What must the Padres do to overtake the Dodgers?

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Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Regardless of the polarizing professional and personal image of San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller, there needs to be a certain amount of grudging admiration for how he has kept his job, maintained control of the organization, and adhered to his design.

The Padres’ rebuild is now heading into year six with no tangible success in the one area that truly counts: wins and losses. Prior to him taking charge in August 2014, the Padres had one winning season since 2007. They still have had one winning season since 2007.

A gutting of the system he inherited commenced and big names were acquired. With Melvin and Justin Upton, James Shields, Craig Kimbrel, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp added to the existing core, the Padres were a Hot Stove champion of 2014-15. As the team looked listless, patched together and indifferent through mid-season, Preller did a 180 and sold, sold, sold.

That’s his skill: selling. It’s the only explanation for him being on his fourth manager including Bud Black, in place and retained when Preller arrived. Most GMs get to hire two managers. It’s the only explanation for ownership letting him spend big on Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado when the rebuild was incomplete.

Preller could get the San Diego populace to buy snow blowers, making it risky to say that this time – this time – it’s his final chance to see his vision come to its fruition with a legitimate contender. When manager Andy Green was dismissed, there was talk that ownership wanted someone with a track record. Speculation centered around a reunion with longtime Padres manager Bruce Bochy as he retired from the San Francisco Giants. Other names included Joe Maddon, Joe Girardi, Buck Showalter and Ron Washington. However, Preller crony Jayce Tingler was given the nod.

Tingler has limited minor-league managing experience, was a coach for the Texas Rangers, worked in their front office and is familiar to Preller from their time working together in Texas. It was an outside the box hire to everyone but the Padres GM, who prefers familiarity and congruent thinking to name recognition and placating the media and fans.

This is laudable. Whether it is wise will be determined by how the young players develop and that’s how Preller will and should be judged. Hosmer and Machado are knowns. Fernando Tatis Jr. can also be categorized as a known. It’s safe to say that Chris Paddack is a top-of-the-rotation starter. Their roster is sprinkled with raw talent.

Increased aggressiveness include signing Drew Pomeranz to a 4-year, $34 million contract; trading pitcher Eric Lauer and highly-touted infielder Luis Urias to the Milwaukee Brewers for starting pitcher Zach Davies and outfielder Trent Grisham; acquiring infielder Jurickson Profar from the Oakland Athletics; and acquiring Tommy Pham from the Tampa Bay Rays for outfielder Hunter Renfroe with prospects also being exchanged.

Again, these maneuvers are in line with Preller’s preferences. But it cannot be dismissed that the team has yet to come close to finishing at or above .500 during his reign. It’s undeniable that salesmanship has been his main attribute as he maintained his power and accruing prospects for the Padres to be at or near the top of the relatively meaningless minor-league rankings. Now, there appears to be a “might as well let him finish and see what happens” nihilistic argument to let him complete his work. It could be a masterpiece or it could be a disaster. There is no in-between.

It’s diabolical, if that was indeed his intent.

All this must be headed toward a destination and it’s not hoping everything falls into place so maybe they can contend. They need to contend and that time of contention is no longer someday. It’s now. It’s in 2020. And that means they must enter the season with a legitimate shot at overtaking the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers have won the last seven National League West titles. They have resources that dwarf the Padres’. Their farm system is excellent, they’re aggressive, creative and can buy their way out of mistakes.

Still, there is an opening if and only if the young players who have been the basis of the annual “just wait” regarding the Padres’ future arrive and fulfill that potential. That means outfielder Taylor Trammell and pitchers MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño can’t just present themselves as big leaguers in 2020, but they must boost the foundation already in place. They also need an established veteran starting pitcher like Madison Bumgarner to guide the youngsters, show them what it truly takes to contend for and win a championship, and bring a visceral hatred of the Dodgers.

Contrary to popular belief, the Dodgers are vulnerable. As successful as they have been, they might need some structural changes based on age and apathy – the prototypical bomb dropped in the clubhouse. The incremental decline of Clayton Kershaw appears to be speeding up.

They have been rumored to have interest in Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole, which would either mean trading Justin Turner to free up salary or moving him to first base, trading other costly contracts of Kenley Jansen, Joc Pederson and Joe Kelly. In addition, as glossy as manager Dave Roberts’ record is during his four-year tenure, complete with two pennants, strategic gaffes have pockmarked his reputation. Yet he’s still there and going nowhere. He is not an asset.

In the NL West, the Colorado Rockies are in flux, the Arizona Diamondbacks are transitioning, and the Giants are in the middle of a rebuild of their own. That leaves the Padres as the main threat to the Dodgers. For them to function and succeed as the upstart, they must get the expected development from those young players along with the practical contributions; they must have their stars serve as stars; they must add tactically and with an eye on that goal of immediate contention; and their managerial pick must prove to have been the right one.

The door is open a crack, but the future cannot be a distant planet they would someday like to visit. It must be now. Preller’s job is (probably…maybe) depending on it.