MLB

Padres have tossed aside small-market stigma to act like a model franchise; here’s why it’s great for MLB

Surely numbering among the things that signify a Baseball Town is the following action sports photograph of indeterminate origin: 

The image comes from Reddit, where not even teenage eagles dare, but where they got it from is lost to history, or at least lost to this author’s unwillingness to do anything more than a cursory search. What we do know is that it’s an aerie of right-wise folks with the constituents of good living near at hand — i.e., wholesome, restorative alcohol; television in amazing technicolor; aftermarket racing stripes; the strong implication of a portable generator; a chaise lounge capable of doubling as a steel-jaw leghold trap; and a demigod’s vista of This, Our Baseball. 

That heavyweight championship view is of the 1992 All-Star Game at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium. “The Murph” — which was a multipurpose stadium and or the nickname of anyone who makes it to the next bar despite being impaled with a foosball goalie rod at the last bar — has long been replaced by Petco Park as the home of the occasionally fightin’ Padres. What hasn’t changed is San Diego’s leisured appreciation of this game and standing as, yes, a baseball town.

What solidified that status in smaller measure is the departure of the NFL‘s Chargers for Los Angeles, which left the city of San Diego with only one major pro sports team. Mostly, though, it’s about the city’s enthusiasm for baseball and of late the Padres’ strong devotion to the on-field product. 

We speak chiefly of the Padres’ recent signing of superduperstar shortstop Fernando Tatis to a whopping $340 million extension. It’s a staggering thing not only because of the raw dollar figure but also because where it’s coming from and whom it’s going to. On the first point, this contract was dialed up by a team that, per Forbes estimates, ranks just 17th in the MLB in franchise value and dwells in just the 29th-largest media market in the U.S. Putting ink on it was a 22-year-old who has just two years of major-league service time. The previous record for biggest contract signed by a player with two years of MLB service time or less was Ronald Acuna Jr.’s $100 million extension with the Braves. Tatis’s contract, you’ll note, exceeds Acuna’s by more than three times over. 

It says here it’s a wise investment. Tatis’ record of performance thus far is unassailable, and it’s in keeping with his former status as the best prospect in baseball. Last season, he showed sustainable growth at the plate, and he made remarkable strides with his defense, chiefly by cutting down on errors. In terms of performance outlook, Tatis is A-Rod minus all the lamentable parts of the A-Rod experience. The last young player to marry five tools and then some with a marketable flair that rises above that of his peers and put it all together on the field was … Ken Griffey Jr.? 

This is indeed the kind of singular ballplayer who merits the Statue Contract: 

Notable is that Tatis’s big contract comes just two years after the Padres committed $300 million to Manny Machado, which came a year after the Padres committed $144 million to Eric Hosmer. So that’s three infield positions with contracts totaling almost $800 million. It bears repeating: The author of all of this self-investment is small-market San Diego. 

It all marks another evolution of sorts undertaken by GM and president of baseball operations A.J. Preller. Back in the winter of 2014-15 leading into his first full season on the job, Preller seized headlines by trying to position the Padres for immediate contention. He executed trades for Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Melvin Upton Jr., and Craig Kimbrel, and then he signed James Shields on the free-agent market. All of the money and roster churn yielded… not much in the way of desired outcomes. The Padres finished 74-88, worse than they did in the prior season, and wound up firing manager Bud Black after just 65 games (they got worse after doing so). Outside of some temporary renewed enthusiasm among Padres fans, the only real benefit of the attempted quick fix was that in June of 2016 Preller was able to flip Shields to the White Sox for two prospects, including an infielder who’d yet to play a professional game named… Fernando Tatis Jr.

The Padres moved into reconstruction mode. Given the quite expensive failures of Preller’s debut effort as chief decision-maker — expensive in terms of player salary and prospects traded away (including, most notably, Trea Turner) — most owners probably would’ve been content to remain in some state of rebuild and rake in the guaranteed profits that are a hallmark of the MLB small-market business model. That’s not what happened in San Diego, though.

The Padres under the Ron Fowler-Peter Seidler ownership pairing invested almost $80 million in the international free agent market in 2016, and roughly half of that was in overage penalties for exceeding their allotted budget. That splurge plus the Tatis trade plus some canny drafts yielded the consensus top farm system in all of baseball. 

Speaking of Tatis and fellow highly regarded pup Chris Paddack, the Padres, rather than seed bad faith and game their service time, placed those two on the Opening Day roster to start the 2019 season and left them there. The ideal path at that point is to complement that young core with targeted veteran additions and to do so at whatever expense necessary. The Padres have done that and then some. In addition to the pricey infield troika of Hosmer-Machado-Tatis, the club acquired names like Tommy Pham, Jurickson Profar, and Mike Clevinger, whose prior employers were unwilling to spring for their arb-eligible salaries. Along the way, they signed mid-tier contributor Drew Pomeranz. Then came the ongoing winter of ’20-’21, when the Padres coupled Preller’s boldness of his first offseason with a roster core that in 2020 set the franchise record for win percentage. The Pads drastically upgraded the rotation with trades for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove — again leveraging their competitors’ unwillingness to field the best team possible — and inked Mark Melancon, Keone Kela, and Ha-seong Kim as free agents. All of that was prelude to the Tatis pact.

According to Spotrac figures, the Padres in 2021 will boast a payroll of almost $162 million, which is by far the highest figure in franchise history and also the projected ninth-highest payroll in MLB for the upcoming season, which is far and away their highest placement ever. Looking outward, the Padres have nine-figure salary commitments through 2023 and at least $75 million committed to player payroll through 2027. At this point let’s remind the URL-clicker that San Diego is the 29th-largest media market in the U.S.

What’s doubly striking about this is that the Padres undertook all these roster fortifications despite still being underdogs in their own division and despite having cause to suspect that an expanded postseason would not be in place for 2021 (that’s indeed the case). The MLB front office is increasingly a place in which risk aversion is the most cherished quality from ownership perspective, and the Padres have blessedly pushed back against all that. 

Speaking of which, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic in response to the Tatis extension voiced a concern that wasn’t hard to find among some corners of the baseball cognoscenti. He wrote

“Fans in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and some larger major-league cities would love their clubs to operate as aggressively the Padres, who are locking up their 22-year-old superstar rather than starting their countdown to trading him. And yet, there’s a danger here, and it can’t be dismissed, even in the giddy elation of Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year, $340 million extension.

How the heck are the Padres going to sustain this?”

That question gets it precisely wrong. A better way to frame the Padres’ boldness would be to use it as a cudgel against the vast majority of other teams. That is: “If the Padres, denizens of one of the smallest markets in MLB, have achieved all this, then what the hell have you been doing?”

For all the diversionary oxygen being devoted to pacing concerns and the dearth of balls in play and the like, the gravest current crisis in MLB is the overabundance of team owners who have no interest in winning as many baseball games as possible. Not only does treating cherished civic institutions like portfolio holdings disaffect fans (i.e., customers), but it also makes ongoing labor peace between players and owners much less likely. It’s the hometown nine, not a tranche of debt instruments. When a team like the Padres gives primacy to the goal of winning — as they darn well should — it puts the lie to all those risible claims of financial woe emanating from most other C suites around the league. 

Seidler, who rose to the top of the Padres’ org chart late last year, is not deluded about such matters. He knows MLB is a wildly profitable industry. He knows the claims of financial hardships resulting from the COVID-compromised 2020 season are temporary and almost certainly overstated. He knows that owning an MLB team yields investment growth that can be duplicated almost nowhere else. He knows the best way to get fans to care is to improve the product. So that’s what he’s doing even if few other owners have the fortitude to behave similarly. That kind of behavioral pressure from within is exactly what the current guild of MLB owners badly needs. Promising $340 million and a wire-to-wire no-trade clause to Tatis isn’t a sign that the Padres are doing too much. Rather, it’s a sign that many of the more well-heeled MLB teams aren’t doing enough. The next time your team’s owner costumes “I choose not to” as “I can’t,” cite for them the wee-market Padres and Tatis. 

After all the lies and self-defeating avarice on the part of MLB owners, we need to deprogram ourselves and stop thinking of signing a deliriously popular and deliriously excellent young franchise shortstop as something to wring hands over. Again, they’re doing what they should be doing. With their fine and many-splendored ballpark, near-perfect weather, and re-imagined uniforms that evoke the strong franchise identity that was there in the beginning, the Padres have the trappings and settings of a model franchise. That they’ve lately been acting like a model franchise is an unqualified good thing and should serve as an example for the rest of baseball. 

So if you find yourself in San Diego maybe back your truck up, set up the chaise lounge (careful with that thing), and enjoy some baseball being played in a baseball town. Maybe you’ll see Manny or Fernando thunder one to the Western Metal Supply Co. building. Stick around long enough and one of these years maybe you’ll see someone clang one off the Fernando Tatis Jr. statue. The point is that the Padres have earned your business, or at least your appreciation.



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