Gil LeBreton

Like a ‘rock star,’ GM A.J. Preller has remade Padres

A.J. Preller, left, has had a whirlwind off-season since taking over the Padres’ GM position, including signing pitcher James Shields.
A.J. Preller, left, has had a whirlwind off-season since taking over the Padres’ GM position, including signing pitcher James Shields. AP

There they were again Monday afternoon, the two Delta Chi fraternity brothers, the Cornell guys, back in the same room, talking about baseball.

This time, though, they weren’t side by side. While Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels sat at his appointed table at Monday’s MLB Cactus League media day, answering the occasional question from visitors who trickled by, A.J. Preller found himself surrounded by cameras and notepads.

“He’s a rock star,” Daniels said, only partly teasing.

While the Cubs were awakening from their long hibernation and while Billy Beane was in Oakland, doing Billy Beane things, Preller was winning baseball’s Hot Stove season.

Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers,Will Middlebrooks, Derek Norris and James Shields all became San Diego Padres — and that’s just a fraction of the club’s Oprah-style makeover.

Padres fans’ heads are spinning. And if you’re the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers, your heads ought to be turning as well.

Preller was able to pry Kemp away from division foe Los Angeles — and get the Dodgers to pay $18 million of the outfielder’s salary.

Upton was the guy that the Rangers yearned for at the winter meetings two years ago. Preller traded prospects to get him from Atlanta.

The new San Diego GM rounded off his winter by winning the waiting game for Shields, who gives the Padres a NL West-contending rotation.

It capped a stunning first six months on the job for a guy who everyone thought was going to blow up the Padres, not dress them in tuxedoes.

“Most times a new GM comes in at the end of year or October,” Preller said Monday. “But starting in August gave me a few months to get around and get more of a feel for our system and for our big-league team, and it helped us to hit the ground running in the off-season.”

What Preller discovered was that with Ian Kennedy and Andrew Cashner, to name two, he had a chance to build a full contending rotation. He also had money to spend and players and prospects that other teams wanted.

“Part of me didn’t want to come in and make wholesale changes right way,” he said. “I ended up making changes and moves, but I felt like they were quality moves. Being around the team for those first two months helped shape our direction.”

The Giants have earned respect throughout baseball for what they’ve accomplished over the past five seasons. The Dodgers’ boundless payroll, likewise, has been hard to ignore.

But Preller was bold enough to think that he could wheel and deal a 77-85 team into a contender in just one winter.

It was inevitable that the two Cornell grads would split. It was always going to be hard to leave the Rangers, Preller said.

“I wasn’t looking to take any new opportunity or any GM job,” he said. “It had to be the right fit, the right spot, because I loved the atmosphere that we created there in Texas and the players and staff.”

Notably, Preller was able to take 72-year-old Don Welke with him as guru, talent evaluator, sounding board and teller of corny jokes.

The one thing that Preller doesn’t seem to have yet in his San Diego organization is another Preller — the guy, for Daniels and the Rangers, who was always on the road, always on his cellphone, always invisible to the local media.

“Well, I can’t wear sweat pants every day — that’s a change,” Preller said. “It’s an adjustment, definitely. For the last 10 years I was on the road for pretty much 80 percent of the job.”

His avoidance of the media in Texas was misunderstood, Preller said.

“Honestly, I think it was overblown a little bit,” he said. “I was out of sight, out of mind, in Texas, but I didn’t think that was really my role.

I think that’s the general manager’s role to set one voice, one direction.”

Now, alas, he can’t avoid it. At Monday’s Cactus League media gathering, nobody attracted a larger crowd than A.J. Preller.

The rock star.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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