Padres fans hated the line. Padres officials hated it, too. So consider this a pre-emptive strike to spare @OldTakesExposed from crashing when members of both constituencies rush to submit the question I posed in a Feb. 2021 column after the Pads signed shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 14-year, $340 million extension.
How the heck are the Padres going to sustain this?
The question was valid then. It is valid now. But general manager A.J. Preller’s hyperactive style is so bold, so electric, so much more fun than the rest of the industry’s slavish devotion to efficiency, I’m almost inspired to shout from the middle of a pack of lions at the San Diego Zoo, WHO CARES?
The whole thing is dizzying, almost impossible to process. Preller has yet to prove he can build a complete roster. The Padres have yet to reach the postseason in a full season since he became GM in Aug. 2014. But Preller’s team in the final two months will feature Tatis, who soon will make his season debut coming off a broken left wrist, along with five 2022 All-Stars — Manny Machado, Joe Musgrove and Jake Cronenworth, plus, ahem, Josh Hader and Juan Soto. Two other players acquired by Preller before Tuesday’s trade deadline, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury, were near All-Stars, too.
How the heck are the Padres going to sustain this? I have no earthly idea, and I’ll get to the cost of Preller’s latest shopping spree, in prospects and dollars, in a moment. But first, the bottom line: Soto is 23, a staggering talent and under club control for the next three pennant races. He gives the Padres a reasonable chance of winning the World Series for the first time in their 54-year history, particularly now that the team has an accomplished veteran manager, Bob Melvin, to sort through all the players’ egos and run games professionally.
The Padres pushed in at the right time, when they had the right prospects to trade and a major-league team good enough to contend. They still might not be as good as the Dodgers. But however this all plays out, Preller and owner Peter Seidler will stick to their philosophy regarding the future: We’ll figure it out later. And if they aren’t wringing their hands, maybe we shouldn’t, either.
In my column on the Tatis extension, written less than 18 months ago, I mentioned the deal figured to push the Padres’ payroll commitments in 2021 to more than $180 million, nearly double what they were in the previous full major-league season, 2019. The Padres wound up finishing with a luxury-tax payroll (based on average annual values of all contracts, not total salaries) of $216.5 million, exceeding the threshold for the first time.
Pretty stunning, especially when considering that the only other club to pay the luxury tax last season was the Dodgers, who play in the much larger Los Angeles market. Well, here the Padres go again. Their additions of Hader, Soto, Bell and Co. increased their current luxury-tax payroll to an estimated $242.2 million, above the new initial threshold of $230 million. That’s not a huge problem — the Padres, as a repeat offender, would pay a 30 percent tax for every dollar they are over threshold, an amount that currently would equate to about $3.66 million. But consider all of the associated costs:
• The acquisition of Bell left no room for first baseman Eric Hosmer, so the Padres traded him to the Red Sox, agreeing to pay the entire three-plus remaining years of his contract except the minimum salary — about $44 million. They included two prospects in the trade and received another, left-hander Jay Groome, the 12th overall pick in 2016. Groome would have come a lot cheaper if the Padres had just drafted him at No. 8 that year instead of righty Cal Quantrill. Of course, the Padres later traded Quantrill as part of a haul for righty Mike Clevinger. That’s what they do.
Hosmer was Preller’s original prize, the recipient of an eight-year, $144 million free-agent contract in Feb. 2018. His annual salaries will continue to count against the Padres’ luxury-tax calculation. And chances are, his contract will not be the last one the Padres regret.
• Eight of the prospects Preller traded at the deadline originally signed with the Padres, either through the amateur draft or international market, for about $23.5 million combined (two other prospects were acquired in previous deals).
The Padres, after paying those sums, forfeited the surplus values the prospects will provide if they reach the majors, particularly in their first three years as minimum-salary players. A good number of them should succeed, too. Left-hander MacKenzie Gore, shortstop CJ Abrams and outfielder Robert Hassell III all were top 10 draft picks. Outfielder James Wood was a second-rounder who emerged as the Padres’ most coveted prospect. Pitcher Jarlin Susana and shortstop Victor Acosta were prized members of the 2021-22 international class.
• It’s not like this is the first time the Padres traded youngsters. Going back to the 2020 trade deadline, a span of less than two years, they have dealt one prospect after another in deals for Clevinger, Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Musgrove, Adam Frazier and others. They recouped other youngsters in later trades, including Corey Rosier, who went to the Red Sox in the Hosmer deal. But they also parted with some quality players, most notably Ty France, but also Andrés Muñoz, Josh Naylor, Quantrill and others still in development.
Many in the industry believe that at some point, all of Preller’s frenetic wheeling and dealing will catch up with him. But for now, he has Tatis and Soto at 23, Cronenworth and Hader at 28, and Machado at 30, all under control through at least next season (and in every case but Hader’s, beyond). Musgrove, 29, just signed a five-year, $100 million extension. Two other starters, Darvish, 35, and Snell, 29, also are under contract through next season.
Preller believes his scouting and player development staffs are good enough to keep the farm system strong; two of the players he traded, Wood (in the Soto-Bell dell) and Robert Gasser (Hader) were 2021 draft picks; and Susana and Acosta, as mentioned earlier, were 2021-22 international signees. Other prospects who were not on teams’ radars a year ago elevated their games, becoming valued trade commodities. And once more, let’s not forget the bottom line: Preller ended up with Josh Hader and Juan Soto!
How the heck will the Padres sustain this? If they’re not worried, I’m not worried. I’m just going to enjoy the show.
Incentives from some, not all
Major League Baseball, when confronted with the question of whether an expanded postseason would reduce competition, pointed to the incentives in the new format. The two teams with the best overall records in each league get first-round byes. The other division champion and top wild card play only at home in the best-of-three first round. The additional wild card in each league offers one more opportunity for teams to grab a playoff berth that was not available previously.
So, how did the incentives affect team behavior at the deadline? Depends which team you were talking about. Two clubs already assured of byes, the Yankees and Astros, kept pushing, if only to potentially secure home-field advantage in the American League Championship Series and World Series. The Padres and Mariners made dramatic moves even though their only possible gain is home-field advantage in the wild-card round. But other clubs — the Red Sox, Orioles, Guardians, White Sox and Giants — did not seem particularly incentivized.
Each situation is different. The Orioles, in the middle of a surprising season, maintained their long-term focus, trading their most popular player, Trey Mancini, and closer, Jorge López, effectively telling their players and fans, “Nothing in the next two months matters.” The Red Sox made a series of curious buy-sell moves that left them still in position to contend, but not in as strong a position as they would have been by keeping catcher Christian Vázquez for two low-ranked prospects.
The Guardians and White Sox sat practically motionless, while the Twins upgraded with closer Jorge López, right-handed starter Tyler Mahle and reliever Michael Fulmer. The Giants shrewdly traded three players who were on the injured list and turned Darin Ruf into a comparable right-handed bat, J.D. Davis, and three other players, but did not find offers they wanted for lefty Carlos Rodón and outfielder Joc Pederson.
Not to rehash the labor negotiations, but additional incentives are necessary to drive competition. The union proposed a formula for the draft lottery based 60 percent on won-loss record from the prior season and 40 percent on market size. It also proposed additional compensation picks for revenue-sharing recipients that finished above .500 or made the postseason. Neither concept made it into the collective-bargaining agreement.
Another deadline, another bullpen disruption
When the Brewers moved Hader, they stunned their clubhouse much like the Mariners did in the middle of a pennant race last year with their trade of relievers Kendall Graveman and Rafael Montero to the division rival Astros for reliever Joe Smith and infielder Abraham Toro.
The Mariners recovered. The front office reinforced the bullpen two days later by acquiring reliever Diego Castillo from the Rays for reliever JT Chargois and minor-league infielder/outfielder Austin Shenton. And the team, after proceeding to lose eight of their next 12 games, went on a 31-17 tear to finish with 90 wins and a near-playoff berth.
Overall, the jury on the deals is still out. Graveman performed well for the Astros last season before becoming a free agent, and Montero has been excellent this season, his walk year. Castillo (two more years) and Toro (four more) are under club control for considerably longer.
The Hader trade was perhaps even more jolting than the Mariners’ moves were. Hader is the winner of three of the past four Trevor Hoffman Awards as the best reliever in the NL, and the Brewers sent him to a potential postseason opponent. But the Brewers could end up with a deeper, more flexible bullpen after acquiring Taylor Rogers in their package for Hader, then trading for the Rangers’ Matt Bush and Giants’ Trevor Rosenthal, who has yet to pitch in 2022.
Some of the Brewers’ decision-makers were frustrated by Hader’s preference the past two seasons to limit his outings to one inning, which restricted his value to the club and would have been of particular concern in the playoffs. Aroldis Chapman with the Cubs and Kenley Jansen with the Dodgers were not as rigid about their usage, especially in the postseason.
Hader, who frequently pitched multiple innings early in his career, believes that shorter outings enable him to work more often. He had only two playoff appearances last season, both for one inning, and perhaps will take a more flexible stance with the Padres. But he also might want to continue his approach, believing it keeps him healthy. He is a free agent after next season.
Unwanted outcome for Cubs’ Contreras
Winners and losers at the deadline are always difficult to assess. It takes years to evaluate most trades properly. But Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, a potential free agent, was a clear loser for two reasons. No team valued him enough to persuade the Cubs to trade him. And Contreras is now likely to receive a qualifying offer, something he would have avoided by rule if the team had moved him.
The qualifying offer remained intact when the league and players’ union failed to reach agreement last month on an international draft. The Cubs are almost certain to extend such an offer to Contreras, enabling them to qualify for a draft pick after Competitive Balance B, which this year extended from selections 67 to 80. Any team that signs Contreras then will be subject to the loss of one or more picks, a potential drag on his value.
Contreras already faced one handicap on the open market as a catcher entering his Age 31 season. Catchers in their 30s do not always age well. Recent long-term deals for J.T. Realmuto (five years, $115.5 million), Salvador Perez (four years, $82 million) and Yasmani Grandal (four years, $73 million) all look problematic.
Perhaps even more alarming: The seeming lack of demand for Contreras at the deadline, even though his hard-hit percentage and maximum velocity are in the top 3 percent of the sport. The universal DH enables Contreras to serve multiple roles, but incorporating a new catcher is not easy for a team in the middle of a pennant race, particularly when the catcher’s defensive reputation is not the best to begin with.
An executive from one team with interest in Contreras expressed concern about the way he works with pitchers. He is not regarded as an elite pitch framer or game caller. And while he works hard, some question his willingness to accept criticism.
All of these questions are likely to resurface when he hits the free-agent market.
That said, it’s certainly fair to question the Cubs for not trading Contreras previously, particularly now that their only possible compensation will be a pick after the second round. Contreras, learning from the sour farewells of some of his teammates a year ago, made a point to handle himself with class and professionalism this season. Now he’s stuck for the next two months with a team that does not want him, a team going nowhere.
Is it really so difficult?
The list of trade candidates who remained with their clubs included not just Contreras and Cubs teammate Ian Happ, but also Rodón and Pederson, Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez, Marlins right-handed starter Pablo López, and two left-handed relievers, the Rangers’ Matt Moore and Tigers’ Andrew Chafin.
The remaining club control on Happ (one additional year) and López (two) complicated trade negotiations. But in a market starved for starting pitching, it’s difficult to imagine how Rodón, who amounted to a rental because of his opt-out, stayed put. The same can be said of Moore and Chafin, both of whom are pitching well (Moore is a potential free agent; Chafin can opt out or remain under contract for $6.5 million next season).
Those are just some examples. I don’t know enough about the individual negotiations to assess blame on the buyers or sellers. I’ll just say this: Making trades shouldn’t be so hard.
Around the horn
• The Braves’ trade with the Angels for reliever Raisel Iglesias — and willingness to take on the rest of his $10 million salary this season and $16 million salaries from 2023 to 2025 — was not particularly out of character.
In 2020, the Braves also had two big-money relievers — Mark Melancon at $14 million and Will Smith at $13 million (their salaries were pro-rated in the shortened season). Before trading Smith to the Astros for Jake Odorizzi on Monday, they had him under contract for $13 million and Kenley Jansen for $16 million.
So, while the addition of Iglesias offers protection against the departure of Jansen as a free agent, it’s not out of the question the Braves will re-sign Jansen and carry two expensive relievers again.
• I never quite pictured the Cardinals getting serious on Soto; as I explained Saturday, they are the anti-Padres, always guarding their top young talent as they balance the present and future. They also were not especially active in their pursuit of Frankie Montas, who went to the Yankees with reliever Lou Trivino for four prospects, three of whom were pitchers.
The Cardinals, though, still came out reasonably well, acquiring two left-handed starting pitchers, Jordan Montgomery from the Yankees and José Quintana from the Pirates, to address their most pressing need. The trade of Harrison Bader for Montgomery opens up center field for Dylan Carlson, with Tyler O’Neill in left and some combination of Lars Nootbaar, Corey Dickerson and Brendan Donovan in right. The promotion of Alec Burleson, the compensation pick for Marcell Ozuna in 2020, also is a possibility.
• The Mariners made a significant offer for Soto at the outset of the Nationals’ negotiating process, sources said, leading their package with shortstops Noelvi Marte and Edwin Arroyo, two of the players who ultimately helped them land Luis Castillo from the Reds.
Many in the industry considered the Reds’ four-player return for Castillo a coup, even though he was the best available starting pitcher on the trade market, and came with one additional year of club control. Yet, the same framework did not even get the Mariners close in the Soto sweepstakes.
Yes, Soto had two more years of club control, but the Nationals ended up with precisely what I reported they were seeking on July 23 — four to five top young players, a combination of prospects and major leaguers with low service time. Oh, and Luke Voit, too.
Finally, I urge you to read Andy McCullough’s lovely obituary on Vin Scully. It is not an exaggeration to say Vin was the most beloved person in baseball, a broadcaster who told amazing stories and carried himself with amazing grace.
Vin’s call of Kirk Gibson’s legendary at-bat and home run against Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series was one of the many monuments he left us. I was in the Dodger Stadium press box that night, and every so often I watch the nearly 10-minute video on YouTube, bringing back one of my favorite baseball memories.
Before learning of Vin’s passing on Tuesday night, I had a plan for how to end this column: By predicting the newest Dodger, Joey Gallo, would produce a Gibson-like moment against the Yankees in the World Series. After the announcement, I thought twice about including the joke, not wanting to be disrespectful. But now I’m sitting here smiling, imagining how Vin might have described the scene.
He would have loved it, right? He saw players as people. He spoke in poetry. He brought honor to our sport.
(Top photo of Josh Bell and Juan Soto: G Fiume / Getty Images)