Buster Olney’s report on San Diego Padres GM A.J. Preller starts with this clause: "In a significant deviation from standard practice within the sport ..." Not every report can start like that, or else it wouldn’t be a significant deviation. But I’d be lying if I didn’t want at least a couple more reports like that in my life every year.
"In a significant deviation from standard practice within the sport ..."
It has a ring to it. It lets you know that what you’re about to read is at least a little messed up. And in this case, the story doesn’t disappoint. The GM of a major league team kept a set of incomplete injury reports in full view for other teams to inspect, and then he kept a set of real injury reports for himself.
MIKE HAZEN: Here, read the injury report in the Padres’ database.
DAVE DOMBROWSKI: "If acquired, Drew Pomeranz, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest starting pitcher ever to pitch for the Red Sox."
HAZEN: That sounds great.
This was an egregious, committed display of deception. "Is this pitcher’s arm going to fall off?" is a legitimate question that one GM might have when another GM is offering said pitcher in a trade. A history of constant preventative measures that extends beyond the typical pitcher aches and pains would add crucial information. Keeping a secret set of medical logs, explicitly to "benefit in trade discussions" as Olney reports sources with direct knowledge told him, is almost certainly the shadiest thing I’ve ever heard a GM do.
If you want to read about why the punishment is too light, Jeff Passan has you covered. Without reading exactly what MLB’s investigation unearthed, I’m a little tentative about that conclusion. Plus, this punishment seems directly related to the Drew Pomeranz trade; if there’s a pattern of deception, something systemic that’s affected multiple transactions, I would anticipate something more severe. There’s no double jeopardy to worry about when you’re a monopoly trying to discipline an employee.
If that’s not the case, if this is the only slap of the wrist that Preller gets for deliberately deceiving other teams during trade negotiations, then, yeah, the punishment is way too light. Even if it weren’t against the rules, it’s something I wouldn’t do when selling a baseball card on eBay.
But I’m not here to talk about the punishment. I’m here to talk about stupidity. Preller has his job because he’s smart, ostensibly. Knows baseball. Can see the angles. He’s always looked like someone who quotes characters from Boiler Room quoting characters from Wall Street, but his baseball smarts were never supposed to be in question. Which is why this rank stupidity is so surprising, and why it should be at least as damaging to his career longevity as his ethical failings.
The stupidity can be summed up in a single, common phrase: risk vs. reward. It’s sort of the guiding principle of our existence, right? Someone hundreds of thousands of years ago decided that the reward of regular food was worth the risk of dying from poison berries, and they procreated, and now we’re here. Is this reward worth the risk? We apply it to everything from crossing the street to career choices.
The reward was that slightly less information about a player the Padres wanted to trade would translate into a slightly better prospect. Because we’re not talking about the Padres withholding the fact that Tyson Ross is on the disabled list. These are things like cortisone shots, the procedures that teams take before putting a player on the disabled list. The things that wouldn’t surprise another team and likely wouldn’t quash any deal at the start of the trade talks.
The reward of a slightly better prospect seems slight, considering that you’re trying to game a system that’s already stacked against you. Any prospect received isn’t likely to make a significant impact in the majors. Those are just the odds. Angling for slightly better odds in that scenario isn’t the kind of reward a GM should salivate over, especially when prospect evaluation is an inexact science. As if you would need to explain that to the GM who traded away Trea Turner.
The risk, though. Ho, man, the risk. It’s not like there are 478 GMs, and nobody will ever be able to keep it straight which one lied about his players’ health and which one forwarded you that funny email that one time. There are 30 GMs, and only one of them has been suspended. Only ...
... one of them in the history of baseball has been busted for intentionally deceiving his peers. And it happens to be the same guy who was suspended while overseeing the Texas Rangers’ international operations in 2010. He is now the all-time sketchiest GM, and every one of his peers will remember this when they pick up the phone. Even if he isn’t suspended for longer if MLB uncovers more deception, this will stain him for the rest of his baseball career.
And for what? A better prospect? Convincing the Chicago White Sox to eat another million of James Shields’ salary? Whatever possible reward you can possibly conceive, it’s not going to titillate you. Not when the risk is to be that GM for the rest of your career. Your potentially short, infamous career.
There’s an unwritten component to the risk v. reward calculus, too, and it gets added in on the risk side. It’s likelihood of getting caught. From the ESPN report:
An average number of entries for a given team might be in the range of 60 by the All-Star break. The Padres had fewer than 10, according to a source.
Preller wasn’t even trying to change an "F" into a "B" to show his parents. He wasn’t even filling the ransom bag with his dirty undies, the whites, to avoid suspicion. He wasn’t even bothering to make it look legitimate. Maybe that’s why his Costanzian "Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?" actually convinced MLB not to suspend him for a year. A real scam artist would have filled the database with reports on players that no one would want in a trade, or with harmless entries about aspirin and hot tubs.
The risk was substantial. The reward was iffy. The likelihood of facing that risk was also substantial, even in an unofficial capacity, like your peers whispering to other peers about you. It was stupid. It was all really stupid.
My guess is that without these shenanigans, the Padres still would have acquired Luis Castillo from the Miami Marlins in the Andrew Cashner trade, who had to be returned to the Marlins when Colin Rea came down with elbow problems. Castillo was a prospect the San Francisco Giants gave up to get Casey McGehee, and that delicious twist of irony at the expense of their divisional rivals would have sparked a reversal of fortune for the Padres, a new golden age that would last decades.
As is, they have a GM who made a stupid decision, an unethical decision, and now their reputation is besmirched all to hell because of it. It was never worth it. And I just don’t understand how an ostensibly smart person ever thought it was.