Arizona Diamondbacks: Father Manny Machado To Lead Young Friars
By TC Zencka
Manny Machado’s signing with the San Diego Padres puts the winter in focus for for the Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s not a pretty picture.
The Arizona Diamondbacks attempt to “thread the needle” between contention and a complete teardown became a lot more difficult Tuesday, as top free agent Manny Machado signed with rival San Diego Padres. Already loaded with the top farm system in all of baseball, the Padres sign Machado for ten years, $300MM per MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand (via Twitter). MLB.com’s Jeff Passan was the first to break news the Machado deal (via Twitter).
Now that Machado has signed the biggest free agent deal in American sports, it’s time to assess what this means for the National League West. Strange as it may seem, Machado is now a Padre, and the landscape of the West has changed.
Dodgers Still The King
The Dodgers hold an iron-clad grip on the division, champions of the NL West for 6 straight seasons. The Diamondbacks and Rockies have both come close to usurping the throne, but LA remains king. Machado, officially a defector, moves from the Dodgers to the Padres, but even as well as Machado fits on the San Diego roster, it’s not like Los Angelos is mourning his departure.
That’s a luxury these Dodgers have. The “Andrew Friedman Dodgers” pair the Rays’ ingenuity with the backing of a payroll that can perennially bump up against the tax line. While the Dodgers’ seeming unwillingness to move into the luxury tax has been one of the touchstones of the current labor conversation, and many believe they should be bigger players in free agency than they’ve been, the payroll as currently constituted grants Friedman more financial leeway than he ever could have ever dreamed of in Tampa Bay.
When Corey Seager went down for the season, Friedman dipped into his player reserves to replace him with Machado – fully prepared to let him walk at year’s end. Seager now steps back into the role he vacated due to injury.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, took the money they might have spent on Machado and spread it around to fill gaps in the roster: A.J. Pollock in centerfield, Russell Martin as a stopgap behind the plate and Joe Kelly for the backend insurance in the bullpen. Along with Machado, the Dodgers jettisoned veterans Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, and the contract commitments that came with them – both present and future.
The Reds trade epitomizes everything that Andrew Friedman is building in Los Angeles. Rather than get caught on the bad end of contract extensions for Puig and Wood – both 29-years-old next year when they hit the open market – Friedman sells them off early and snags a decent pair of prospects to restock the pool, previously depleted by the Machado trade. That’s a system of sustainability.
Of course, it only works once the system is fully integrated, as it is now for the Dodgers. It’s like a new medication, you hope it will work right away, but it takes two weeks or more to feel the effects. It would have been very difficult to trade Wood and Puig for cost-controlled, ML-ready replacements. It’s not as difficult to get prospects that are further away. Since Friedman’s system is fully integrated throughout the LA organization, the talent in the upper levels of the Dodger farm completes the cycle of sustainability.
Alex Verdugo takes over for Puig in right after years of waiting in line as a top prospect. Walker Buehler provides the same positional certainty in the rotation after his breakout in 2018, and he’s not alone. Julio Urias, if healthy, might be ready to step into the rotation, and Ross Stripling isn’t half bad himself, though he represents an emergency plan of action for LA.
We’ve been lamenting the roster turnover that the Diamondbacks are facing this winter, but the Dodgers have undergone quite the face lift as well. Remember, Yasmani Grandal should be added to the list of veteran departures as well.
Grandal left in free agency, replaced via trade with the much less talented Martin, only the Dodgers aren’t sweating this downgrade either. Why? System integration! They’ll pay Martin $3.6MM this season to be a veteran voice in the clubhouse and a platoon player behind the plate, whereas Grandal will make $16MM this season in Milwaukee. This tradeoff works because LA has top catching prospects Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith nearly ready for the show.
Players don’t want to admit it, but this is the correct model for team building. There must be consistent investment in the farm system to enable flexibility for the big league club, to protect the big league club from desperately over-committing to players beginning the back half of their careers, players who could hamper their future flexibility – players like Grandal, Puig and Wood.
Machado, on the other hand, is a different animal altogether. He’s young enough, and he’s good enough that the rest of the NL West should feel devastated by his signing with the Padres. The Friars are on the hook for $30MM a year for ten seasons, which is a lot of dough over a long period of time, but by the contract’s end, Machado will still be 37-years old (he turns 27 in June). That’s a reasonable window of longevity for a superstar. Even if he bottoms out early, say at age-34, they are getting so much surplus value during his prime years that this deal is still a slam dunk.
The Padres Gamble
The Padres have the number one farm system in baseball, and the crown jewel of that system, Fernando Tatis Jr., is just about ready to make the jump to the big leagues. The minute his time service clock starts ticking, so too does the competitive window open for the Padres, who will have three seasons of Tatis Jr. on a minimum salary deal. With Tatis Jr. and a host of other prospects still 6 or more years from free agency, the Padres are smart to put as many pieces in place to be ready for his arrival.
Rebuilding teams have for years overreached on certain free agents close to the outset of their youth movement to kickstart the competitive culture. The Nationals did it with Jayson Werth. The Cubs did it with Jason Heyward. The Padres themselves did it just last offseason with Eric Hosmer. Those guys are/were paid above their station, but that was the sticker tax those teams were willing to pay to inject some veteran savvy into the clubhouse mix. Machado can be that guy, but he can ALSO be the on-field centerpiece for the length of Tatis’ initial team control – and probably longer.
The downside for San Diego is that they’re now paying Hosmer, Machado and Wil Myers between $55MM and $75MM for the next three seasons, and the deals for Hosmer and Machado extend for quite a bit longer after that. The Padres are paying their trio about as much as the Rays pay for their entire roster.
Which brings us back to Andrew Friedman, who made his bones putting together contending clubs with those minuscule Tampa payrolls. In Los Angelos, as in San Diego, they’re in the business of sustainability. Remember, the Dodgers hired Friedman after the 2014 season, two seasons into their current run atop the West. They brought him in to sustain a winner – mission accoplished – but he’s managed to popularize (among front offices) a fiscally responsible model for team building in the process.
Fittingly, one of Friedman’s first moves after taking over was to trade Matt Kemp in a deal that netted Grandal for the Dodgers while opening playing time for a young Joc Pederson in center – a move that nicely mirrors Friedman’s second Kemp trade this winter.
Pederson and Grandal would produce 3.8 fWAR the very next season. Kemp, meanwhile, produced 0.7 rWAR in a season and a half for the Padres before they shipped him to Atlanta in a swap of bad contracts for Hector Olivera – whom the Braves acquired from Friedman’s Dodgers the season before. In that deal, the Dodgers received, among others, Alex Wood.
And this is the reason Friedman is and should be aped by his fellow GMs. He sent Kemp to San Diego and Olivera to Atlanta, netting Grandal and Wood, stalwarts of the next four Dodger titles. Less than two years later, after meeting in a support group for GMs who have been bamboozled by Friedman, the Padres and Braves swapped their respective disappointments in desperate attempts to extract some value from their ill-fated encounters with Friedman.
For the Padres, their 2015 acquisition of Kemp served a similar function to the signing of Machado and Hosmer. They were trying to jumpstart a rebuild by adding a proven, veteran presence, much the way the Reds are trying to jumpstart their own rebuild with their Kemp acquisition (though he’s no longer the centerpiece). The difference being, the Padres in 2016 weren’t ready to take that step forward. (I suspect the Reds have fallen prey to a similar fate.)
The Padres of 2019, in contrast, are ready. With Machado, Tatis Jr., Luis Urias, Hosmer (regrettable, but…fine), and the tandem of Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejia behind the plate, the Padres can sit back and watch the fireworks. Then, as Hosmer and Machado enter the second halves of their contracts, Tatis Jr., Urias and Mejia should be entering their primes, either to be extended or swapped to replenish the prospect pool. That sort of multi-generational talent stacking is how dynasties are built.
What About The Rockies, Giants, And Diamondbacks?
The Rockies‘ system is less heralded, but if they lock up Nolan Arenado to a long-term deal as expected, they, too, will have an upperclassman generation of Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story sharing a competitive window with a rookie class of young position players nipping at their heels: David Dahl, 24, Garrett Hampson, 24, Raimel Tapia, 25, Ryan McMahon, 24, and Brendan Rodgers, 22, make up the promising underclassman.
The Dodgers aren’t going anywhere, and after hiring Farhan Zaidi away from Los Angelos, you can bet the Giants are on their way to building a sustainable winner with the same model.
The current Dbacks regime, meanwhile, has focused their messaging on walking the line between rebuild and competition by establishing an on-field culture to maximize talent and foster development. Given the success of the last two seasons, they’ve more or less succeeded thus far.
Still, they’re essentially betting that Torey Lovullo can do his job better than Dave Roberts, Andy Green, Bud Black and Bruce Bochy’s predecessor. I believe in Lovullo, but even if he proves to be a year-after-year development and clubhouse culture savant, the Diamondbacks still might not contend with the talent engines churning in San Diego, Los Angelos, Colorado and, eventually I assure you, San Francisco.
The San Diego Padres have signed Manny Machado, but it feels like the Arizona Diamondbacks are paying the price. Add this to Pollock signing with the Dodgers, Corbin’s exit to DC, and the trade of Goldschmidt to the Cardinals and suddenly, amidst a sea of rudderless Dbacks fans, there is a modicum of clarity: this was a bad winter for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Fan excitement is not, by any means, the perfect metric for team success, but GM Mike Hazen and Diamondbacks leadership would be right to wonder if fans in Arizona are eager for the upcoming season. Because they’re eager in San Diego.