The San Diego Padres have a lot of experience with trying out new voices in their dugout.
They’ve fired a veteran manager in-season and replaced him on an interim basis with someone who had never coached in the majors. They’ve hired an infield coach from a division rival to oversee a rebuild and the jump to contention. They’ve pulled the plug on that tenure and plucked another young instructor out of obscurity. They’ve watched that gamble backfire and gone in the other direction with one of the sport’s more decorated helmsmen.
On Wednesday, they restarted the process in earnest. Padres senior advisor Mike Shildt on Thursday will complete a formal interview to replace manager Bob Melvin, according to league sources briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak publicly. Another internal candidate, bench coach and offensive coordinator Ryan Flaherty, is scheduled to interview Friday.
“I’ll constantly look back and say, ‘Hey, how can we do this different, and what does it look like?’” president of baseball operations and general manager A.J. Preller said during a video conference to discuss Melvin’s defection to the San Francisco Giants. “Because you want to hire a really talented person, and hopefully they’re here for a decade.”
Whatever introspection has taken place in the past has yet to produce more than fleeting results. Preller oversaw his first full winning season in 2022. The team’s performance in 2023 proved wholly disappointing. Now, the next dugout leader will inherit a relatively low bar in one respect: Whoever it is, they’ll attempt to become the first manager to last four full years since Preller was hired. And they should be prepared for frequent interaction with the general manager who, since 2015, has cycled through more managers than any other GM in the league.
Three years have passed since a pandemic-shortened season in which the Padres advanced to a sterile playoff bubble and Preller metaphorically planted himself in the trenches. In 2024, the GM intends to draw on the unique experience of 2020.
“It’s probably the year that, personally, I was the most active and involved in the big-league team, and it was because of COVID. There really wasn’t anything else to do, and everybody was locked in,” Preller said.
It’s difficult to say how more face time would have impacted a 2023 season in which the Padres produced more drama than winning baseball. Compared with a 60-game sprint, Preller was less visible around the club during its implosive 2021 campaign, its 2022 triumph and this year’s debacle. But the documented distrust between Melvin and Preller got to the point that front-office executives, once a regular presence inside the clubhouse, were largely barred from frequenting the room.
“I probably didn’t communicate as well in the last two years, I think, kind of out of respect for Bob and different things,” Preller said. “Probably that constant communication, I think it’s something that we’ll make sure that we get right here (next) year.”
Communication, of course, was among the myriad problems that sunk the Padres this season. Preller and Melvin butted heads in 2022 on the way to the postseason, then drifted further apart amid the collective underachievement of the past several months. The Giants never bought the narrative pushed by Preller (and, to a lesser extent, Melvin) in the days after the end of the regular season — that the two men had hashed out their issues and were eager to move forward together.
Last week, San Francisco sought permission to interview Melvin, their former catcher and a longtime Bay Area fixture, for its managerial opening. Over the weekend, the Padres acceded. The Giants sprung into action. Wednesday at Oracle Park, they introduced Melvin as Gabe Kapler’s replacement and announced three-year contracts for Melvin and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi.
Melvin, who described the Giants as the only team for which he would have left the Padres, declined to go into detail about the circumstances that led to the conclusion of a rocky partnership with Preller.
“I think there was a narrative at the end that probably wasn’t going to go away with me being on my last year of my contract (with the Padres),” Melvin said. “I think as far as that organization goes, it’s probably not fair if that narrative continued through next year. So, all things considered, this opportunity came about, and … this feels like the right one for me. But I very much enjoyed my time in San Diego. It just seems like with a lot of things that were popping up there, it was just time to move on.”
Less than two hours later, Preller sat in his office at Petco Park, publicly thanked Melvin for his contributions and expressed a similar sense of closure.
“Our attention really switches forward to hiring a manager, and I think we’re super excited about the process,” said Preller, who did not request compensation for allowing Melvin to leave for a division rival. “I think this gives us an opportunity to really start focusing on adding a manager that, from our standpoint, fits what we’re trying to do, fits our team and our clubhouse.”
Preller, who will interview external candidates, touted the usual perks associated with managing in San Diego. He said there was “no real time frame” for choosing Melvin’s replacement.
“I can just tell, in the first 24 hours, there’s a lot of interest in this job,” he said. “We’ve had some very interesting names and some people that are very accomplished that have expressed interest in this job. And I think, really, it’s a testament to our team and our roster — the talent that’s here, the fact that we’ve gotten to the playoffs a couple of times here in the last few years — and our city. We’ve got amazing fans that support this team. So it’s an attractive job.”
Yet, throughout the organization, it remains expected that Preller will ultimately choose between Shildt and Flaherty. Both candidates possess what Melvin, Andy Green, Jayce Tingler, Pat Murphy and Bud Black did not have: multiple years of prior big-league experience alongside Preller. Neither candidate is currently considered in wide demand as a prospective manager.
Shildt, a former St. Louis Cardinals manager, has not received a managerial interview elsewhere in the past 24 months. Flaherty, if promoted, would become the second-youngest manager in the majors. Either man might present an easier fit than anyone from outside the organization, especially because Preller’s record of failed hires is inviting more scrutiny than ever.
“I’ve seen it written in the past, you know, a yes-man … we don’t do that at any part of the organization,” Preller said. “All of our conversations are ‘speak your opinion, say what you feel.’ And I think we get pissed in meetings when you don’t say what you feel and then you walk out of the room and maybe say something different. So, we try to encourage that throughout and in every conversation we have. And I think we’re looking for people that want to come in and bring ideas, and then when we agree, we go forward and test it out and see how things work.
“I think we’re excited to have somebody that has that shared vision, that’s willing to kind of disagree and then commit, and ultimately somebody that kind of views winning in the same way that a lot of people in this organization do because we’ve got a lot of really good people and departments.”
Wednesday, as the Padres embarked on their fourth managerial search under Preller, it was a familiar refrain. It also was unclear how much introspection the GM had done. Other than announcing his goal to be more present with the big-league club, Preller did not allude to any significant changes in philosophy or operating style. He did not commit to allowing his next manager to select the majority of their staff. Multiple Padres coaches who were originally hired by Preller, not Melvin, are under contract for 2024 — including Flaherty, pitching coach Ruben Niebla and bullpen coach Ben Fritz — and Preller said there were “a lot of people on the staff that we’d like back.”
Perhaps that is not a bad thing. Melvin is the 30th manager or coach to depart San Diego since 2015, Preller’s first full season in charge. No other team in that span has experienced as much churn. And, thus, no other team has as much practice trying out new voices.
(Top photo of A.J. Preller: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)