By Andrew Wroblewski
Twenty years ago, A.J. Preller was preparing to step onto the baseball diamond for the Wildcats of Walt Whitman High School. Today, the Class of 1995 graduate prepares to send a team of his own out onto the diamond: the San Diego Padres.
On August 6, 2014, Preller was named the general manager of the Major League Baseball (MLB) club and became the second-youngest general manager in professional baseball.
“It’s an honor to have been selected for this position,” Preller said in a press release at the time of his hiring.
A “Long Islander” at heart, he said, Preller made a splash in his first offseason as general manager by landing seven trades and signing some of baseball’s biggest free agents.
The Padres – which finished in third place of the NL West last season – are now a regarded by many as a perennial postseason contender. Outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers now make up what could be one of the best starting outfields in baseball and starting pitcher James Shields was signed to lead a pitching rotation that has the potential to be elite.
“Now going into spring training and having made some of the additions [we’ve made], this is a very exciting time throughout San Diego,” Preller, 37, said. “There’s definitely a big-time buzz surrounding the team.”
Preller’s professional journey began after graduating summa cum laude from Cornell University in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science degree. From there, he worked as an intern for the Philadelphia Phillies before joining both Major League Baseball and the front office of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2004, he made the move to Texas where he worked alongside his former fraternity brother, Jon Daniels, the current general manager of the Rangers.
The experience he gained during that time was invaluable, he said.
“It helped me to get a little taste of everything” Preller, who worked as the director of international and professional scouting and then assistant general manager for Texas, said. “The decisions that we made that went well – and those that didn’t go so well – we learned from in building a database of [front office] experience.”
But Preller’s baseball experience goes beyond managing – at Walt Whitman he played the game for himself. In fact, the Huntington Station native played three sports in a Wildcats’ uniform: soccer, basketball and baseball.
“He was a great kid,” said Michael McKeefrey, now chief of the Melville Fire Department, but formerly one of Preller’s soccer coaches at Whitman. “I knew him his whole life [growing up]. He was always very smart and I think he brought his brains with him onto the field.”
McKeefry said Preller was well respected and liked both on and off the field as a “tough little kid that played with all his heart.”
Preller said he learned many lessons at Whitman by being involved with school and sports.
“I took from there, an environment that was always competitive, to be respectful in terms of a ‘team’ standpoint,” he said.
Having lived in warm-weather environments for the last several years, Preller said he looks forward to his Huntington Station visits during the holidays.
Not just for the winter weather, but to enjoy some “home cooking,” as well.
“My parents and everybody still live on Long Island [in Huntington Station],” he said. “I definitely view myself as a Long Islander; I still view Huntington Station as my home.”
Now, however, with 32 days now remaining until the Padres kickoff the regular season – they’re opening game is against NL West-rival Los Angeles Dodgers on April 6 – Preller is back in the warmer weather of Arizona for Padres’ spring training.
Having last made the playoffs in 2006, Preller is hopeful that San Diego will be able to compete in a division that will surely test the team’s new parts early and often.
Hopefully, for the better, he said.
“[The NL West] is a division with some of the better teams in baseball,” he said. “It’ll be a good test for us and I hope that we continue to get stronger and put out an improved product.”