Nearly two years ago, the Padres unexpectedly signed Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300 million contract, a record-setting deal until Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies a week later. Since then they’ve constructed arguably the most exciting team in baseball and engaged in an arms race with the Dodgers for NL West supremacy.
But it wasn’t until Wednesday night that the Padres truly emerged as the newest perennial power in Major League Baseball. Seven hundred and twenty-seven days after splurging on Machado they reportedly agreed to a 14-year, $340 million extension with star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., the longest extension in MLB history and the third most expensive.
In extending Tatis, the Padres are going against convention and reestablishing the ways in which small-market teams operate. It’s a welcome, refreshing attempt for a team of their stature to build a sustainable winner by spending. Their projected payroll will be the third highest in the majors this season, behind only the Red Sox and Dodgers, according to Spotrac. The game is better off when teams are going for it every year, and the Padres’ committing 14 years to their young superstar signals they’re set on contending throughout the length of the deal. For baseball’s sake let’s hope it works out for them.
They are the first team ever to sign two players to contracts worth at least $300 million. That’s a massive commitment for any team under any circumstance, but it's especially the case now given the league's uncertain financial landscape as it enters another season of pandemic baseball. It contradicts the bleak conditions that some owners have pointed to as their reason for cutting costs, trading away star players and remaining inactive in free agency. If San Diego can afford to spend hundreds of millions on two players—$812 million on its entire infield—the Cubs, Red Sox and other big-market clubs should be able to do the same.
The San Diego Spending Spree didn’t come all at once. The organization has methodically worked its way to this point over the last several years. General manager A.J. Preller was committed to winning when he first took over in August 2014; in his first offseason, the Padres went for the quick fix, hastily dealing young players for over-the-hill stars and increasing payroll. “Prellerpalooza” did not work out, culminating in the nightmarish four-year, $75 million James Shields contract. When it became clear these moves weren’t going to make San Diego a winner, Preller disassembled the roster and slashed payroll—like many wayward teams have done in recent years—but he did so effectively. He dealt Shields to the White Sox the following June for Tatis, a deal that already looks like it will go down as one of the most lopsided trades in league history.
San Diego also acquired Wil Myers during “Prellerpalooza,” in a three-team deal with the Rays and Nationals (never mind that the Padres sent Trea Turner to Washington). Due to injuries and underperformance, Myers struggled at times to make good on his once-top-prospect hype, and it seemed unwise when the Padres signed him to a six-year, $83 million extension before the 2017 season. But San Diego’s strategic rebuild was already in motion.
The following offseason in February 2018, the Padres signed first baseman Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract, a deal that also felt premature. A year later, after a 96-loss 2018 season, they signed Machado, and their vision started to become clear. They made a series of other trades to increase their prospect capital, allowing the team to add major league talent (such as Mike Clevinger, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell) years later without decimating their pipeline. According to FanGraphs' RosterResource, a whopping 23 players on their 40-man roster were acquired in trades, including six of their eight projected starting position players.
In handing Tatis a lucrative extension, the Padres are rightfully recognizing him as a generational talent and charismatic star. He gives them their best shot at contending annually and getting as many fans as possible into Petco Park. He is the most electrifying player in baseball. Over 143 career games, Tatis has hit .301/.374/.582 with 39 home runs and 27 stolen bases. And yet at 22 years old, he still may be multiple seasons away from reaching his peak.
Most teams would have waited to extend Tatis, and if they did act early, they certainly wouldn’t have offered him what San Diego did. Mike Trout was already a two-time MVP winner and the undisputed best player in baseball by the time the Angels extended him for 12 years and $430 million in 2019. That was the same year the Braves gave Ronald Acuña Jr. an eight-year, $100 million extension after his first season, when he won the NL Rookie of the Year award. The Nationals have yet to extend Juan Soto. The Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers before last season instead of extending him. All of these teams have more financial resources than the Padres.
Of course it doesn’t come down to only money. The Rays are lauded for their ability to contend and develop young talent despite their low payroll. To do this, though, they trade away their star players before they get too expensive or hit free agency. Over the last two years, the Padres have taken advantage of Tampa Bay’s strategy in their trades for Tommy Pham, Jake Cronenworth and Snell.
With their loaded farm system and small-market status, San Diego could have tried operating like the Rays—heck, that's what the Big-Money Red Sox are doing with former Tampa Bay exec Chaim Bloom. But let's commend the Padres for not going down that route. The Rays may be the most efficient club in baseball, but their methods certainly aren’t fun. Trading away homegrown stars to shed payroll isn’t good for the game. Fans don’t follow baseball because they want to watch their hometown team spend less money. They do so to root for their favorite players and teams. Baseball is at its best when all of its teams are doing everything they can to win as many games as possible.
In extending Tatis, the Padres made a commitment to field a winning team not just in 2021 but for the duration of the 14-year deal. Baseball is better off because of it.