tingler and Littlefield and Kim and Greg Smith and Matt Vinnola and dozens of others, there’s still plenty of baseball operations firepower in Texas, even with Preller’s departure. Just as there’s an emphasis on keeping the pipeline flowing at the minor league prospect level, there’s a constant effort in Texas to develop evaluators and decision-makers. The Rangers will be fine without Preller, in part because of the work he did training and mentoring others the way Welke once mentored him. But this is a big loss — and that’s without knowing who else might join Preller, either now with the Rangers’ permission or after the moratorium is lifted in a couple years.
Another suggestion Gladwell made in Outliers is that “people at the very top [of their fields] don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” You probably wouldn’t believe the ratio of days on the road to days in his own Dallas home that Preller has spent the last 10 years. That proportion is going to settle down some with the new job title in San Diego, but he’ll still probably push 20-hour days (especially once he finds the right place to run ball before the sun comes up) and will surely put himself out in the field, scouting baseball players, as much as any GM ever has.
On the night last week that the Padres hired Preller, the Rangers got a complete-game shutout from Colby Lewis in a game in which every starter hit safely and drove in a run and scored a run. In a season that’s had too few of them, Texas 16, Chicago 0 was a complete game in every sense. The farm system won six of seven games that night, with AAA Round Rock suffering the only loss, though the former 17th-rounder Rua doubled twice and homered in that extra-inning defeat. Nomar Mazara doubled and tripled in his debut for AA Frisco that night, and Alfaro drew two walks in his, while Chi Chi Gonzalez lowered his ERA to 2.32 with a 6-4-1-1-2-6 effort that saw Lamb and Kela continue their own marches to a bigger stage. High A Myrtle Beach won, 2-0; Low A Hickory got sturdy pitching work out of righty Akeem Bostick and lefty Felix Carvallo; and the Arizona League club shut the A’s out, 3-0, in what would be third-rounder Josh Morgan’s final game at that level. Both Dominican Summer League teams won big, because that’s what DSL Ranger clubs do. The one affiliate that didn’t play on that Tuesday night was Short-Season A Spokane, as the Northwest League played its All-Star Game — with Rangers sixth-rounder Jose Trevino bagging MVP honors.
It was a night that, top to bottom, looked like what most of us think 2014 should have looked like, with players bearing Preller’s fingerprints coming up big at every level, including the one at the top, just as it was announced that he would be moving on.
It’s still hard for me to get my head wrapped around the idea that Preller now dreams on Austin Hedges rather than Alfaro, thinks long-term with Max Fried and Joe Ross instead of Jackson and Gonzalez, hopes Hunter Renfroe can develop into half the power threat that Joey Gallo projects to be, ponders Casey Kelly’s return from Tommy John surgery rather than Martin Perez’s, has Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland in his plans after all, and stares at what stands to be something in the neighborhood of the 10th pick in next June’s draft and the associated bonus pool, when a week and a half ago the question was whether his Rangers might end up at 1/1 in the draft for the first time since David Clyde’s name was called in 1973.
I’ll get used to that before long, but you’ll understand if I prefer to envision Yu Darvish and Don Welke and Josh Boyd and Scott Littlefield and Jayce Tingler staying right where they are — the organization if not the role — and for more than just the next two years.
I’m going to miss having A.J. Preller in Texas. I’m going to miss the edge he brought, the tenacity, the tireless will to beat the other guys. Again, that’s not to say any of those things will be missing now from the Fourth Floor. But Preller’s was an essential voice here for a long time — for the entirety of what has been the greatest run in franchise history — and now it belongs to another franchise that the Rangers will have to compete with, for players if not eventually for more than that.
Maybe Preller isn’t the outlier after all. Maybe he’s not the outlier so much as a front office that featured a couple Cornell roommates and a former college baseball player with an MBA at the top of a deep baseball operations roster, one that, but for a final strike not thrown and a final out not recorded, would be recognized today and forever as a Championship group, and yet managed to stay intact as long as it did.
If a series of “right place, right time” developments was necessary for Preller’s genius to manifest itself in baseball the way it did, maybe that story is still playing out, both for the Padres and their new GM, and for the Rangers and whoever is brought forward to carry more weight in Preller’s absence, as his 10-year chapter in Texas concludes. Maybe the relationship between effort and reward, worth more in sports than any amount of money, will be one we’ll write about another 10 years from now, with the legacy Preller leaves behind — not just in terms of pitchers and catchers and shortstops but also in the scouting and player development folks he helped groom for roles they’re ready to grow into — eventually bringing the Rangers that elusive title that drives baseball men to do what they do, and drives the rest of us to care at the most intense levels, looking not toward any supposedly falling sky but instead toward an imminent opportunity, because this is sports, to invite the newest competitor to go ahead and bring it.