As he canvassed the major leagues before Monday’s trading deadline, A.J. Preller even spoke with Andrew Friedman, his chief rival in the National League West. Friedman runs baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team that has it all. Preller is the general manager of the San Diego Padres, their historically hapless neighbor.
“Looking at the Dodgers, they’ve done it as well as anybody here over the course of really the last decade or so,” Preller said on Monday. “I told Andrew the other day, I’m actually disappointed in them because I thought they were going to go about 50-10 this year, so they’re maybe underachieving. But they have a great team. There are other really good teams in the National League, but they clearly have set the bar.”
The Padres are taking their best shot to clear it. They sent six players to the Cleveland Indians for the prize of the deadline, starter Mike Clevinger, capping a three-day blitz that brought them nine major leaguers via deals with the Indians, the Seattle Mariners, the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Angels and the Kansas City Royals.
The Padres scattered 16 players — mostly prospects — across the league to get their haul, which included Clevinger and outfielder Greg Allen from Cleveland; catcher Austin Nola and relievers Austin Adams, Dan Altavilla and Taylor Williams from Seattle; first baseman Mitch Moreland from Boston; catcher Jason Castro from the Angels and reliever Trevor Rosenthal from Kansas City.
“It’s the most exciting team in baseball by far right now,” said Clevinger, a five-year veteran who is 42-22 with a 3.20 earned run average in his career. “It’s definitely the place to be right now. I’m stoked that they wanted me here.”
The Padres arrived at the deadline with a 21-15 record, five games behind the Dodgers, who were 26-10 as they rumbled toward their eighth division title in a row. The Dodgers’ problems tend to come in October — they have not won a championship since 1988 — but their talent, money and acumen make them an annual threat.
Chances don’t come around quite so often for San Diego. The Padres have won only two pennants and no titles since they were founded in 1969. They have endured nine consecutive losing seasons and last reached the playoffs in 2006, when they lost a division series to St. Louis. Dave Roberts, now the Dodgers’ manager, made the last out.
The Padres hired Preller, a dogged executive with a strong international scouting background, from Texas after the 2014 season. He immediately made a series of splashy deals, but the team actually got worse, losing at least 91 games in each of the last four seasons.
Yet one of the veterans Preller acquired before his first season, starter James Shields, is still paying big dividends. Preller traded him to the Chicago White Sox in 2016 for a 17-year-old prospect named Fernando Tatis Jr., now a breakout star who led the majors in homers, total bases and runs scored through Sunday.
“Internally, we kind of targeted this 2020 season a few years ago as a year that we wanted to hopefully start a run of years where every single season we can be competitive and a team that we expect to play deep into October,” Preller said. “So far it’s been a good month-plus in the season, but we understand there’s a lot of baseball still to be played.”
The Padres expected a major impact from young players like Tatis and the starters Dinelson Lamet and Chris Paddack, which allowed them to splurge in free agency for the veteran infielders Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado. Now Clevinger gives the team another overpowering starter; Rosenthal replaces the injured closer Kirby Yates in the back of the bullpen; Nola and Castro form a solid right-left catching platoon, and Moreland (Boston’s leading hitter, with a .328 average) can share first base with Hosmer or serve as designated hitter.
Clevinger was cast aside by the Indians after he violated coronavirus-related safety protocols in early August, leaving the team hotel with Zach Plesac, a teammate, after a game in Chicago. The Indians initially knew only about Plesac and sent him home by car. Clevinger flew home with the team anyway, which teammates viewed as reckless and irresponsible after finding out he had been with Plesac.
The Indians banished both pitchers to the team’s alternate training site, bringing Clevinger back for one start before shipping him out. He said he had hoped the Padres would trade for him, and that his exit from Cleveland did not reflect who he is.
“It doesn’t define what I’ve done the past five years, the kind of teammate and the kind of person I am,” Clevinger said. “I knew the changes that had to be put in place and maybe some self-reflecting that needed to be done was done. I never want to put any other organization, let alone the Indians, in some predicament like that again.”
Plenty of other teams made deals on Monday, eager for a chance to be part of the largest playoff field in baseball history. On opening night of this abbreviated 60-game season, the league and the union agreed to a new best-of-three round to replace the wild-card game. Sixteen teams will qualify — up from 10 — including the first- and second-place teams from each division, as well as the teams with the next two best records in each league.
The Toronto Blue Jays held the final American League playoff spot on Monday, an impressive showing by a team that was evicted from its home country in July. The Canadian government wanted to limit travel in and out of the country, so the Blue Jays have played their home games in Buffalo, where the right-hander Taijuan Walker beat Baltimore on Saturday in his first start since a trade from Seattle last week.
On Monday the Blue Jays added two more starters before the deadline, acquiring the left-hander Robbie Ray from Arizona and the right-hander Ross Stripling from the Dodgers. Both are former All-Stars who have struggled this season, as is Mike Minor, a left-hander who was dealt Monday from the Texas Rangers to the Oakland Athletics, who lead the A.L. West.
And in exchange for players to be named later, the Rangers, who are far out of the race, also sent two veterans to the Mets: catcher Robinson Chirinos and infielder Todd Frazier, who spent 2018 and 2019 with the Mets. Chirinos started five World Series games for Houston last fall but was batting just .119 with no homers this season. Frazier was batting .241 with two home runs. The Mets also acquired reliever Miguel Castro from Baltimore for the pitching prospect Kevin Smith. Castro, a right-hander, has a 4.02 E.R.A. in 16 games this season, with 24 strikeouts and five walks in 15 ⅔ innings.
Other notable players traded Monday included outfielder Starling Marte (Arizona to Miami); outfielder Kevin Pillar (Boston to Colorado); infielder Jonathan Villar (Miami to Toronto); reliever David Phelps (Milwaukee to Philadelphia) and reliever Archie Bradley (Arizona to Cincinnati).