Yesterday, following a league investigation into claims that the Padres withheld pertinent medical information from other teams with whom they were discussing trades, MLB suspended Padres GM A.J. Preller for 30 days. The Padres admit that they screwed up and vow to change their “medical administration and record keeping,” but in their statement about the suspension, claim to have done so unintentionally.
Obviously, as outsiders without knowledge of what the league found in their investigation, we can’t make any definitive claims about what is true and what isn’t, but the idea that the Padres accidentally kept two sets of medical records — one for their internal use and one to be fed into the centralized league database — is absurd. You don’t unintentionally create more work for your medical staff without knowing exactly why you’re doing so, and it’s not like everyone in the Padres organization hasn’t previously worked with other organizations; they all knew the standard protocol for reporting health information in trade discussions, and they knew this wasn’t how everyone else does things. The idea that this was an accident, and that no one in the organization realized what the team was doing, is laughably unbelievable absent a compelling explanation, which the Padres did not provide.
As best as we can tell, the Padres lied (by omitting pertinent information) to other teams about the health of their players in order to try and complete trades and secure returns that they might not be able to otherwise if the full scale of medical information was disclosed. And it worked. They made the Andrew Cashner deal with the Marlins by also including Colin Rea, a young starter the Marlins thought they were getting to bolster their rotation; when it turned out that Rea got to Miami and admitted that his elbow hurt and had been hurting for some time, the Marlins went nuts and the Padres had to agree to rework the deal, taking Rea back and sending one of the prospects they got in the deal back to Miami.
Unlike the Rodney/Rea deal, the Red Sox didn’t force the Padres to rework the Drew Pomeranz/Anderson Espinoza swap, but it is fair to wonder if they would have surrendered their top pitching prospect had they known that Pomeranz had been taking anti-inflammatory medications at the time of the deal. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s at least reasonable to think that the Padres believed there was some benefit to their trade discussions by withholding that information from the Red Sox, or else they wouldn’t have bothered to omit that information in the first place.
This feels very much like the Padres organizational stance was akin to the old “better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission” trope; if they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar, well, whatever, at least they got some cookies first. And as Ken Rosenthal wrote last night, that was Preller’s reputation in the game before the Padres hired him, so that he’s brought that to San Diego can’t really be a surprise. While it had been discussed in baseball circles before the Padres hired him, his promotion caused the Padres and MLB to publicly admit that Preller had been suspended by the league for his actions while running the Rangers’ international department. From Baseball America, two years ago.
“The crux of it was we were accused of talking to an agent, a buscon, about signing a player that was serving an age/identity suspension,” Daniels said. “We never agreed to anything, we never signed anything, but when (the player is) on suspension you’re not allowed to sign a player. We were accused of engaging in negotiations with the buscon about a suspended player during the period he was suspended. It was investigated, there was some discipline to the club involved. I’m surprised it’s as big a deal as it’s being made now.”
Daniels said the team also paid a fine of less than $100,000; Rosenthal reported the fine as $50,000. Daniels declined to comment on the player involved or to elaborate on the specific penalties Preller and the organization faced.
Negotiating with a suspended player or agreeing to terms is against major league rules but is common practice in Latin America. Sources with knowledge of DePaula’s case have said MLB did investigate the Rangers with regards to DePaula, but that the allegations against the team involved more than simply negotiating with an ineligible player and extended to the process they went through to try to sign the player.”
The whole story of why Preller was previously suspended — originally for three months, but negotiated down to one month, per Rosenthal — isn’t entirely clear, but that also wasn’t an isolated incident. Per Jeff Passan, Preller was reprimanded by the league last year for an improper workout of an international player in Aruba. Back in 2012, while still in Texas, the Rangers also were in the middle of a big issue when they signed Jairo Beras to a $4.5 million bonus, despite the fact that MLB’s investigation showed he was lying about his age. Ben Badler wrote an in-depth piece on that story, and while the Rangers weren’t punished for their role in Beras’ signing, it was the kind of deal that earned Preller a reputation as being willing to do things other organizations wouldn’t do in order to secure talent.
Clearly, the first suspension didn’t deter Preller from seeing the benefit of pushing the boundaries of the rules, and a 30-day suspension in mid-September doesn’t seem like any kind of deterring punishment either. There aren’t any real serious decisions to be made at this point in the season, and the suspension will end before the offseason begins, so while Preller will miss out on some time to have some end-of-year meetings with players and coaches, this is effectively a slap on the wrist; everything he’s not able to do over the next 30 days can realistically be rescheduled, and the Padres won’t suffer any real serious harm from not having their GM for the next month.
Like with the domestic-violence suspensions and the PED suspensions relating to BioGenesis, this was an accepted suspension by the party being punished, which appears to be the league’s preferred outcome these days. But negotiating a penalty with the guilty party while avoiding legal fights and protracted ugliness — you can imagine the league doesn’t ever want to redo the A-Rod lawsuit — also means that the punishments are, by default, not going to be all that severe. The Padres basically got told to stop reaching into the cookie jar while being allowed to continue eating the cookie they were already holding.
Perhaps the league felt they didn’t need to be all that harsh to Preller, specifically, because the next time he gets caught doing something shady, it seems pretty likely that he’ll get fired; the pattern of behavior would then be too obvious to wave away as mere coincidence. But if you’re another organization, and you see that this is the end result of breaking the rules, it’s hard to think that this is going to act as a legitimate deterrent. If I’m an MLB team walking a thin line in some other part of the game that I hope MLB doesn’t notice, and I see that this is the punishment for getting caught, I’m not going to be scared to keep walking that line.
As Passan notes, there’s a pretty easy line to draw between what the Padres were doing here and what the Cardinals did in hacking the Astros: teams are incentivized to gain information advantages, and with the technological rise, there are now lots of different ways to do that then there were previously. The Cardinals’ punishment for the hacking scandal hasn’t yet been determined, but if this suspension for the Padres deceiving other teams about the health of their players is the precedent, it doesn’t seem like MLB is putting up serious deterrents to follow in these organization’s footsteps.
The Padres pretty clearly cheated the system, and the end result is they probably ended up better off than if they hadn’t. That doesn’t seem like the system MLB should want to be perpetuating.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.