The San Diego Padres have been baseball’s most stable team on the field over the last eight years. In each of those seasons, the club’s winning percentage has stayed stuck in the tight window between .420 and .475—nowhere near good enough to contend for the postseason, yet not quite bad enough to be truly terrible. This is, maybe, baseball’s best impression of purgatory. It’s not hell. It’s just an awfully unpleasant waiting period. Well, that’s what a rebuild is, you might say. But look at it this way: San Diego has posted baseball’s smallest standard deviation in win total since 2011, at just 4.03. The teams with the highest standard deviations? The Astros (20.77) and Cubs (16.18), whose worst years in this period scraped notably lower than the Padres’, before they started ascending on a path that put their best years far higher. If those results demonstrate the power of full reconstruction projects, San Diego’s demonstrates how to shuffle and reshuffle bricks on a vacant lot.
Or, at least, that’s been the story of the team’s major league results. It hasn’t been the story of the team’s front office strategy. The Padres may have been losing, but they haven’t been losing aimlessly. Since their last winning season in 2010, they’ve passed through two different ownership groups and four different general managers. When A.J. Preller took over as GM in 2014, he tried making a splash by filling his first few months with big veteran acquisitions. But this approach didn’t immediately work, and the club made a hard stop and reversed course. The Padres’ most expensive players were shipped out—even if chunks of their hefty contracts had to stay behind—and the farm became the focus. Now, a few years later, San Diego’s minor league system is among the best in baseball.
With a pipeline stocked with young talent, the front office’s spotlight has swung back over to beefing up the big league roster. The Padres signed baseball’s biggest free agent contract in 2018, and as of Tuesday, they’re poised to sign the biggest free agent contract so far in 2019. If everything is finalized as has been reported, Manny Machado will be locked in for the next decade in San Diego. It’s a move with the potential to be fundamentally destabilizing—in a good way—for the most stable team in baseball’s recent history. Where does this put the Padres, then?
Machado certainly speeds up the arrival of their window for contention. To continue the construction metaphor, San Diego’s building project now has a window—frame and sill and everything, just waiting to be opened—instead of a space for a window that was on track to come together in the next year or two. Of course, there’s still plenty that needs to happen before it does open. The team’s young talent will need time to mature; there are plenty of exciting prospects here (9 players in Baseball America’s Top 100, and 11 in Baseball Prospectus) but they’re at varying stages in their development, and it’s impossible to know yet which of them will progress exactly as planned. Shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr., the organization’s top prospect, is expected to make his debut this year, and other highly ranked talents, like second baseman Luis Urias and catcher Francisco Mejia, have already had their first call-up. The organization’s pitching prospects are a little bit further behind, though, and, as always, loaded with a bit more risk. The Padres should have a better idea of precisely where they’re operating by 2020 or 2021. In the meantime, they have time to watch and growth to hope for.
Machado is still just 26, and if the team’s young talent does develop on schedule, he very well might be in the middle of his offensive prime when it does. Right now, he is the team’s only significant long-term investment other than first baseman Eric Hosmer, 2018’s big free agent acquisition, which means that there should be financial flexibility to keep building around them if needed. There’s good reason to believe that the future is bright, even if it isn’t immediately so. Of course, there is the possibility that the Padres continue to add this year, perhaps even signing the offseason’s other superstar free agent Bryce Harper, which could further expedite their rebuild.
As for what might happen this year? Most likely not a winning season, even with Machado. He’s still but one player, even if he’s one who represents a significant upgrade. Depending on which depth chart you consulted, San Diego was previously slated to open the year at third with either Greg Garcia or Ty France; you’d be forgiven for having read those names as, “Who or who?” (Garcia is a 29-year-old picked up this winter on waivers from St. Louis; France is a non-prospect minor-leaguer.) In three of the last four seasons, Machado has been worth more than 5.5 Baseball-Reference WAR, so he’s an immediate help here, to say the least. But San Diego’s current rotation leaves plenty to be desired, and several key position players are still green. In a few seasons, this team should be much better than it has been in recent years; for now, with Machado, it will be slightly so. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA now projects the team’s win total to be 78, up from the previous figure of 75. The system still expects them to end up in fourth place, which would be its third time finishing there in the last five years. No projection can be a crystal ball, but this one sounds about right. And if it is right? Well, 78 wins would be a .481 winning percentage—which would be the highest that this team has had in nearly a decade, the beginning of the end for a long stretch of subpar stability.