Offseason Outlook: San Diego Padres

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In conjunction with this post, Anthony Franco will hold a Padres-specific chat on 10-11-23 at 3:15 pm CDT. Click here to leave a question in advance.

The Padres are on the shortlist for the league's most disappointing team in 2023. They came up shy of the postseason despite a star-studded roster that entered the year with championship aspirations. They'll make another run at competing next season, albeit with newfound payroll questions that suggest they'll probably lose the presumptive NL Cy Young winner and their elite closer to free agency.

Guaranteed Contracts

Option Decisions

  • Team holds two-year, $32MM option on RHP Nick Martinez; if club declines, Martinez holds two-year, $16MM player option
  • Team holds two-year, $32MM option on RHP Michael Wacha; if club declines, Wacha has respective $6.5MM, $6MM and $6MM player options through 2026
  • RHP Seth Lugo holds $7.5MM player option
  • DH Matt Carpenter holds $5.5MM player option

Other Financial Commitments

  • Owe $24.5MM to Red Sox through 2025 as condition of Eric Hosmer trade

2024 financial commitments (assuming Wacha/Lugo opt out, Carpenter/Martinez opt in): $134.76MM
Total future commitments (assuming Wacha/Lugo opt out, Carpenter/Martinez opt in): $1.232 billion

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Non-tender candidates: Hill, Nola, Morejón

Free Agents

A late-September tear against mostly bad teams nudged the Padres past .500. That's no consolation for a club that entered the year as co-favorites in the NL West alongside the Dodgers and a trendy World Series pick. San Diego had bolstered last year's NLCS squad with another massive contract, signing Xander Bogaerts for 11 years and $280MM. With Fernando Tatis Jr. returning from last year's wrist surgery/PED suspension, everything was supposed to come together in 2023.

If the team ever really clicked, it didn't happen until they were buried in the standings. As was the case two years ago, the Padres' disappointing finish came with reports of internal strife. In 2021, clubhouse discord contributed to San Diego's decision to dismiss manager Jayce Tingler. This year, reports from The Athletic and the San Diego Union-Tribune cast renewed questions about the locker room — with a reported rift between president of baseball operations A.J. Preller and second-year manager Bob Melvin drawing the most attention.

As the season wound down, there was some question about whether the Preller – Melvin relationship had become untenable. Ownership clearly doesn't believe that to be the case. After an end-of-season meeting between Preller, Melvin and chairman Peter Seidler, the parties agreed to keep the leadership structure in place. Seidler released a statement expressing his “full support” for that duo; Preller confirmed two days later that Melvin is “going to be (the) manager going forward.”

There could be far more turnover with the roster itself. Kevin Acee of the Union-Tribune reported last month that the Friars were shooting for a player payroll in the $200MM range for next season, pointing to a need to comply with MLB's debt service ratio. That'd likely keep them in the upper third of the league but represents a notable cut. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Friars finished this season with a payroll just under $250MM and had an estimated luxury tax number near the $293MM final penalization threshold.

That'll make things difficult for Preller and his front office as they try to more effectively balance the roster. San Diego's player spending is a little more manageable than fans might expect given their repeated top-of-the-market strikes. Machado ($13MM) and Tatis ($11MM) are playing on relatively light salaries as part of backloaded extensions. (Machado is also owed a $10MM signing bonus this December 1, although it's not clear if the Padres consider that part of their approximate $200MM calculus for next season.) The Friars' 11-year commitment to Bogaerts meant his annual salary is a fairly palatable $25MM.

San Diego's payroll opening the offseason will be defined by a handful of upcoming options decisions. Matt Carpenter is going to exercise a $5.5MM player provision; Seth Lugo will decline a $7.5MM option in search of a multi-year deal.

The Friars have matching two-year options at $16MM annually on Michael Wacha and Nick Martinez. Given their reported payroll situation, it seems likely they'll decline their end of both provisions. It's not an unreasonable amount for Wacha in isolation, but it'd be harder to justify if San Diego has somewhat limited spending room. Wacha would subsequently decline the first of three player options valued in the $6-6.5MM range; Martinez would have a two-year option at $8MM annually that'll be an interesting call.

If Carpenter and Martinez opt in while Wacha and Lugo test free agency, the Padres' 2024 salary commitments would check in around $135MM (not counting Machado's bonus but including the $12+MM they're sending to the Red Sox on the Eric Hosmer deal). That doesn't account for a massive arbitration class. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects a record-setting $33MM salary for Juan Soto in his final season of eligibility. Scott Barlow and Trent Grisham are projected at a combined $12MM. That puts the organization at roughly $180MM before considering outside additions. Unless plans of payroll cuts are dramatically overstated, they're not likely to make a legitimate run at Shohei OhtaniCody Bellinger or Yoshinobu Yamamoto the way they might have in previous offseasons.

Given that financial picture, it's natural that opposing fanbases have speculated about the possibility of a second blockbuster Soto trade in as many years. San Diego doesn't have to move him. It's possible to accommodate a $200MM payroll with their existing commitments and Soto's projected salary. Doing so would require an austere offseason, though, potentially paired with a trade of another notable but less impactful player or two. San Diego hasn't suggested any plans to shop Soto but hasn't taken a trade off the table either.

With one season of remaining control, Soto's trade value is markedly lower than it was at the 2022 deadline. The Padres wouldn't get near the level of talent — five young players headlined by MacKenzie GoreJames Wood and CJ Abrams — which they sent to the Nationals to acquire him.

The Mookie Betts deal is the most obvious precedent for a superstar traded before his final arbitration season. The Red Sox received five years of club control on a solid regular (Alex Verdugo), a borderline Top 100 prospect (Jeter Downs) and a mid-level prospect (Connor Wong) while also offloading around $48MM on the David Price contract. The deal didn't work out for Boston. Verdugo never developed into more than a solid player, while Downs barely reached the majors. Yet it's a general benchmark for the Padres if they were to consider moving Soto. They presumably wouldn't also attach an underwater contract, so topping a package headlined by two highly-regarded but not elite controllable talents should be viable.

It's arguable whether that's preferable to simply keeping Soto for his final arbitration season. The Padres would get one more year in which he anchors the lineup. They could deal him at the deadline if they're again underperforming, while he'd clearly receive the qualifying offer next offseason if they kept him on the roster. Even if they don't anticipate re-signing him — Preller unsurprisingly suggested they'll reengage with Soto's reps at the Boras Corporation this winter — a trade isn't inevitable.

Keeping Soto would limit their flexibility elsewhere on the roster. San Diego has arguably the best group of impending free agents of any team. Blake Snell is likely to be named NL Cy Young a couple days before hitting the market. Josh Hader has a good chance of topping the $102MM contract record for relievers which Edwin Díaz established last winter.

Even with their payroll questions, the Padres will obviously make a qualifying offer to each of Snell and Hader. There's no chance either player accepts a one-year deal, which would entitle San Diego to modest compensation in next year's draft. As a luxury tax payor, the Friars would receive a pick between the fourth and fifth round for each player if they sign elsewhere.

Watching both depart appears likely. The Padres seemed to preemptively prepare for Hader's departure last offseason with a stunning five-year, $46MM commitment to Robert Suarez. Between the hard-throwing righty and the trade deadline acquisition of Barlow, they'll have options for the ninth inning. While losing Hader would be a huge blow to any bullpen, the Padres should have other priorities.

None is bigger than the rotation. San Diego's starting staff somewhat quietly led the majors in ERA and finished fifth in strikeout rate. That's in large part thanks to their impending free agents, who were arguably their three top starters. Snell was utterly dominant from June onwards. Wacha (3.22) and Lugo (3.57) each turned in sub-4.00 ERA showings over 130+ frames. Lugo would be a realistic qualifying offer candidate if the Padres were operating at their typical spending capacity. Given the expected constraints, the chance he accepts a one-year offer worth around $20.5MM and the mid-round pick they'd receive if he walks, they'll probably opt not to make the offer.

Those possible departures leave the Friars with only two locks for the starting staff. Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish ended this season on the injured list. They're expected to be ready for Spring Training. If Martinez returns, he could have a clearer rotation opportunity than he's had in the last two years, when he has spent most of his time as a multi-inning reliever. The Padres have the option to retain Wacha, although a $16MM salary is probably too much of a commitment to lock in before free agency even gets underway. Neither Pedro Avila nor Matt Waldron pitched well enough to secure a spot in the Opening Day five.

The Padres need to bring in two or three starters. Options toward the lower tiers of free agency include Michael LorenzenLance Lynn, Kyle GibsonJames Paxton, Martín Pérez and Hyun Jin RyuLuis Severino is a candidate for a one-year pillow contract. Swingman Jakob Junis could market himself as a starter in search of a two-year deal in the range of what the Friars offered Lugo last winter. The Padres have been aggressive in targeting players from Asian professional leagues. Perhaps they'll inquire on former Nationals righty Erick Fedde, who turned in a 2.13 ERA over 28 starts in his first season in South Korea.

They'll likely bring in at least one arm via trade. Paul BlackburnSpencer TurnbullAdrian Houser and Cal Quantrill are among affordable arbitration-eligible hurlers who could be attainable. None of those pitchers would cost an immense prospect return. San Diego still has a few names at the top of the farm system (e.g. Ethan SalasJackson MerrillRobby Snelling) whom they could ostensibly dangle if an impact starter with multiple seasons of club control (perhaps Logan Gilbert or Dylan Cease) came available.

San Diego could also deal off the big league team to find more balance on the roster. Barlow's $7.1MM projected salary makes him a possible candidate, although it'd leave the Padres with very little in the way of setup options to pave the way to Suarez. Grisham is projected at just under $5MM and down to two seasons of control. He's an excellent defensive center fielder but a .191/.300/.347 hitter since the start of 2022.

Given how well Tatis acclimated to right field defensively, the Friars could consider moving him to center and shopping Grisham. They'd have to bring in another corner bat opposite Soto at that point. It's not a robust free agent class for hitters. Ramón LaureanoHarold Ramírez and Dylan Carlson are among the trade possibilities if the Padres wanted to search for more offensive upside than Grisham provides without taking on notable salary. Were the Padres to move Soto, they'd have to take a bigger swing in the outfield — whether a trade candidate like Anthony Santander or a free agent pursuit of KBO star Jung Hoo Lee.

Their last pursuit of a hitter from South Korea worked out excellently. Ha-Seong Kim is headed into the final season of a four-year, $28MM free agent deal. He's a plus defender who can move around the infield and has hit .256/.338/.391 over the last two years. Kim would be an in-demand trade candidate if San Diego made him available. Between his affordability and a dreadful free agent class for middle infielders, Kim would be the Padres' most desirable realistic trade candidate aside from Soto.

Dealing Kim would open up second base for Jake Cronenworth, who is miscast at first. Yet it'd also subtract one of the Padres' best position players without clearing a huge chunk of payroll space. While Preller and his staff probably won't foreclose the possibility entirely, the price would be high.

If they hold Kim, he'd likely return to the keystone. Machado and Bogaerts are the presumptive left side infield. Machado could be delayed early in the season as he recovers from elbow surgery, but he's expected back early enough in the season the Padres don't have to worry about the hot corner. Bogaerts recent conceded he might not be much longer for shortstop (link via Kevin Acee of the Union-Tribune). That raises the possibility of a position swap for Bogaerts and Kim but doesn't materially change the infield construction.

The Padres should bring in some more offensive punch for the first base/DH mix. Last winter's signings of Carpenter and Nelson Cruz didn't pan out, nor did deadline acquisitions of Ji Man Choi and Garrett Cooper. With the latter two headed for free agency, the Padres should take another swing at first base. Brandon Belt could be a free agent target, while Rowdy Tellez is a non-tender possibility. Adding a bat-first player would deepen the bench while freeing Cronenworth for a multi-position role.

If the Padres were to take a bigger free agent swing, Mitch Garver would be a strong on-paper fit. The Ranger slugger is a primary DH who can catch on occasion. The Padres will likely bring in a complement to Luis Campusano behind the dish while non-tendering Austin Nola. If Garver proves too expensive and/or receives a qualifying offer from Texas, Tom Murphy could be an affordable “Garver-lite” free agent target.

San Diego has one of the wider-open outlooks for any team. They're likely to lose a couple marquee free agents but still have plenty of star talent at the top of the roster. They're certainly not about to rebuild. Yet next year's roster could look quite different from the 2023 version, especially on the pitching staff. The Padres have been one of the sport's most unpredictable teams throughout Preller's tenure. That's not going to change this year.

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