How long will the Padres’ Big 4 stay together?

Sports

Scott Boras thought he was prepared when A.J. Preller called him around Thanksgiving. In front of him sat a list of available players who might fulfill the San Diego Padres‘ perceived needs, most of them first basemen and corner outfielders. Then Preller, the Padres’ ninth-year general manager, began to talk about high-priced shortstop Xander Bogaerts and how he would fit into a roster that already possessed two premier players at his position. Boras, the sport’s most prominent agent, was stunned.

“When I got off the phone, I went to our staff and I said, ‘We have to do a better job of understanding how A.J. thinks about how he puts teams together,'” Boras said last Friday during Bogaerts’ introductory news conference in San Diego.

The Padres had just signed Bogaerts to an industry-rocking 11-year, $280 million contract, making their roster equal parts talented and perplexing. Preller, widely hailed for his aggressiveness, seems to prefer it that way. The Padres don’t have a first baseman or a left fielder, but they employ an everyday shortstop (Bogaerts), a cornerstone shortstop (Fernando Tatis Jr.) and a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop (Ha-Seong Kim). Just as stunning: A franchise residing within a city that ranks 30th in TV market size, according to Nielsen, is trending toward the fourth-highest payroll in baseball, with a roster boasting four of the game’s best players.

Bogaerts, Tatis, Manny Machado and Juan Soto represent what is probably the best foursome in baseball. But they’re also, predictably, expensive. Three of them possess contracts in the neighborhood of $300 million, and the other — Soto — might soon reach $400 million, if not more. The Padres’ owner, Peter Seidler, has gone all-in on bringing San Diego its first championship, elevating the payroll to levels once considered unthinkable. He insists he knows what he’s doing.

“I’m financially trained,” Seidler said. “I have a budget mind up there somewhere, and I think budgets get better when you win world championships. That’s our goal.”

The current iteration of the Padres’ roster is difficult to project. There are still too many unknowns, too many moving parts. And so it’s best to look at it as a living, breathing organism — ever evolving, never stagnant. In a year, Machado can opt out of his contract. In two, Soto can become a free agent. And in that time, the Padres will get a much better read on what to expect from Tatis, their performance-enhancing-drugs-tainted superstar. It’ll all inform the question that seemed to be on every baseball person’s mind in the wake of the Padres’ latest stunner:

How long will Bogaerts, Tatis, Machado and Soto actually stay together? Is it one year? Two? Ten?

We explore four potential scenarios.

Scenario 1: Manny Machado opts out

In late October, when St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado decided to eschew his opt-out and play out his contract, a handful of rival executives who spoke with ESPN began to suspect Machado might do the same. Then a lot of those same execs saw what transpired in the ensuing weeks — with three shortstops signing for more than 10 years and three other 30-something-year-old players exceeding $35 million annually — and changed their minds.

Machado opting out after the 2023 season and eventually signing with another team in free agency might represent the cleanest path for the Padres’ roster. Bogaerts would slide over to third base, a position he spent nearly 500 innings at early in his career; Tatis would return to shortstop on at least a semi-regular basis; and the Padres would have more money freed up to sign Soto, who basically cost them their farm system.

But that would also make the Padres worse, and they don’t want that.

“Our very strong intent — very strong — is to have Manny here for the rest of his career,” Seidler told reporters in San Diego last week. “It starts with that. Manny’s our leader. He’s lived up to everything we could have hoped for and more as a player, as a person.”

Arenado decided not to opt out of a contract that would pay him $144 million over the next five years, beginning with his age-32 season in 2023. Machado would have five years and $150 million left going into his age-31 season in 2024. Their situations are strikingly similar, but that one year — both in his age and the way the market has shifted in such a short time — might be enough to make Machado and his representatives at MVP Sports Group believe a bigger deal is attainable.

The more likely outcome, though, seems to involve the Padres restructuring Machado’s contract, kicking in more money and more years before he ventures back into free agency. Machado seems too embedded in the fabric of the city, the clubhouse, to play elsewhere.

Scenario 2: Juan Soto departs

Shohei Ohtani will be a free agent next offseason — and perhaps Soto will join him as a trade candidate, putting two young superstars up for grabs simultaneously.

If the Padres ultimately commit more than their current $30 million average annual value to Machado and continue to get the sense that Soto’s free agent demands will be astronomical, maybe they’ll seek to move him with a year of control remaining — like the Boston Red Sox did with Mookie Betts — to both free up money and restock their system. Or maybe — in what might represent the more likely outcome, given their clear adoration for Soto — they’ll play it out, give it their best shot and risk coming up short.

Soto, also represented by Boras, would be an exceedingly young free agent, just after his age-25 season, as Machado and Bryce Harper both were in 2018. Machado and Harper secured $300 million-plus contracts that didn’t materialize until late in the ensuing offseason. But that was four years ago, a lifetime when you consider the frenetic spending that has dominated the industry in recent weeks.

Aaron Judge got $360 million spread out over nine years from the New York Yankees going into his age-31 season; Trea Turner, who hits his 30s next summer, secured $300 million from the Philadelphia Phillies; Jacob deGrom, who turns 35 in June, signed a deal with the Texas Rangers that could eventually exceed $200 million.

If he plays to his capability over these next two years, Soto might become baseball’s first $500 million player (or second, if Ohtani does it first). His AAV could reach the $40 million mark attained by Judge. That coupled with Tatis ($24.3 million AAV), Bogaerts ($25.5 million) and Machado (at least $30 million) would push the Padres to average annual commitments of about $120 million for four players by 2025.

That would represent basically half of baseball’s luxury tax threshold by then.

Scenario 3: Fernando Tatis Jr. is traded

It was late into the night on Oct. 15, with music blaring, champagne flowing and an entire city buzzing. The Padres had finally conquered their arch nemesis, the Los Angeles Dodgers, eliminating them in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. But Seidler, standing near the middle of a raucous clubhouse celebration, had his mind elsewhere.

“I will predict Fernando Tatis will be back next year,” he said, unprompted, in a conversation with ESPN that night. “He’s doing everything right as he resets what he needs to do to be the great player that he is.”

The Padres rewarded Tatis with what was deemed a “statue” contract in February 2021, a historic 14-year, $340 million extension, even though he had played in only 143 major league games at that point. Put yourself in that moment, and now imagine someone telling you the Padres would spend $280 million on another shortstop just 22 months later. That is now reality.

The Bogaerts addition makes the Padres a juggernaut. But it might also speak to their eroding trust in Tatis, whose future in San Diego only feels murkier.

Tatis, a source with knowledge of the situation said, has always been adamant about being an everyday shortstop, which helps explain why he seemed so lethargic when the Padres occasionally played him in the outfield during the stretch run of 2021.

But if Machado — the team leader, at least among position players — stays, Tatis seems poised to spend the rest of his career in the outfield. Maybe he’ll embrace it; he is said to be doing all the right things in an effort to regain trust within the organization, evidenced by his acquiescence to recent shoulder and wrist surgeries. Or maybe, eventually, it’ll become a problem that can only be resolved through a trade.

In the wake of Bogaerts’ signing, rival executives quickly shot down the possibility of the Padres trading Tatis this offseason. He’s only 23, with years of superstardom still in front of him. But he’s owed a gargantuan sum, and his value is too low coming off a lost season that began with a fractured wrist and ended with a PED suspension. Besides, Tatis’ deal allows him to block any trade through 2028.

If he’s unhappy about his role or feels ostracized in general, perhaps that’s a conversation Tatis and Preller will eventually have.

Or maybe, somehow, it all works out.

Scenario 4: All four stay

Tatis, Machado, Bogaerts, Soto and starting pitcher Joe Musgrove — the local kid who signed a five-year, $100 million extension in August, bypassing looming free agency — will combine to make about $104 million in 2023. If you go by average annual value — the amount used to determine where teams reside relative to the luxury tax threshold — it’s about $121 million. Given Soto’s potential free agent contract and Machado’s presumed raise, those five could add up to something approaching $150 million in combined AAV by the 2025 season.

And that brings us to the big question when it comes to these Padres: How sustainable is this?

The Padres are already on pace to exceed the luxury tax threshold for the third consecutive year in 2023, triggering at least a 50% tax on every dollar spent above $233 million. If the payroll reaches $253 million — the Padres project to be right around there at the moment — a surcharge of 12% is tacked on. Their aggressive approach is admirable, but it might also be dangerous.

Teams with bloated contracts often get into what is referred to around baseball as “tax hell.” The payroll keeps rising as players get older, the penalties for exceeding the luxury tax continue to escalate — both in money and draft picks — and the quickest way to escape the vicious cycle is to strip the roster bare and rebuild. The Padres, a franchise that experienced something similar a half-decade ago, might face an even smaller margin for error because of both their modest market size and their shallow farm system, the latter of which makes it harder to balance the payroll with substantive production from pre-arbitration players. One veteran scout who is well versed in the team’s minor league system said the talent “drops off the cliff” once you get past 19-year-old shortstop Jackson Merrill.

But there’s another important aspect to consider here: the tradability of their roster.

Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, bona fide top-of-the-rotation starters, are only a year away from free agency and would be coveted by the multitude of teams who missed out on this winter’s top free agent starting pitchers. The same can be said for Josh Hader, who proved down the stretch he can still perform among the sport’s elite closers. Jake Cronenworth is a controllable, versatile, cost-effective infielder who would also draw lots of attention via trade. The same can be said, though perhaps to a lesser extent, of Kim.

The Padres can still maneuver creatively. It’s an area in which Preller excels, as evidenced by the teardown of 2016 and the buildup of 2020. And that brings us to the most important aspect of this roster:

It’s still breathing.

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