Praise be to unto our baseball gods, who have mercifully ended our collective misery. It may have taken until literally the day before the first Spring Training game, but Manny Machado has finally found a team. Not the Yankees, Phillies or White Sox, who always made the most sense given their payroll histories, their current needs and the ceaseless onslaught of rumors all offseason. Nope, Machado signed a ten-year, $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres, with an opt-out after five years. After almost an entire offseason of surviving on scraps of Machado and Bryce Harper rumors, we can finally dig into a proper meal. Let us eat.
Chances are, if you’re reading articles about baseball transactions, you probably already knew Machado was pretty good at the whole baseball thing. Since his first full season in 2013, he’s hit .283/.337/.489 for a 121 wRC+ and played excellent defense at third until moving back to his original position at shortstop last season. He’s coming off his best season at the plate, hitting .297/.367/.538 (141 wRC+) with 37 home runs. And, at all of 26 years of age, he’s still in his prime.
He might even be a better bet going forward than his fellow marquee free agent in Harper, given Machado’s superior defense and more consistent offensive output, even if the highs are higher with Harper (looking at you, Harper’s 10.0 bWAR/9.3 fWAR MVP season in 2015). Machado’s 33.8 bWAR through his age-25 season places him 26th all-time and just ahead of a string of some players you might have heard of: Joe Dimaggio (33.6), Barry Bonds (33.3), Stan Musial (32.7), Willie Mays (32.5), Lou Gehrig (31.7) and Babe Ruth (31.1). While there are some cautionary tales on the list (Jason Heyward comes right after the Great Bambino, for instance), and I’m not suggesting that Machado is going to end up in the most vaunted annals of baseball history, it’s important to remember just how good Machado has been and how young he still is.
While the $300 million price tag is indeed quite hefty, clocking in as the most expensive free agent contract in the history of American sports (inflation not included), we all knew something like this was coming. Machado has been extremely good and he’ll “only” turn 36 during the tenth and final year of the contract, so this is far from an Albert Pujols or Robinson Canó type of signing. The opt-out clause means that Machado can see where things after he turns 31. If he’s done well enough to walk away from $150 million, the Padres will probably be more than happy with the return on those dollars.
One of the reasons that those aforementioned bigger market teams in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago might have expressed some trepidation in signing Machado long-term came down to questions about Machado’s character. There was the issue of his lackadaisical running in the postseason last year, and his subsequent comment about not being “Johnny Hustle.” While that wasn’t a good look, it wasn’t entirely taken in context.
Maybe the teams were actually concerned about Machado’s character. Maybe they were simply trying to drive down the price tag so they could sign Machado long-term. It’s impossible to know for sure. But, given the thinly veiled racist narrative that has long existed in discussing Latino players and their perceived “laziness” (which reared its head yet again this offseason with the Mariners) and Machado’s Dominican heritage, it’s probably best to forget about the tweets, opinion pieces and sports radio callers and focus on what Machado has actually done. Players who have struggled as hard to succeed as Machado has to this point probably deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their “makeup.” You don’t end up ahead of the likes of Bonds and Mays on that list unless you’re busting your ass.
Other teams didn’t want to pay Machado in a way commensurate with how he’s performed at his age, and for reasons related to character or not, opted not to pay him what we all expected him to get paid. While they were content to wait around this long and see if his asking price would drop, San Diego’s GM A.J. Preller just went out and improved his team by getting the owners to throw some money at it. Sometimes free agency works like it’s supposed to, after all.
So, perhaps the real question of interest isn’t related to the player, but to the team that signed him. San Diego finished last in their division in 2018 with a 66-96 record. They haven’t been to the postseason since 2006 and haven’t won a postseason series in two decades. Their payroll has consistently been in the lower echelons of baseball, coming in 26th last year.
One of the reasons they ranked even that high was that last offseason marked the first time San Diego really ever truly ponied up for a truly expensive free agent and signed Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million deal. It didn’t look good at the time and looks even worse now, given that Hosmer was basically a replacement-level player last season (1.4 bWAR/-0.1 fWAR), but we’re not here to pile on for that move, or the franchise record setting deal the year prior to Wil Myers (although I, for one can’t wait for this trend to continue and learn who will be the lucky recipient of a $450 million, 15-year deal next offseason).
Smaller market franchises that have already tied up historically large amounts of cash in the prior two seasons, only to finish 66-96, don’t usually go out and spend this kind of money. San Diego went on the record earlier in the offseason saying as much. But there was no bidding war because no one wanted to pay Machado what everyone expected him to get paid, and the Padres decided to look past their record last year.
San Diego’s farm system is either the best in baseball or close to it. There’s a reason they jumped six spots on our year-end portfolio rankings, and it’s the fact that they’ve been collecting quality prospects, who have advanced up the rankings, and quite of few of those highly-touted prospects are due to arrive soon or already got the call last year and will get a chance to play everyday in 2019. There’s a consensus top-three prospect in Fernando Tatis, Jr. and then something in the neighborhood of ten of the top 100 prospects on any given list.
There’s certainly no guarantee that all of these players will pan out and, yes, prospects will fail more frequently than they succeed. But the Padres have a lot of them, and it’s more likely than not that the Padres will turn some of them into the cheap labor that is the lifeblood of a successful franchise in modern baseball. The young low cost players allow you to spend money on established players. Players like Machado.
Machado alone isn’t going to allow the Padres to defrock the Dodgers of their seemingly never ending reign of the NL West. Just ask the Angels and Mike Trout. For this to work, they’ll need some of those prospects to turn into regulars. But when you get have a chance at a player of Machado’s caliber at a price that, all things considered, is totally reasonable and won’t cripple you in the future, there’s nothing wrong with shooting first and waiting for those prospects to develop later.
With a little bit of luck in the prospect development department and a bounceback from Hosmer, the Padres could have the best infield in baseball come September. The Padres are now a dark horse candidate to make a run at the postseason this year, and, even if they’re still sitting outside of a playoff spot at the end of the season, they’ll still have the money and prospect capital to continue to improve next offseason.
It’s far too early to say that the Padres are going to dethrone the Dodgers, much less win their first World Series. But they have the pieces in place for success and all they had to do was go out and spend some money. Padres fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for over the years, but at least this Spring Training is going to be filled with the promise of a brighter future. Which is, you, know what this time of year should be about.