For the second consecutive offseason, the San Diego Padres have, at least as of Tuesday, handed out the biggest contract given to an MLB free agent. Unlike last time, though, they just got a great player.
On Tuesday, the Padres reportedly came to terms with infielder Manny Machado on a 10-year, $300 million deal with an opt-out after the fifth season, the largest inflation-unadjusted free-agent pact in American sports history. Despite recent rumors about San Diego’s interest in the ex-Orioles/Dodgers star, the news that Machado had picked the Padres instead of one of the bigger-market teams connected to him this winter (including the Phillies, the White Sox, and the Yankees) likely came as a shock to any fans who aren’t accustomed to the Padres making major headlines—in other words, all fans, Padres loyalists included. The Padres have historically given a national audience as little reason to pay attention to them as any long-lived franchise. But the team was already on the verge of making people pay attention. By adding Machado, they’ve moved up that timeline and increased their odds of overtaking the sport’s typical attention-getters long before Machado makes his opt-out decision.
The Padres reportedly offered Machado more money than any other team, as good a reason as any for the free agent to pick them in a winter when lucrative, long-term deals for free agents have stayed scarce. But the size of the checks and the San Diego climate aren’t the only valid reasons for a 26-year-old free agent to find the Padres appealing. San Diego is buying high on Machado, a six-win player in 2018 who’s coming off both his best offensive season—.297/.367/.538, with a 141 wRC+ and a career-high-tying 37 home runs—and one in which his formerly flagging defensive stats rebounded after his trade-deadline relocation from the Orioles to the more analytically astute Dodgers. Machado, meanwhile, is buying low on a team with a firm enough foundation to get good while he’s still in his physical prime.
In baseball—where even having the best young hitter the game has ever seen won’t promise playoff appearances—it’s rare for a single transaction to return a team to relevance. This signing comes close, which is a testament both to Machado’s play and to the Padres’ past incompetence.
The Padres’ all-time .461 winning percentage is the worst among MLB franchises in baseball’s modern era. They’ve never won a World Series, and they’ve made the playoffs just five times in their 50-season history, most recently in 2006. Only the Mariners and Marlins are mired in longer active playoff droughts. Only four Padres teams have ever reached the 90-win mark, and no Padres squad has ever exceeded 98. Their all-time home run leader is Nate Colbert. Their winningest manager, Bruce Bochy, has built a Hall of Fame case with a Padres division rival. The Padres are the only MLB franchise never to have thrown a no-hitter, and until Matt Kemp hit for the cycle in August 2015, the Padres were the last non-Marlins team never to have had a hitter do that. No-hitters and (especially) cycles are ultimately inconsequential compared to playoff appearances and championships, but the Padres’ lack of even single-game successes capable of pumping up a crowd between innings is emblematic of their unsurpassed ability to be bad in the blandest possible way.
It looked like the Padres’ possible decision to bring back their brown uniforms in 2020 might end up being their best move in a winter when an old Ian Kinsler and a rehabbing Garrett Richards had been their biggest additions. But in the wake of a last-place, 66-win season, San Diego swooped in and nabbed one of the top 10 free agents of the past quarter-century in terms of projected five-year performance at the time of his signing. Projection systems see Machado as superior to the more sabermetrically mercurial Bryce Harper; although Harper has won one MVP Award, he hasn’t finished higher than 12th in any other year, whereas Machado has finished in the top 10 in three of his six full seasons and would have merited a fourth high finish last year if not for his midseason trade.
Machado’s presence supplies some star power to a team with one of the game’s most perennially nondescript rosters. According to Baseball-Reference, Machado was worth 5.7 WAR in 2018. (FanGraphs gave him 6.2.) Machado’s four seasons of at least 5.7 WAR matches the number of such seasons by Padres hitters in the past 20 seasons combined. Those four campaigns came from four different hitters (Chase Headley, Adrián González, Mark Loretta, and Phil Nevin), and Tony Gwynn is the only hitter ever to have had more than one such season in a Padres uniform. Ken Caminiti won an NL MVP Award while with the Padres in his steroid-fueled 1996 season; since then, the Padres are tied with the Twins for the fewest offensive seasons of six WAR or more. Lump pitchers and hitters together, and only the Pirates have had fewer six-WAR seasons over that span. The Padres simply haven’t had stars, and they’ve changed that with one move.
Seasons of 6-Plus WAR, 1997-2018
The Machado news broke a year to the day after the Padres officially signed first baseman Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract. The Hosmer signing was supposed to signal a change in direction for a floundering franchise that had been in rebuilding mode since the setback it suffered when a newly hired A.J. Preller initiated a transfixing but foolish transaction spree over the winter of 2014-15, constructing a more expensive squad that won three fewer games than it had the year before. After that, the Padres regrouped and embarked on a longer-term rebuild based on stockpiling prospects and losing a lot. Hosmer was supposed to provide leadership, help the Padres avoid being embarrassing, and bridge the gap between bad teams and good while giving Padres fans an established star to root for during the last of the lean years. As seemed pretty apparent at the time, Hosmer was miscast in at least one of those roles; while we can’t quantify his work as a mentor, the Padres won five fewer games with him than they’d won without him in 2017, and Hosmer had a replacement-level season dragged down by a below-league-average bat. Last winter was arguably too soon for San Diego to sign a franchise player, but timing aside, Hosmer wasn’t that type of player.
Machado is the right target at the right time, not only because he’s every bit the player the Padres presumably thought Hosmer was, but because the Padres are closer to contention than their recent records suggest. For the second straight year, the public scouting consensus says that San Diego boasts baseball’s best farm system. The Padres control 10 of the top 100 prospects, and seven of the top 50, on MLB Pipeline’s recent rankings, giving them the most “prospect points” in the history of MLB.com prospect lists, which extend back to 2004. Half of those 10 top prospects are holdovers from the 2018 top 100, and half of them are currently listed with 2019 ETAs: shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. (one of the game’s top three prospects); infielder Luis Urias and catcher/corner outfielder Francisco Mejía, both of whom played in the big leagues last year; and pitchers Chris Paddack and Logan Allen.
With Tatis ticketed for shortstop and Urias slated for second, Machado is a perfect fit for this roster at third, where he won Gold Gloves in 2013 and 2015. That trio—plus Hosmer at first; Austin Hedges at catcher with Mejía behind him; a combination of Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, and Franmil Reyes in the corners; and Franchy Cordero in center—gives the Padres an enviable foundation of young-to-youngish position players who are ready right now. Kinsler will likely be the only hitter on the Padres’ Opening Day roster who’s reached his 30th birthday.
San Diego probably doesn’t have enough pitching to contend in 2019; PECOTA projects it for a fourth-place finish and 79 wins after adding Machado. But even with Machado, Hosmer, and Myers locked up long term, their young, cost-controlled core will give them the financial flexibility to spend, as they indicated they would when they offered a selective look at their books back in January. Before coming to terms with Machado, the club had committed $75.4 million to their 2019 payroll, which ranked 26th in the majors. (Three of the seven players who’ll earn $5 million or more from the Padres in 2019—Héctor Olivera, Phil Hughes, and Jedd Gyorko—no longer play for the team.) The Padres also had the 19th-most money committed to their 2020 team, and only the 15th most committed in 2021. They may be a small-media-market club, but while one wouldn’t necessarily know it from the way the free-agent market has looked lately, even the sport’s past small spenders are flush enough to sign stars.
Just as a highly ranked prospect is rarely a lock to become an immediate impact player—as Padres fans have found out via the still-promising Manuel Margot—a top-ranked farm system is no guarantee of a future championship. Still, as Sam Miller noted in his most recent review of past no. 1 systems, it can net a team “15 or 20 extra wins in a good year,” at a dollar amount that leaves room for further free-agent additions. In sum, Miller found, a top-ranked system will tend to yield “around 100 wins above replacement, most of it at sub-market prices, peaking three to seven years after the rankings come out, but some remnants of that value lasting into the next decade.”
Opt-out notwithstanding, Machado has agreed to stay in San Diego long enough for the farm to bear fruit and for the Padres to mature into a competitive team. With Machado in hand, it’s not hard to imagine Preller making more moves to supplement the pitching staff next winter, after which the Padres may emerge as the NL West’s greatest threat to the dominant Dodgers, who have won the past six divisional crowns and back-to-back pennants. The White Sox, who had long seemed to be Machado’s most enthusiastic suitors—to the point that they collected multiple Machado friends and family members in an effort to induce him to sign—were hoping he would help them take the leap from prospect-rich rebuilders to playoff team. Instead, he’ll provide that push to the Padres.
It’s representative of the aggressively low-profile Padres that their fans still regularly lament a blown strike call from the first game of a decades-old series in which their team was swept by one of the best teams of all time. Far be it from me to minimize the egregiousness of that 1998 Fall Classic call, but that moment shouldn’t be the most painful what-if for a 50-year-old franchise. But for most of the years since that brief brush with the big stage, the Padres haven’t been good enough for their fans to feel heartbreak. Instead, they’ve subjected them to the numbing despair of rooting for a team that never comes close. But with a big bat now bolstering a prodigious crop of prospects, the Padres, for the first time in ages, are about to be good enough to have something at stake.