Rarely in their history have the San Diego Padres been described as a model franchise, and for good reason.
However, when they signed Manny Machado to a deal reportedly worth $300 million over 10 years, they showed the baseball world a much-needed example of building outside the confines of a rigid competitive window.
Let’s be clear: this deal could blow up in San Diego’s face. Any 10-year deal is risky, there are legitimate concerns about how Machado could age considering how much of his value is tied up in defence, and although worries about his character have been overblown, they exist. The range of outcomes here is huge and the Padres shouldn’t get a medal for doing something when we don’t know if it’s a mistake yet.
They do deserve credit for a having little vision, though. The Padres are a team that is not likely to compete in 2019 — even with Machado presenting a major upgrade at either third base or shortstop. Prior to his addition to the club, PECOTA had them pegged for a 77-85 record. So maybe they look like a wild card contender now. Maybe.
Despite the current state of the roster, the Padres didn’t rule out spending money in free agency altogether and found a specific opportunity that made sense for them. The club astutely determined that a free agent of Machado’s calibre at his age (26) wasn’t going to come around every year, so they took the plunge, even though his contract doesn’t perfectly align with their window. They know they’ll be paying him handsomely to play for a middling team in 2019, but that’s the cost of doing business in order to have him around as they ascend. Considering the Padres have an absurdly deep farm system that is widely-considered to be the best in baseball, that rise is coming. When it happens, they’ll already have a cornerstone in place.
It’s worth noting that San Diego tried this strategy last offseason, signing then 28-year-old Eric Hosmer to an eight-year deal worth $144 million. After his brutal 2018, that deal looks like a pretty significant bust, but the overall premise wasn’t wrong. The idea of bringing in an elite player with prime years left even if you’re a year or two away from hitting your stride (like they’re doing with Machado) has merit. Hosmer just wasn’t that player. They overvalued his intangibles, he was always more good than great, and first base probably isn’t a position worth building around unless the bat is world-beating.
Much of the offseason, the link between Bryce Harper and the Blue Jays has been made on the same grounds. The team isn’t ready to win yet, but a deal between the two parties is long enough that he’d still be an elite player when the next core of the team was rolling. The fit isn’t literally perfect, but it’s perfectly adjacent.
At this point, it seems fair to say Harper-to-the-Toronto is not going to happen. But next offseason, the Blue Jays would be wise to take a long hard look at what the Padres have done here with Machado. There are no players on his or Harper’s level to be had in free agency, but there are a few names that stand as guys you could buy a year “early” (assuming 2020 still isn’t in the Blue Jays targeted window of contention, which seems likely) especially with Kendrys Morales and Russell Martin’s money coming off the books.
Xander Bogaerts would be just 27 and could present a solution on the left side of the infield if either Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Bo Bichette move off their initial current positions — something that’s far from a bad bet. Players of Bogaerts’ calibre at premium positions rarely hit the free agent market.
Gerrit Cole will be 29 next offseason, and given the Blue Jays’ dearth of pitching prospects with top-of-the-rotation potential, the idea of grabbing his early 30’s is appealing. Marcell Ozuna will also be 29, and could supplement an outfield picture that’s exceedingly uncertain post-2020.
If you’re really high on Nick Castellanos’s bat, you could put him in this category — though he probably won’t warrant the type of long-term contract that makes the idea of outbidding current contenders for him worthwhile.
Recent history suggests the Blue Jays’ chances of nabbing one of these guys isn’t exactly sky-high, but that’s where they should turn their attention — especially since they’ll almost certainly rule out top dogs like J.D. Martinez (32), Paul Goldschmidt (32) and Justin Verlander (37) due to age.
MLB teams, the Blue Jays very much included, have become extraordinarily adept at coming up with reasons not to spend money in the free agent market. However, if a relatively small-market team like Padres can do it, without even being true contenders, that list of excuses dwindles.
Whether the Machado contract works out or not, at least it serves as an example for how teams can teams can spend smartly and aggressively. Even if their road to a World Series looks a little longer.
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