PEORIA, Ariz. — The world at large, the greater baseball community and the members of the 2019 San Diego Padres all found out at roughly the same time, and through the same means — a great rush of breaking news, transmitted via social media Feb. 19 — that the team had just landed star free agent infielder Manny Machado. It was late morning at the Padres’ spring training camp, with the players heading out for pre-workout stretching, and the feeling was of a giant foot pressing down on a giant accelerator.
Nearly four weeks later, the feeling has yet to leave the Padres. With Opening Day now bearing down on them, about two weeks in the distance, the initial, surreal rush of the Machado signing has hardened into a sense of anticipation and purpose. Everybody knows the Padres’ time is coming, but why can’t that time be now?
“When you take our worst position [third base] and turn it into our best position, that’d make any team better. It definitely accelerates our plan,” said Wil Myers, the Padres’ veteran corner infielder/outfielder. “This is the time now. We’re not a young team anymore, with our eye on the future. It’s a different feeling, for sure. It’s exciting. And everybody feels it.”
At the outset of the free agent signing period, few could have envisioned the Padres being the team to give Machado, 26, what was at the time the largest free agent contract in baseball history — a 10-year, $300 million pact with a player opt-out after five years. (Bryce Harper’s 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies would eclipse it 10 days later.) That includes Machado himself, who has acknowledged the obvious: The Padres weren’t his first choice.
The Padres were coming off a 96-loss, last-place finish — their eighth consecutive sub-.500 season — and were building around a farm system rated as the best in the game, with six of the top 50 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. Just a year earlier, in February 2018, they had given first baseman Eric Hosmer what was at that point the biggest contract in franchise history, worth $144 million over eight years.
What the Padres saw was an unmistakable and rare opportunity: a top-heavy free agent market in which many of the traditional biggest spenders in the game — the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs — were essentially watching from the sideline. Perhaps a future winter might make more sense for the Padres to go wild in free agency, but who’s to say this opportunity would be there then?
“In a perfect world, he would be available next year — but he’s not,” Padres chairman Ron Fowler said at Machado’s unveiling news conference, “so you have to do what you think is best for your team long term. … We think it’s worth it. He’s a generational talent.”
Even with Machado in the fold, the pathway to the Padres contending for the National League West title in 2019 is difficult to see, with the Dodgers coming off back-to-back World Series appearances and the Colorado Rockies coming off back-to-back wild-card berths. And the Padres themselves have at least one glaring shortcoming: a starting rotation that, depending on its ultimate configuration, could have no member with more than 37 career starts.
It was a reality that Machado himself hinted at recently, telling reporters, “We’re going to try to win — maybe not the division, but we’re going to go out there and fight for a wild-card spot, and you never know what can happen in baseball.”
Machado, a four-time all-star and two-time Gold Glove winner, is also a complicated figure, to put it mildly, with a history of epic lapses in judgment that tinged his otherwise dazzling, 6½-year tenure with the Baltimore Orioles and his three-month stint at the end of 2018 with the Dodgers. His list of infractions includes brawling, jogging out grounders and — in a pair of highly publicized incidents during last fall’s postseason — stepping on or kicking the feet of rival first basemen.
Hustling, Machado said in an infamous interview that month with Fox Sports, is not “my cup of tea.”
As Machado settles in with the Padres, making San Diego look like the place he was always meant to be, it seems remarkable that the Yankees and Phillies, franchises with some of the most notoriously demanding fan bases and media, were among the teams pursuing him this winter. (The Yankees, after meeting with Machado in Manhattan in December, never made a serious effort to sign him, but the Phillies were involved until the final days.)
The Padres, by contrast, present a perfect opportunity for Machado to perform in what is widely seen as perhaps the most laid-back and welcoming atmosphere in baseball, where in all likelihood no one will have to worry about how Machado would react to the possibility of the home fans turning against him.
“We do believe we’re a great fit,” Manager Andy Green said. “But we didn’t factor that in. We think the skill set plays in any market in the country, and we’re glad it’s playing in ours.”
Just by walking into a clubhouse as its highest-paid player and being surrounded by some of the game’s top prospects, Machado has been thrust into a role, that of a veteran presence and mentor, that he hasn’t really experienced before. During most of his time in Baltimore, Machado was the young, rising star, protected and mentored by such players as Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and especially J.J. Hardy. With the Dodgers, another veteran team, he was more or less a short-term rental.
Now he is the one expected to do the leading and mentoring, as 20-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., rated the No. 2 prospect in baseball, sits a few lockers down from Machado and bides his time until he is in the majors to share the left side of the infield with him. It is a role the Padres think Machado will grow into, with the weight of those responsibilities perhaps even curbing his more impulsive behaviors.
“We see him with a lot to offer to some of our guys,” Green said. “He’s going to share things he’s learned, and he’s going to continue to learn himself as he goes on. That’s true of all of us. We’re asking him to be himself. The relationship with Tatis should serve both of them well. [Machado] knows what it’s like to be a young star in the big leagues.”
There is every reason, then, to think the marriage of Machado and the Padres could work out fabulously. They aren’t the sexiest team, and he isn’t the perfect player. But they might be good for each other, and whether beginning in 2019 or some year in the future, they might go a long way together.