Unless you’re a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, or maybe the New York Yankees in October, take a good long gaze at what’s going on in San Diego baseball — what’s been going on for that last four years or so — and then root, root, root for the San Diego Padres.
Because if they don’t win it’s a shame.
Fans of most teams have a stake in the San Diego Padres’ success, because most teams are afraid to do what the Padres are doing — paying top dollar to acquire the best free agents in the market, top dollar to extend the best young players they develop and to trade for the best players that other teams make available. And then pay those players top dollar for extensions.
And if owner Peter Seidler builds on last year’s run to the National League Championship Series with years of success that match some of those eye-popping, long-term contracts, then it proves even mid-market teams can spend on popular, exciting players and go toe-to-toe with the big boys from L.A. or New York. And win.
But if this lesser-market Padres team with two $300 million hitters, a $280 million shortstop and two $100 million pitchers — a team that traded a trove of prospects for generational hitter Juan Soto at last year’s deadline, when they also added bullpen ace Josh Hader — face plants over the next few years, then it gives the best excuse yet to every owner and front office already reluctant to go big to try to win. It fuels the ugly, smart-guy front office narrative that it’s acceptable to tank when the going gets tough, validates the hand-wringing narrative by other owners about such spending and emboldens the commissioner’s latest economic reform committee looking at the issue (salary cap, anyone?).
The fact is there really is this much money in the game. The one team that makes its books public because it’s owned by a publicly traded company — the Atlanta Braves — delivered $588 million in baseball-related revenues in 2022, according to a report released this week.
If the Braves’ revenues are average, that makes Major League Baseball a $17.6-billion-a-year industry. But even if the Braves’ revenues are, say, 18 percent higher than the average team, then MLB is a $15-billion-a-year industry.
Either figure is more than what we’ve been led to believe.
San Diego Padres spending spree
And for all the money the Padres are spending, they’re not done. Jon Heyman of the New York Post reports they plan to approach both Soto and Hader soon about extensions. Soto, at 24, will almost certainly require more than a $400 million commitment — and maybe closer to $500 million.
Agent Scott Boras marveled at the idea of the Padres trying to go huge again for Soto after signing free agent Xander Bogaerts to a $280 million deal, Fernando Tatis Jr. to a $340 million extension and more recently tearing up Manny Machado’s 10-year mega deal after just four years to sign him to a new 11-year, $350 million deal.
“For the Padres, they’ve moved a mountain to San Diego,” Boras told Heyman, “and it’s called Mount Crushmore.”
Not every team can do what the Padres and Mets are doing — there aren’t enough superstars in the game, for one thing.
But every fan has a right to expect his/her team’s owner to be that aggressive for players that can help the team win now. And next year, too, and the year after that. Every year.
Unfortunately, during a two-decade era of record economic growth in the game, the reality in too many markets has involved anything but an aggressive approach to winning. Many teams focus more on computer-valuation models, payroll-squeezing youth movements and multi-year roster building that creates casual tanking of any given season along the way, with owners using the boosted profits to invest in impressive, money-making ballpark villages instead of impact, win-now rosters.
Fans buying into San Diego Padres
It’s no wonder that most teams saw attendance declines last year compared to the most recent season without pandemic capacity restrictions, 2019, and that MLB attendance has been in decline overall for several years.
But maybe it’s also no wonder that the Padres’ attendance increased by 24.7-percent from 2019 to 2022 — the biggest jump in the National League.
They recorded their second-largest home attendance total in franchise history, behind only 2004, the year Petco Park opened.
That a team like the San Diego Padres can try to deliver for their fans with long-term contracts for popular impact players in an attempt to slug up a class with the Dodgers should be embarrassing to any of those other teams from similar — and especially larger — markets who aren’t as aggressive.
The huge-revenue Chicago Cubs, for instance, are just now showing signs of trying to win again after a second tank-job rebuild in a decade.
That’s why if the Padres fail to deliver for all their best efforts and fan-friendly intentions, it could conversely be a nightmare for the fans of any team whose ownership already seeks cover and excuses for not spending to the level of its means to compete.
And make no mistake: It would be bad for baseball.
No team in baseball loses money anymore. Franchises have never been worth more — by a decade-long rise measured in billions of dollars. And they’ve effectively slowed (in some cases capped) their biggest expenses to growth rates well below revenue growths through such mechanisms as payroll luxury taxes and hard caps on amateur signings.
And it’s a safe bet no ownership group outside of San Diego wants to see the Padres turn into some kind of dynasty with all those superstars they’re collecting.
Which should mean one thing to almost everyone else:
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.