What explains the Padres’ monster Manny Machado extension? A team owner’s commitment to winning with fans in mind
When it was revealed this weekend that the San Diego Padres and Manny Machado had reached an 11-year, $350 million extension deal to avoid withdrawal drama, replace his existing deal and leave San Diego’s superstar third baseman to end. of his career, the reaction was a bit like the villain slogan in every episode of Scooby-Doo.
How do the Padres keep doing it?
It’s been the baseball industry’s refrain for some time now, and every repetition makes the rest of the industry look like bewildered rapiers, predictably whining about these meddling kids. Even before the Machado expansion, other team owners grumbled about the open ambition (and open wallets) displayed by Padres owner Peter Seidler, New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, and Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton. Always in tune with his super-wealthy employers’ concerns, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred praised the Padres as best he could earlier this month: saying that they “did a very, very good job capitalizing on their talent to increase their income”, but he also wondered aloud about their sustainability.
“The question is: How long can you keep doing this? What happens when you need to go through a makeover?” Manfred told USA Today, noting that in 2023, the Padres should have lost money.
Seidler’s answer in so many words? Challenge accepted.
Padres investment in Manny Machado turns out to be a winner
At the heart of sports fandom is a contract: you, the fan, invest your time and emotions — and yes, your money. You pay for ever-increasing ticket prices. You pay for cable TV to watch your local team when everyone else you know has cut the cord. You pay $15 for a beer. You pay for a replica T-shirt for $134.99.
In return, the people behind the team – the front office, of course, but mostly the team owners – try to give you something to root for, something to spend your discretionary income on. Here’s how it should work.
Theoretically, it’s a round robin: there are fans who want a baseball franchise. The team owner provides upfront funds to create, relocate or rebrand a baseball team for the specified fan base. Fans rally around this team. The team owner then improves the health of his investment, thus earning money, and reinvests it to acquire star players, win, and in turn encourage even more fans to become even more interested in the team.
This is what some might call “capitalizing your talent to increase income.” Others would define this dynamic using a simpler phrase: you get what you pay for.
Many team owners and front offices have spent a lot of time trying to break the mental link between spending money on stars and fan excitement. Sustainability has become a buzzword du jour. Scarlet letters are long-term mega-deals.
Seidler, who became controlling owner of Padres in 2020, does not consider sustainability to be his personal motto.
“People love that word,” he told reporters in February. “Let’s find someone else. Do I believe that our parade will be on land, on water, or both?”
At the peak of this sustainability movement, Machado and Bryce Harper weathered the icy winter in the free agency market and finally signed with the Padres and the Phillies, respectively, in late February. It’s far from universal or linear, but it’s clear that these two teams — 2022 NLCS members led by aggressive executives AJ Preller and Dave Dombrowski — helped push the spending pendulum back in the other direction.
Other factors include the comically terrible outcome of the Muka Betts trade to the Boston Red Sox, the addition of a financial superpower to the Mets Cohen, and the growing effectiveness of early career extensions exemplified by Jose Altuve, Jose Ramirez, Julio Rodriguez, Vander Franco. and just about every productive member of the Atlanta Braves.
It became clear that long profitable contracts are not inherently a bad idea. By no means. The lessons from the less than successful signings of Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujol have been narrowed down to more specific criticisms: Don’t sign players in certain age ranges or in certain defensively restricted profiles. Other failed deals have fallen through for other reasons, with variations on the theme of teams taking half-hearted action on big investments in a sport in which one player can’t get an entire team on the field.
None of them, it turned out, had ever been applied to Machado.. In San Diego, he played 519 of a possible 546 regular season games. He finished in the top three in NL MVP voting twice and led two playoff teams, matching San Diego’s total in the 20 seasons prior to his arrival.
If Machado had indeed made it to the end of the 2023 season without a new contract and took advantage of his contractual waiver, the Mets, Yankees and a host of other teams would almost certainly have chased his services with a fervor not seen in the dreary 2019 landscape. So, while the Padres landed Machado less than expected four years ago, this week they have had to step up and take on more for the 30-year-old than they originally did for the 26-year-old. Why? Because, as Machado so eloquently put it this spring, “markets are changing.”
What the Padres win by doubling down
Padres will not be caught half-measures. Before Seidler took over the franchise, they made their mistake by signing Eric Hosmer, who was simply not a good candidate initially. But the Padres were not intimidated by this, as was the Cincinnati Reds’ owning group. Instead, they learned from it and focused on younger, more consistent and superior players who proved useful as franchise anchors.
It gets more expensive, but in the long run it may prove to be more profitable. Since Machado took over in the hot corner, Preller and the team have added Juan Soto, Xander Bogarts, Josh Hader, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell. Some of them will play with Machado for at least five years. The team also raised Fernando Tatis Jr. and, despite some sagas, kept his amazing talent almost forever.
Padres fans reacted as one would expect. Despite the ubiquitous “small media market” label attached to the team, the Padres attract a relatively high percentage of potential viewers, ranked in the top five MLB teams in local rankings in recent seasons. Ranked 18th in MLB by average attendance in 2018, they have placed third and fifth in the last two seasonsattracting over 10,000 additional fans for the 2022 game than the latest Pre-Machado Padres.
“We grow great fans for life” Seidler told reporters in October. “And now, from our point of view, we have always had obligations, and now they are at a higher level. This is good.”
A person whose social media accounts have handles that look more like a “poster on a bulletin board” than a “billionaire team owner” – how many complaints can you really make to PadrePedro7? Seidler is personally interested in seeing a good baseball team, as are the emotional team owners in Philadelphia and New York. His grandfather was Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, and Seidler was open about wanting to turn the Padres into a consistent, worthy opponent for the juggernauts in Chavez’s Gorge.
“I love spending money,” he said in October. You can’t take this with you.
Step away from the urgency of cash commitments and the low-key recent MLB landscape, and Seidler’s refreshing, fan-fancier tendencies also seem like smart strategic moves in the medium to long term. Many teams lose money over a given year, but the results and storylines they create with those net losses can pay off handsomely. The Dodgers, for example, have suffered quite a few annual losses since the current ownership group took over in 2012. but the franchise they bought for $2 billion was worth $4.075 billion at last check, according to Forbes..
Seidler said he’s not interested in selling the team anytime soon or that he wants the Padres to stay in his family for generations. But the logic is correct. If a team builds a following and maintains it for a long enough period, by whatever means and for whatever reason, we magically stop talking about media markets – when was the last time you heard anyone mention the size of St. Louis, discussing the eternal success of the cardinals?
And so, in a subtly defending of all team owners unwilling to truly honor their part of the deal with the fans, Manfred is pushing Seidler and the Padres to once again challenge the perceived limitations of their market. “The Padres will lose money,” he said earlier this month, “but the question is, will you…