The Los Angeles Dodgers may be the defending World Champions, but 2021 may find them face to face with a division foe that’s ready to snatch away their strangle hold not just on the National League West, but the entire NL at large.
In an off-season of pinching pennies and trying to squeeze the most value out of the least dollars throughout baseball, there have been a few teams willing to go against the grain and swing their financial weight around in an effort to push themselves over the top. For these select few such as the Mets and Blue Jays, their theory is that the new market inefficiency, even better, the new counter-move to compete against the teams entrenched at the top of the standings is to outspend them. “Moneyball” has seemingly come full-circle.
But more than even the Mets and Blue Jays, the San Diego Padres are our prime example. Under the watchful eye of General Manager AJ Preller, the Padres have never been shy to spend on payroll since he first took his seat in their front office in the summer of 2014. This is exemplified by the $80 million he committed to free agents in his first off-season, most of it tied up in the then 33-year-old veteran starter James Shields. Shields would not make it through half of his 4-year deal before being traded out of town in June of 2016 to the White Sox for Erik Johnson, another right handed starting pitcher who would pitch a grand total of 19 2/3 innings for the Padres before needing Tommy John surgery, returning to the minors and ultimately being out of baseball.
But there was another piece to that 2016 trade with the White Sox. The Padres also gained a 17-year-old Dominican kid newly signed on the international market, having never played an inning of pro baseball but with a familiar namesake and baseball background. AJ Preller’s first big signing as a General Manager and his last move in a rebuild that culminated this past week are directly connected. Today that 17-year-old Dominican kid not only bats 2nd and plays shortstop for the Padres, but finished 4th in the National League Most Valuable Player and took home a Silver Slugger in his 2nd second at the age of just 21. He’s done it all with charisma and confidence, and some would even call him the future face of this great game. And that’s why its was universally lauded when Fernando Tatis Jr. received his remarkable 14 year, $340 million extension from the Padres- the type of deal that could keep him in San Diego for life; the type of deal that even the great Tony Gwynn never received in his early days with the Friars.
In between Shields and Tatis there were a long line of moves. Really, this story doesn’t truthfully even begin with Shields. Months before his signing, 1B/OF Wil Myers was brought to town by Preller in a three-team trade and he’s been a consistent force on their roster ever since, receiving his own 6-year $84 million extension in 2017. He will enter his age 30 season in 2021 looking to be the every day right fielder for the Padres.
Despite the opening moves of Myers and Shields, the Padres struggled early on in the Preller regime as they never won more than the 74 games (2015). From the outside, things looked like they might get worse with the free agent signing of Eric Hosmer before the 2018 season. The addition of the former Royals first baseman was panned not only by analytics mavens across baseball, but by basically anyone that had ever looked at a calculator before. $144 million was committed to Hosmer over the course of 8 seasons starting with 2018, and fans and media members alike criticized the deal for a 1st baseman with overrated glove skills and lacking prodigious power. But Hosmer has been solid, even above average. 2020 showed him post the second best OPS+ of his career at 131. He even slugged in the .500s for the first time ever in the Majors in his age 30 season.
What we didn’t know at the time was that the Hosmer signing was merely the opening salvo in the new rebuilding plan for the Padres. If $144 million bought the Padres “solid, even above average” then their intentions were clear with the 10 years and $300 million they committed to infielder Manny Machado before the 2019 campaign. Losing record be darned, the time to bring in even greater talent was now. The Padres may not have yet been a winning team, but make no mistake, it wouldn’t be for a lack of trying or expense spared. And in 2020, the strategy began to bare fruit with the team’s first playoff birth since 2006, even if the season ended sourly with a 3-game sweep by the eventual champion Dodgers. The pieces have finally started coming together.
Bringing in Machado was a huge part of that coalescing. After struggling a little in his first season at Petco Park, he was fantastic in 2020. He finished just ahead of Tatis in the MVP vote and brought in as slash line of .304/.370/.580 while manning third base in possibly the best right side of the infield in baseball.
And well, with the dollars they are now devoting, it should be the best right side of the infield in baseball. Really, the entire infield has been where Preller has thrown his financial resources. Hosmer, Machado and Tatis will make an Average Annual Value of $72.2 million combined for at least the next five seasons before Hosmer’s contract expires. They also committed another $7 million per year for 4 years to Korean import Ha-Seong Kim who figures to be in the infield mix. Really, the only odd man out is Jake Cronenworth, another shortstop by trade with great versatility who played all over the infield for the Padres as a rookie in 2020 but mainly at second base. He finished 2nd in the National League Rookie of the Year vote and will only make his paltry 2nd year base salary for 2021 as of now.
Cronenworth is indicative of something else about the Padres’ construction though. He wasn’t the main catch for the team in the December 2019 trade that brought him from Tampa Bay to San Diego, that distinction goes to outfielder Tommy Pham. But the overall trade was indicative of a strategy that Preller became very comfortable employing in the following months, particularly with his pitching staff.
If you are a small market team fearful of the arbitration or free agency payday of one of your quality young players, San Diego will totally take them off your hands. Preller’s spending spree has gone past traditional free agency and directly to these trades. Pham is a prime example of an above average outfielder in his arbitration years that the Rays just did not want to pay.
The same can be said for pitchers Mike Clevinger formerly of the Indians, Yu Darvish formerly of the Cubs, Blake Snell also of the Rays and Joe Musgrove of the Pirates. The Padres could nearly make a full starting rotation out of other teams’ former aces that had been deemed too expensive (Clevinger is injured for the entirety of 2021, but still). Even smaller trades such as the Padres acquiring of outfielder Jurickson Profar (Oakland), catcher Victor Caratini (Cubs, again) and Emilio Pagan (Rays, again) are all the product of arbitration pressure being placed on those players’ original teams.
In reality, its quite brilliant. Preller is dealing with some of the most successful organizations in baseball over and over again- the Cubs, Indians and Rays, for instance- and whether their financial stress is fabricated or real, San Diego is taking advantage with the peace of mind that these teams produce and tie themselves to quality talent. The sheer amount of times they have traded with the Rays alone- Myers, Shields, Pham, Cronenworth, Snell, Pagan- you’d think they had put in a feeder system or installed a pipeline. Someone else is doing the vetting for San Diego, and San Diego is just willing to pay the price.
And that price is their top prospects. The Padres have been a Top 4 minor league system according to MLB.com since 2017, yet not a single soul on their projected 26-man roster is former Padres draftee. Instead, that 2017 list of their top prospects is populated with current Tampa Bay Rays like Manny Margot and Cleveland Indians like Cal Quantrill. The only projected member of their 2021 roster not brought in via trade or free agency is international amateur free agent starting pitcher Dinelson Lamet. Oddly, the Padres have built this entire thing outside of the draft and mostly in free agency or trades that brought them Major League talent (Tatis is the huge caveat here of course, as said, they traded for him at 17 years old).
Which brings us back to the Dodgers, which are a stark contrast. Half of their projected 26-man roster is made up of players that started their professional careers in the Dodgers organization. Ten of those were through the draft. Some of those names- Seager, Bellinger, Kershaw, Buehler, Jansen– are among the most prominent on their team. That’s not to say they haven’t opened up their own purse strings. Before Tatis’s extension the biggest contract news in baseball was their 3-year $102 million addition of starting pitcher Trevor Bauer. Last year they pulled a Preller and brought in outfielder Mookie Betts from the Boston Red Sox as he was gearing up for his final year of arbitration before free agency.
Still, the contrast is stark. And David isn’t coming to the battle with Goliath with his home-made slingshot, but rather the best weaponry he could buy. In the twenty years since Moneyball, every team has become smarter with their money whether they feel the financial stress to do so or not. Even the biggest of markets now fear the dreaded luxury tax. In some weird way, Preller is trying to prove that this new enlightenment has actually become their weakness.