Why the Detroit Tigers Aren’t Like the San Diego Padres

PEORIA, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 22: Executive V.P./General Manager A.J. Preller and Manny Machado #8 of the San Diego Padres address the media at Peoria Stadium. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
PEORIA, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 22: Executive V.P./General Manager A.J. Preller and Manny Machado #8 of the San Diego Padres address the media at Peoria Stadium. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images) /

Why the San Diego Padres are World Series contenders and the Detroit Tigers are bad.

It’s understandable if Detroit Tigers fans are a bit envious of San Diego Padres fans. After all, the Padres just had one hell of a day, trading for both Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, and then signing Ha-seong Kim, the best international free agent on the market.

San Diego posted the third best record in 2020, and was already one of the most exciting teams in baseball. These moves make them a legitimate World Series contender for the next several years.

That tweet lays it out pretty well. On paper, the San Diego Padres are now the 2nd best team in baseball. And if you slide your eyes down to the right side of that bar graph you see the Detroit Tigers, projected to have the 6th lowest WAR total in baseball.

Tigers fans know the 2021 squad is going to be bad, but the question is why? Padres General Manager A.J. Preller took over in San Diego just one year before Al Avila took over in Detroit. Why are the Padres making World Series plans while the Tigers are gearing up for another year of winning fewer than 40% of their games? Let’s dig a bit deeper to find out.

Both GMs started their tenure in a similar fashion, so we’ll take a yearly look at the roster moves that led the San Diego Padres and the Detroit Tigers down such disparate paths. For this section you’ll need a bit of a key:

“Notable” means players who made the majors, were traded, or are/were considered prospects.

GM Year One

Interestingly, both Preller and Avila went for it in year one. Preller made a bunch of huge trades for big names like Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, and Craig Kimbrel, while Avila signed Jordan Zimmermann, Upton, Mike Pelfrey, and Mark Lowe to multi-year free-agent deals.

The strategy failed on both accounts, with the Padres going just 74-88 in 2015, and the Tigers finishing 86-75 in 2016 and narrowly missing the playoffs. The big difference was Preller’s trades were mostly for players on expiring contracts, and the free-agent deals San Diego handed out were almost all short-lived, aside from James Shields’ 4-year, $75-million contract.

GM Year Two

This is when the divergence begins. The Tigers and Avila were technically still trying to compete, but with owner Mike Ilitch in failing health the team suddenly stopped spending money, and by July they decided to throw in the towel.

The San Diego Padres moved to their rebuild phase more quickly, with Preller trading away almost all of the players he acquired the previous season, signing the flippable veteran Fernando Rodney (traded for Chris Paddack), and claiming future All-star closer Brad Hand off waivers.

The Padres also outdid the Tigers in the draft, and they blew way past their international bonus pool (back when teams still could), paying close to $80 million in bonuses and overage taxes.

Both GMs landed young, inexperienced Dominican shortstops when they traded away veterans. For Detroit it was 18-year-old Jose King, who hasn’t been above Low-A yet. For San Diego it was a 17-year-old named Fernando Tatis Jr.

GM Year Three

Both teams were in full rebuild mode by year three, though once again the Padres cleaned up on the international market. They were also far more active on the waiver wire, and were rewarded with another future All-star closer in Kirby Yates. Their one multi-year free agent signing was a 2-year, $6 million pact with Clayton Richard.

The big trades of Justin Verlander and Justin Upton technically came in Al Avila’s third year as GM, and he made a couple of solid moves in trading for Willi Castro and signing Niko Goodrum. The 2018 draft class landed the team Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, and they also spent big on the international market for Jose De La Cruz and Adinso Reyes.

GM Year Four

Pretty comparable resumes here, though A.J. Preller continued to be more active on the trade market. The biggest difference was the San Diego Padres made a splash in free agency by signing Eric Hosmer to an 8-year, $144 million deal. The Padres were still a bad team, but that deal illustrated their plans to contend soon.

Meanwhile the Tigers were bottoming out with a brutal 47-114 record. It’s hard to find positives from that season, though free agent José Cisnero was good in 2020 and may be a decent trade chip in the near future.

GM Year Five

This is something of an unfair comparison, because Year Five for Al Avila was the Covid-spoiled 2020 season. Still, a rebuilding team making zero trades in a calendar year is the wrong kind of impressive. Avila and the Tigers did have a universally praised draft, however, and they are connected to one highly regarded international free agent.

A.J. Preller’s Year Five was another strong signal the Padres were ready to try again. He signed an MVP-level player in Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300-million deal, added analytics favorite Garrett Richards on a 2-year deal, and, when the season didn’t pan out the way he hoped, shipped off a few younger players to land Taylor Trammell just before the deadline.

Al Avila is still in the middle of his Year Six, so we can’t make any definitive conclusions yet, but it’s probably safe to say it won’t stack up to Preller’s. The Padres traded for Jake Cronenworth, Zach Davies, Trent Grisham, Tim Hill, Jorge Mateo, Emilio Pagan, Tommy Pham, and Jurickson Profar, who combined to produce 6+ WAR for the team in the shortened 2020 season. So far Avila has signed José Ureña.

So What Makes San Diego So Much Better?

First, we have to acknowledge that no two general manager jobs are exactly alike. Preller took over a Padres team with the 6th best farm system, according to Baseball America, while Al Avila took over the worst farm team in baseball — though Dave Dombrowski added four quality prospects right before he was fired.

On the other hand, Al Avila had a much more expensive roster and significantly more big-league talent than Preller. When Avila assumed control of the Tigers they were 51-54 and coming off four consecutive playoff appearances. Preller took over a club that was 52-61 and hadn’t been to the postseason in nine years.

The San Diego Padres Make Moves

A.J. Preller made 74 trades and waiver claims in his first five seasons as general manager, compared to Al Avila’s 28. Even if we account for San Diego’s superior farm system when Preller arrived, that’s a stunning disparity.

Making tons of moves doesn’t automatically improve a team, but San Diego’s furious roster churn suggests they have greater faith in their player evaluations and/or a much higher risk tolerance. Certainly they’ve made some mistakes, but being so active also let them capitalize on mistakes by other teams.

The San Diego Padres Spend More Money

As funny as that sounds, it’s been true over the last several years. The Tigers weren’t shy about spending under Mike Ilitch, and they ran higher payrolls than San Diego for a long time, but since Ilitch died the team has been significantly more stingy.

Meanwhile, the Padres signed two massive free-agent deals before they were actually competitive, spent wildly on the international market, and were willing to trade inexpensive prospects for costly veterans to make the team better.

The San Diego Padres are Better at Landing International Prospects

The Detroit Tigers have been woeful when it comes to landing international amateur talent over the last 10-15 years. If we look at FanGraphs updated 2020 prospects lists and filter by team, we see both the Padres and Tigers have 46 names on their list. San Diego signed 20 of their top prospects on the international market; Detroit signed 8.

It remains a great mystery why the Tigers haven’t been better at acquiring international talent. They’ve signed as many players as most other teams, and with two of the greatest Venezuelan hitters of all time in Magglio Ordóñez and Miguel Cabrera (and one of the last academies in Venezuela), they should have absolutely cleaned up in that country.

And yet they didn’t. Certainly it helped San Diego when they went on their spending sprees and blew past their bonus pool allotment, but there was nothing keeping the Tigers from doing that. They chose not to, and now the hard slotting system means they can’t.

There are many ways to acquire talent, but the Detroit Tigers seem content to rebuild through the draft and the occasional deadline trade. The San Diego Padres still haven’t won anything, so perhaps Detroit’s more deliberate strategy will ultimately prevail.

But that hope is about all Tigers fans can cling to over the next few seasons, while Padres fans get to watch their exciting young squad compete for pennants.