For most of the off-season, we’ve seen baseball’s richest teams operate like their small-market counterparts, seeking advantages on the margins instead of overwhelming an impressive free agent class with competitive offers.
Asked recently why the Cubs haven’t spent more money, team chairman Tom Ricketts replied: “We don’t have any more.”
Meanwhile, the small-market Padres just agreed to the biggest free agent contract in baseball history. San Diego has reportedly agreed to sign Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300-million contract that includes an opt-out after the fifth year.
The deal offers a reminder that every club has the capacity to spend big. Thanks to revenue sharing, lucrative TV deals and the success of MLB Advanced Media, all 30 teams have more ways of making money than ever (before even considering their constantly rising franchise values). San Diego is one of the smallest markets in baseball, so when the Padres commit this much to Machado, Ricketts’ comments become that much harder to take at face value.
As for Machado, the contract makes sense for a few reasons. For starters, it’s hard to argue with any deal that sets a new free agent record (though to be fair, Bryce Harper should break it within days). And while the Padres lost 96 games last year, their farm system ranks best in the sport, according to Baseball America. That means they’re as well-positioned as any team to take real strides ahead in the coming years. If not, Machado can always opt out of the deal after 2023.
The $300-million commitment should also be a relief to the players who have spoken out against the lack of spending in baseball. At 26 years old, Machado is an exceptional free agent, and this deal doesn’t solve the problems facing baseball’s middle class, but at least the sport’s superstars are still getting paid. Apparently, a lack of hustle in the playoffs wasn’t about to overshadow Machado’s appeal within MLB front offices.
Now that Machado is off the market, Harper’s ideally-positioned to land a monster deal of his own from the White Sox, Giants, Nationals or – most likely of all – the Phillies. If Harper cashes in as much as expected, his deal might provide further reassurance to Justin Verlander, Buster Posey, Evan Longoria and the many others who have called teams out in recent weeks.
As those players have noted, teams seem more inclined than ever to prioritize the future over the present. Reinforcing that argument, the Mariners and Diamondbacks traded away star players after winning 2018 seasons instead of pushing for further gains. Big picture, it’s a problem for baseball even though most rebuilding efforts make some real sense in isolation.
In San Diego, however, there’s no ambiguity about the Padres’ intentions. They want to win and are willing to spend to make it happen. Still, they have plenty of work remaining. Their projected rotation consists of Joey Lucchesi, Robbie Erlin, Bryan Mitchell, Eric Lauer and Luis Perdomo at the moment, so it stands to reason that GM A.J. Preller will need to add to that group before the Padres contend.
Free agent Dallas Keuchel could be one arm of interest, and the trade market offers alternatives. Marcus Stroman, who openly questioned the Blue Jays front office in conversation with the Toronto media Sunday, looks to be one of many potential trade candidates worth considering. The Blue Jays had preliminary conversations about Stroman with a wide range of teams over the winter, and there would be no harm in revisiting those talks now.
Regardless, the Machado deal represents a meaningful step toward contention. He projects as a five-win player for 2019 and even when his deal expires he’ll be younger than Robinson Cano is today. Upgrades that big are hard to find. The Padres paid handsomely for this one, and they’ll need to spend more before they’re truly a threat to the Dodgers, but they’re a significantly better team now than they were yesterday.
That’s more than the Cubs can say.