It’s doesn’t make much sense to talk about the 2018-2019 free agent class for a lot of reasons, perhaps most obviously because it’s a long time away. But we’ll do it anyway.
When the Padres went for it a few years back, it was exciting. Even though there were some questionable deals, it was still exciting. Looking back, though, with the knowledge we have now, it was maybe a little less exciting. Matt Kemp was getting older and was, in many ways, in severe decline. Justin Upton was only brought on for one year. Wil Myers didn’t have a clear position to play. Derek Norris was just, kind of, a guy. Will Middlebrooks. Never did understand why Will Middlebrooks was always mentioned as one of the big acquisitions of that offseason, but it feels right to mention him here. James Shields was surprisingly available for relatively cheap, and for good reasons. Craig Kimbrel was still good—great, even—but he wasn’t Craig Kimbrel.
The Padres were hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, essentially, and instead . . . well, maybe they did catch lighting in a bottle. Catching lightning in a bottle doesn’t sound too pleasant, really. Either way, things didn’t work out. Just looking back at that offseason retrospectively—and we kind of knew this in real time, too—we can say that the Padres tried to half-ass their way into a contending team. Sure, they bumped the payroll up over $100 million and added some legitimate talent, but they also moved prematurely, without a winning cast of players surrounding the high-priced newcomers.
The good news is that the failure of the 2015 season prompted the Padres to backpedal. To their credit, they didn’t try to stick out the failed experiment for too long, and by mid-way through last year, an all-out rebuild had begun. Right now, the Padres are in a much better place. Sure, their uniforms stink and there are still maybe some questions about ownership and upper management and they might lose 100 games, but the Padres have spent the last year-plus acquiring a ridiculous amount of young talent, from the scrap heap of the Rule 5 draft to the international market to the draft to the trade market. I’m not sure if the Padres have the best farm system in the game, but they’re probably top five, and it’s a system loaded with high-upside and depth.
If things work out, the Padres should be really bad over the next season or two and then, by maybe 2019 or 2020, they should start to be good again. Like, really good. By then—and let’s play with some ridiculous long-term speculation here—they could have a group of position players that look like this:
The rotation could look something like this:
There are a bunch of different ways things could break, of course, and almost certainly all of the players mentioned above won’t pan out. But that’s a real foundation of talent, and that’s without adding a single additional player. If Nix doesn’t make it, maybe Chris Paddack will return successfully from Tommy John surgery or Dinelson Lamet will step forward. If Luis Urias stops hitting (sorry Oscar, it could happen), maybe Carlos Asuaje will turn into more than a role player or Cory Spangenberg will stay healthy. The point is, if the overall plan works out, and if A.J Preller and the Padres prove good on finding and developing talent, the Padres roster should be stacked by the end of the decade.
And that is when the Padres should really go for it.
Think about it. The payroll should still be really low, as only Myers and Solarte would project to earn significant dollars by then, so there will be money to spend. And the window for that group, theoretically, should extend for half a decade.
The reason Harper and Machado make so much sense—beyond the simple fact that they’re really good ball players—is that, somehow, they’ll only be 26 when they hit free agency. Since they started their big-league careers so young (both at 19), they’ll hit the free agent market headed into their age-26 seasons, whereas most players enter free agency somewhere around 30 (or older). Of course, in one sense, they make sense for every team. Who doesn’t want a young, marketable superstar? But since the Padres, themselves, project to be both young and good in 2019 and 2020 and beyond, both players make extra good sense for San Diego.
Let’s say they sign Harper, and by then he’s a pretty well-established 6-7 WAR player. The Padres don’t have to be all-in to win in 2019 or 2020. Other teams—like the Nationals, Red Sox, or Yankees—may have shorter windows in 2019. For them, adding Harper is great for the short-term, but what do they do after 2020, when all that’s left is Harper and a bunch of older dudes. Imagine this scenario, with Harper’s WAR totals on the left and the Padres win totals on the right:
|Year||Harper WAR||Padres Wins|
While Harper’s best years might come before the Padres are truly ready to compete, he’d still be under 30 and mighty productive by the time they were. Okay, some questions.
Will they be affordable?
If Harper bounces back to anywhere near his 2015 form and Machado keeps pounding out 30-homer years with Brooks Robinson-style defense, they’ll both be super expensive. Record-breaking expensive. The Yankees have already reserved a locker or two for Harper, apparently. While our sense of history for the Padres tells us they couldn’t afford a $300 or $400 million deal, they almost certainly could. For one, they should save gobs of money over the next couple years, as the payroll bottoms out. And two, baseball teams are rich—like pretty much all of them. Worst-case scenario, if they couldn’t afford to keep him for the entire (let’s say) 10-year deal, the Padres could simply deal Harper to a big-market club willing to take on the contract and, ahem, start over.
Will they be good?
Machado is definitely moving in the right direction. Sometimes these sorts of thing can be misleading, but he’s improved his OPS every year in his career, peaking at .876 last year. By WARP, Baseball Prospectus’ measure of value, he’s posted three 6-win seasons out of the last four, and he has the kind of broad skill-set that should age well. Harper had one of the greatest offensive years we’ve ever seen in 2015, but he hit a comparatively paltry .243/.373/.441 last season. He still owns a career .883 OPS and a seemingly endless amount of potential to tap into. Right now, he appears a bit risky, but things should clear up over the next two seasons.
There’s obviously a bunch that could happen over the next couple of years, but for the most part, yeah, these guys should still be really good.
Is there a preference?
It really depends. If the outfield is loaded with young guys that have proven their worth, maybe Machado makes sense. If Solarte (or, who knows, Ryan Schimpf) is still a staple at third by then, maybe you lean toward Harper. It’s also possible, given Machado’s ridiculous defensive acumen, that the Padres try to move him to shortstop and solve that never-ending nightmare. It’s a move that often doesn’t work for older players, but Machado will only be in his mid-20s and he racked up over 400 innings at short last year and was almost exclusively a shortstop in the minors. Could help in negotiations, too.
Should they sign more players?
The ’18-’19 free agent class is more than just top heavy. There are a number of mildly interesting, not-to-old shortstops hitting the market. Josh Donaldson, Adam Jones, Charlie Blackmon, and A.J. Pollock should all be available. And there will be plenty of big name pitchers. If the Padres were really going to do this, it’d make sense to add additional veteran talent to fill areas of need.
Wait, seriously, are you nuts?
It’s certainly a long shot, to some degree, but the Padres have proven—in really, really small baby steps—that they can be legit players on the market. Not only did the break the bank to add Shields (via free agency) and a bunch of other players varying in expense through trades in the 2014-2015 offseason, but they also spent a ton on international amateurs this year (north of $60 million as of this writing, taxes included). That’s still a long way from spending $300-plus million on a single player, but, hey, it’s not impossible.
And it beats another article about the Rule 5 draft.