Last week, just days before their reported meeting Thursday with free agent outfielder Bryce Harper in his hometown of Las Vegas, the San Diego Padres landed a major-league-leading 10 players on MLB.com’s list of the top 100 prospects in baseball. Fully half of them are expected to reach Petco Park in 2019. The Padres are a franchise on the rise. The only question is when they will arrive.
Jumping into a massive contract with a free agent such as Harper would not be the typical play for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006 and is coming off a 66-96 finish in 2018. But from the Padres’ viewpoint, Thursday’s meeting, first reported by The Athletic, comes at the intersection of ambition and opportunity. Maybe their true target-year to contend in the National League West should be 2020, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take steps to hasten the process.
The extent of the Padres’ interest in Harper is still unknown, but what is known is that the market for the 26-year-old outfielder has not materialized in the way many in the industry expected. With many of the game’s biggest spenders sitting out these sweepstakes, the other known suitors for Harper are the Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox. Spring training camps open in about two weeks, and Harper doesn’t seem particularly close to signing.
Do the Padres merely sense an opening if the price on Harper has dropped, or are they prepared to go dollar-to-dollar with a team, the Phillies, whose owner has famously declared a willingness to be “a little stupid” with his spending this winter — not to mention another team, the Nationals, that already offered Harper a $300 million deal last fall? That answer might become clear in the coming days and weeks.
What is already clear is that the Padres are in an enviable position. Not only do have all those prospects coming — led by 20-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., the No. 2-ranked prospect in the game — but they also have just $74 million committed to their 2019 payroll, according to Spotrac, which ranks 25th in the majors and is some $30 million less than what they spent on 2018 payroll. After 2020, their payroll commitments drop below $50 million annually.
“We’ve never set a specific time frame” for contention, Padres General Manager A.J. Preller told reporters earlier this winter. “We know we’re going to have a lot of our [prospects] here over the course of the next two years.”
The conservative play for the Padres, coming off 96 losses, would be to give their young core another year to develop and go big next winter, when players such as Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole and Chris Sale become free agents. But it’s also possible the Padres see typical market-drivers such as the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs in the same holding pattern, and figure this is the time to strike.
On the basis of need, it would make more sense for the Padres to sign shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado — the other top prize on this free agent market. While they have a glut of outfielders on their 40-man roster, they are still looking for a solution at third base, and perhaps not surprisingly they have been linked to Machado in recent weeks.
But one of the benefits of having one of the game’s best farm systems is that you don’t always have to operate based on immediate and obvious need. If the Padres prefer Harper to Machado, they could easily put together the package of prospects — and/or big league outfielders — necessary to fill their glaring hole at third at some point down the road.
It also wouldn’t be unlike Preller to be aggressive in the marketplace. In his first offseason in the job, he acquired Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel, Wil Myers, James Shields and Justin Upton. Just a year ago, he swooped in to sign first baseman Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract in mid-February. This winter, in addition to their interest in Harper and Machado, the Padres have been linked to Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, one of the top assets available on the trade market.
The Padres may also be sensing a window opening in the NL West, where the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks appear to be rebuilding, the Colorado Rockies can see their own window beginning to close, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are trying to do something that hasn’t been done by an NL team in 75 years — return to the World Series for a third straight year.
A year ago, the Atlanta Braves, another prospect-rich franchise with a sunny future, saw their young core — led by top prospect Ronald Acuna Jr., the eventual NL rookie of the year — blossom en masse a year ahead of schedule, and ascended from 72-90 in 2017 to 90-72 and the NL East title in 2018.
The Padres can’t assume the same will happen behind Tatis and the rest of their young core in 2019. But from where they sit, at the intersection of ambition and opportunity, signing a slugger such as Harper could bring that bright future that much closer to their reach.