Home Los Angeles News Is this good for baseball? Part II: The Padres’ spending spree

Is this good for baseball? Part II: The Padres’ spending spree

Is this good for baseball? Part II: The Padres’ spending spree

At the risk of sounding hypocritical, I’ve been feeling hypocritical lately.

In December, I used this space to question several facets of the Atlanta Braves’ strategy to sign nine of their young players to long-term contracts – really long-term contracts – that can prevent most of them from reaching free agency until 2029 at the earliest.

I didn’t hate the spending spree for the people in Atlanta: the front office, the players and, mostly, the fans. For a generation too young to invest in a Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine or John Smoltz jersey, now is their chance to reserve space on a new, nascent bandwagon. For fans of the other 29 teams – unless you’re the type of psycho who pines for the reserve clause – the trend isn’t an unqualified positive.

My sense of hypocrisy crept in when the San Diego Padres recently extended the contract of star third baseman Manny Machado. The 11-year, $350 million pact delays Machado’s free agency until 2033, and will prevent every team who loses the forthcoming Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes from signing an All-Star position player next winter.

In the Padres’ team store, much like in Atlanta, a Machado jersey isn’t the only hot item. Fernando Tatis Jr. is under contract until 2034, Xander Bogaerts until 2033, Yu Darvish until 2028, Joe Musgrove until 2027.

In a literal sense, the difference between Atlanta’s “Core 9” and San Diego’s “Core 5” is, well, four. (Three if the Padres are able to sign star outfielder Juan Soto to a long-term extension.) It seems difficult to be a fan of what one team is doing and not the other. If the Braves’ strategy is a net negative for the fans of most major league teams, whither goest the Padres?

Call me a hypocrite, but I can’t wait to find out.

According to Nielsen, San Diego is the 30th-largest media market in North America, ranking behind Triple-A cities like Salt Lake City, Nashville, Indianapolis, Raleigh and Charlotte. The idea that a team in San Diego could not merely compete for playoff berths and championships in an uncapped league like MLB, but spend its way into contention like a big-market behemoth, is a novelty.

Excluding potential contract options and competitive-balance taxes, San Diego has more than $1.5 billion in salary commitments beyond this year. The New York Yankees have $1.2 billion, the Mets a bit less than $1 billion. For most of baseball history, this would have been unfathomable.

Now it is not, thanks to the unique combination of unbridled ambitions and untapped wealth of the Padres’ majority owner, Peter Seidler. Seidler is spending as if the foreboding collapse of baseball’s Regional Sports Network-driven revenue model does not apply in San Diego. (It does.)

The beauty of sports is that we don’t have to reach to define the “real winners” and the “real losers.” The scores and the standings do it for us. The real winners of the Padres’ rapidly expanding budget are everyone involved with the franchise and its fans.

Accuse me of playing mental gymnastics, but I don’t think we can count the fans of 29 other teams among the “real losers” of the Padres’ newfound wealth.

Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee all rank behind San Diego in terms of market size, according to Nielsen. Pittsburgh ranks just ahead. In places like these, the wisdom has gone unquestioned: mistake-free drafting and developing, and catching lightning in a bottle via trades and the free agent market, are a front office’s only means for putting a contending baseball team on the field.

If ever there were a rule waiting for an exception, it was this one. The Padres’ new trajectory represents a new glimmer of hope for fans of small-market teams everywhere. Amid unusual revenue-stream chaos, and the usual complaints about revenue disparities among owners, Seidler has made no excuses for his team’s payroll – quite the opposite, in fact.

You don’t have to sympathize with Padres fans to appreciate what this means. Five division titles and no World Series championships in 54 seasons suggests some measure of success is overdue in San Diego, but this is about more than one team. It’s about shredding the veil of secrecy that separates what the public knows about players’ income (quite a lot) and owners’ income (almost nothing). Seidler’s spending spree suggests there is much more available in other small-market coffers around MLB.

Maybe the impetus was the Padres’ championship drought, or the NFL’s Chargers leaving for Los Angeles, or the need to spend big to compete with the perennially contending Dodgers. (Don’t discount the Mets’ big-spending habits as a driving factor in Atlanta, either.)

Whatever the case, it is not too much for fans of small-market teams to insist their owner put a winning team on the field by whatever means necessary. The means are available in San Diego now, and that is great news for baseball.