PEORIA — As the full squad of his remodeled club stretched in front of him for the first time, Padres chairman Ron Fowler was asked about the flurry of offseason moves that have brought excitement and a record payroll to San Diego.
“I'm on food stamps, so I had to hitchhike over,” Fowler said Wednesday, smiling. “No, we're all in. We spent our money wisely. Or I should say, A.J. spent our money wisely.”
That would be new general manager A.J. Preller, who has been hearing nonstop praise after he turned a downtrodden team with baseball's worst offense into a club that hopes to contend for a playoff spot.
“A.J. is a winner,” said Padres CEO Mike Dee. “You can just feel it.”
Now featuring a new ace in James Shields, outfield sluggers Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers, All-Star catcher Derek Norris and other newcomers, the Padres held their first full workout Wednesday in front of their smiling front office.
“We knew we had to re-energize the community,” Fowler said. “I think last year was sort of the beta test for us: OK, this is not working. It was time.”
So Fowler and the ownership group, led by Peter Seidler, dismissed GM Josh Byrnes. Preller, who was an assistant GM in Texas, got to work after San Diego finished 77-85 and out of the playoffs for the eighth straight year.
“He had all kind of ideas,” Fowler said of Preller. “I think I'm pleasantly surprised that he was able to wheel and deal the way he did.”
The results are a new-look team with a solid rotation, increased power and a payroll that will soon surpass $100 million. Shields got $75 million over four years. The Padres owe Kemp $75 million, too.
“After looking at our numbers in terms of attendance and looking at the interest in the marketplace, we felt we had to do some investment spending,” Fowler said.
The moves paid off at the box office, with season ticket sales jumping. Dee thinks it realistic for the Padres to average 3 million fans a year. They drew just under 2.2 million in 2014, which ranked 20th out of 30 teams.
There are changes to Petco Park, too. A new scoreboard in left field means the fence will be moved in three feet and the wall will shrink from eight feet to seven.
“To hopefully set up Justin Upton for some acrobatic, over-the-fence, home-run-saving catches,” Dee said.
The optimism comes at a good time for the city, as the NFL's Chargers have announced interest in moving to the Los Angeles area if they can't get a new stadium deal in San Diego.
Fowler said the Chargers are “good for San Diego” and hopes they stay.
“Those of us that were around watching Petco happen, it was pretty ugly watching the sausage get made,” Fowler said. “But the outcome is decent. I'm hoping that same situation takes place for the Chargers.”
Until then, the Padres are confident they can bring needed good times to a city that hasn't hosted postseason baseball since 2006.
“It's not about hope,” Seidler said. “It's about an expectation that we're going to be a competitive, winning team this year. And year after year after year.”
NOTES: Dee said Preller isn't finished. “I'm exciting to see the canvas that A.J. will paint on over the next 24 months as we look to replenish the farm system,” Dee said. . Fowler joked that Chargers CEO Dean Spanos has asked him to not get involved in their stadium talks. “I made some public comments over the last few years that he doesn't think would help him right now,” Fowler said. “So I'm staying quiet.” . Manager Bud Black said Carlos Quentin will get some work at first base this spring, but remains primarily an outfielder. . Padres 2B Jedd Gyorko has worked on fixing flaws in his swing after a miserable, injury-filled 2014. “When you're hitting .100 or whatever, it's hard to be real confident,” Gyorko said. “Getting that confidence back is the big thing.”