Half of our long national nightmare is finally over. Bryce Harper is still available, but Manny Machado is reportedly signing with the San Diego Padres, bringing an end to a protracted and frustrating process for a sport that watched one of its premier stars, a 26-year-old four-time All-Star who had just completed his best season at the plate, linger in free agency for more than 100 days.
From a field that at various points included the Phillies, Yankees, and White Sox, the Padres emerged victorious, instantly kick-starting a long-gestating rebuild and giving Machado the 10-year, $300 million contract he had sought all along. Fans of those big-market suitors—and of MLB at large—might wonder why a lustrous star would go to San Diego, which hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2006 or won a playoff series since 1998. But Machado makes perfect sense for a team with the Padres’ already-bright future. Another team, thankfully, is actually trying to win.
The first reason Machado would mosey down the California coast from his brief stint in Los Angeles, of course, is the money—a factor that cannot be ignored in a winter that has only further inflamed labor strife due in large part to the frozen “hot” stove. Based on his past production at such a young age, Machado should expect to play at an All-Star level for years to come: The five names directly after his on the career leaderboard for most WAR through age 25 are Joe DiMaggio, Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, and Lou Gehrig. Past 10-year contracts like those belonging to Albert Pujols seem like overpays in retrospect because they captured a player’s decline years; still in his mid-20s, Machado has plenty of prosperous seasons still to come, with his rare and eminently valuable combination of big bat, great glove, and prime defensive position whether he stays at shortstop or moves back to third.
Yet for months, no team met his financial demand, which worked out to the largest free-agent contract in the sport’s history. (It’s not the largest overall because of the 13-year, $325 million extension Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Marlins in 2014.) Given the sport’s rising profits (from tech and sponsorship deals) and Machado’s special status as a young, elite free agent, teams should have engaged in a voluminous bidding war: History suggests that even at $30 million per season, Machado would still provide equal or better value from a dollars-per-win perspective. The Padres finally raised their offer—and in so doing added Machado to an exciting, developing lineup that brims with young talent.
The Padres boast perhaps the majors’ best farm system, with consensus top-three prospect Fernando Tatis Jr., a fellow left-side infielder, leading the way, and second baseman Luis Urias (who’s in the 15-35 range of various prospect lists) following him. Whether the Padres play Machado at third base and Tatis at shortstop or vice versa upon the latter’s promotion to the majors—which should come sometime this season, after he spent 2018 in Double-A—the Padres now have their infield for the next half-decade or longer. Even with lackluster production from last winter’s big signing, first baseman Eric Hosmer, the Urias-Tatis-Machado core could sustain a lineup for years.
And while critics might contend that the Padres aren’t yet in the position to invest top dollar in free agency, thanks to a 96-loss campaign last year and little pitching talent on the current MLB roster, an investment in Machado isn’t a win-now move. It’s a win-for-the-next-decade move. (Or half-decade, if Machado exercises his reported opt-out clause after five years.) Nine Padres prospects qualified for Baseball Prospectus’s latest top-101 list, six of them pitchers. Even if the team’s current rotational depth chart looks like something out of the early-aughts Rangers plans—which would make this Machado contract comparable to the first giant Alex Rodriguez deal, which brought plenty of individual accolades to the player but no team success—much more help is on the way for San Diego than the 2001 Rangers, and Machado should still be a star-level infielder in his prime by the time it arrives.
He might not make the Padres a winner in 2019, with the Dodgers monolith still blotting out the sun in the NL West. But Jayson Werth didn’t make the Nationals a winner immediately after signing his nine-figure deal at the start of the decade; after Harper and others ascended to the majors, though, divisional titles followed. And Machado is much better than Werth, so he’ll take a lead role in the Padres’ impending rise as well. On the surface, it’s perhaps counterintuitive to be excited about the second-losingest franchise of the past decade uniting with one of the league’s best players in that span. It might seem like a waste. But greater success beckons for both player and team. San Diego’s prospects are coming—and now they’ll have a teammate to lead.