It took all winter, but Manny Machado finally got his money—just not from the team we expected. Instead of signing up with a World Series contender like the Cubs, Dodgers or Yankees, the 26-year-old shortstop will join the San Diego Padres—yes, those Padres. The team of 96 losses in 2018 and one of baseball’s more irrelevant franchises over the last decade has reportedly given one of the game’s elite talents a 10-year, $300 million contract to settle out west.
It’s a surprising end to a deflated stint in free agency for a four-time All-Star entering his age-27 season. Expected to be one of the most popular free agents in recent history, Machado lingered on the market as some two-dozen teams turned their nose up at him like they’d just caught a whiff of old cheese. Machado’s suitors were a bare lot: Beyond the Padres, the White Sox and Phillies were reportedly in the hunt (and that trio was also leading the way in the still unresolved Bryce Harper sweepstakes), with the Yankees lurking though unlikely. For weeks, the saga dragged as Machado looked for a mega-deal and was met with silence and indifference. Perhaps a bigger shock than San Diego being the last team standing is that, in the end, Machado was able to score $300 million—the biggest free-agent contract ever handed out in the history of professional sports—despite the relative paucity of interest.
So what will the Padres receive in exchange for enough money to buy a fleet of F-16 fighter jets? An anchor on the left side of their infield, a new face of the franchise, a leader for a group of exciting prospects, and true thunder in the middle of the lineup. Not yet 27, Machado is among the elite of the elite offensively. Last season, split between the Orioles and Dodgers, he hit a cool .297/.367/.538 with 37 home runs, a 146 OPS+ and 5.7 bWAR. To that, you add his terrific glove at two of the toughest positions on the diamond—third base and shortstop—and you have a true difference-maker on both sides of the ball.
What’s more, Machado turbo-charges a Padres rebuild that’s struggled ever since general manager A.J. Preller tried to create an instant contender in 2015 with ill-fated trades for Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel. San Diego has lost 91 or more games every year for the last three; the last time the franchise even saw an above-.500 finish was 2010. But Preller and his front office have amassed a deep collection of young talent during the lean years. The jewel is top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. (a shortstop and third baseman who will play on one side of Machado yet to be determined) who is joined by Luis Urias, MacKenzie Gore, Logan Allen, Adrian Morejon and several more names you can find littering the latest top 100 lists of Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America.
With that youthful wave ready to break upon San Diego’s shores, it was time for the Padres to make a move to supplement that young talent. After all, what’s the point of the financial flexibility of all those pre-arbitration contracts otherwise? With payroll space aplenty—even with Eric Hosmer’s cumbersome $144 million deal—there were no logistical issues with bringing Machado into the fold. The Padres are nowhere near the luxury tax threshold and have no major long-term deals on the books besides Hosmer’s. This was the perfect opportunity to add a player like Machado for mere cash and push things to the next level.
Will it make a difference for 2019? Probably not. Machado, good as he is, is only one man, and the Padres around him are still incomplete. Raw talent abounds in the lineup, but it needs seasoning, and the pitching staff is Triple A-caliber. The division, features Machado’s old team in Los Angeles and the feisty Rockies, and the wild-card race will be a battle between half-a-dozen teams all probably better than San Diego. Contention this season is probably a dream too big.
But that was never the point—or at least, it shouldn’t be. Neither Machado nor Harper would make the Padres a 2019 World Series contender. It’s all about building that bridge to the future, and Machado represents the strongest and best plank. He makes the team better now and going forward, and he’s young enough that he’ll still be in his prime as San Diego’s prospect class graduates to the majors. It’s a simple formula: Bad teams get better by adding good players, and getting better is supposed to be the whole point of this silly game.
It all works out for Machado, too. He gets his money, his long-term guarantee (plus an opt-out in the fifth year, if Preller’s latest plan goes off the rails), and the freedom to play out his days in sunny, pressure-free San Diego, far from the maddening crush of media all too eager to brand the man not known as Johnny Hustle as a malingerer of the highest order.
It’s still somewhat confounding, though, that this is the end result of the Machado hype that’s been built up for years leading up to his free agency. We all expected that, come the 2018 offseason, he’d be bombarded with offers from the game’s richest and best franchises. Instead, some time this week, he’ll be holding up the (admittedly great) brown-and-mustard-yellow jersey of the Padres as cameras flash, followed by questions on what it means to join a franchise that’s managed just 14 winning seasons out of its 50 on this earth. This likely isn’t what Machado envisioned when free agency beckoned—our latest proof yet of how wacky the game’s economic situation has become.
Reminiscent of the Rangers adding Alex Rodriguez nearly two decades ago, signing Machado is a bid for immediate legitimacy on the part of the Padres. (Amusingly enough, small-market San Diego has now handed out the offseason’s biggest free-agent deal two winters in a row.) But it also represents the beginning of a titanic task for Machado and the Padres both: making San Diego something not just worth watching, but also truly capable of competing with all those teams who passed on signing Machado. Their foolish and bizarre stinginess ended up the Padres’ gain.