Free agents are officially on the market, qualifying offers have been extended (and rejected), contract options exercised and/or declined and 40-man rosters whittled down. Welcome to the MLB offseason.
For the San Diego Padres, it represents something of a crossroads, as arguably no team in the Majors features a wider gap between potential outcomes. On the one hand, this team still has more than enough talent to be a World Series contender, plus an ultra-aggressive GM in A.J. Preller. On the other, all that talent got them in 2023 was an 82-80 record, and now the team is suggesting that it might be looking to slash dozens of millions in payroll ahead of next season — and put its best player on the trading block. So, are the Friars all-in, retooling, rebuilding or something in between? How much leash does Preller have, and does he have at least one more shocking splash in store? What wrong wrong for this team last season, and how can they fix it over the offseason? Let’s break it all down.
Padres offseason preview
Season in review
Coming off a run to the NLCS in 2022, with Soto set for a full season in San Diego and Fernando Tatis Jr. set to return from his suspension, the Padres entered the year in the league’s inner circle of title contenders. But things simply never came together: The stars that were supposed to carry the offense never quite lived up to expectations (Soto excluded), the rotation was beset by a variety of injuries and a 9-23 record in one-run games turned a healthy +104 run differential — one that should’ve been good for about 92 wins — into an 82-80 record and an October spent on the couch.
Pending free agents
Few teams have more significant pieces set to hit the market this winter than San Diego. Foremost among them are their two big deadline acquisitions from 2022, Blake Snell and Josh Hader, whose excellent performances this season have them primed for big paydays. The list hardly ends there, however: There’s also Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, two of the team’s steadiest starters, plus swingman Nick Martinez, first basemen Garrett Cooper and Ji-Man Choi, reliever Luis Garcia and catcher Gary Sanchez.
As you might imagine, a list that long leaves several holes needing to be filled. For starters, San Diego needs help up and down its starting rotation, with Snell, Lugo and Wacha potentially departing and Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove dogged by injuries of late. The loss of Hader (and Martinez) could also be destabilizing to a bullpen that ranked 10th in the Majors in ERA last year but was awfully sketchy trying to hand leads over to their star closer.
Pitching isn’t the only need, however. The Padres’ lineup was a stars-and-scrubs unit by design, but that unevenness came back to bite it when the stars weren’t quite as starry as anticipated. This team desperately needs some more pop at first base and DH, and it remains to be seen whether Trent Grisham will ever hit enough to be the answer in center field. Oh, and they have to address all of the above while reportedly shedding salary, a belt-tightening that could have major ramifications on this roster. (More on that in a minute.)
Best free-agent fits
We’ll start with the good news, which is that this market has several options available for teams looking for corner/DH bats. J.D. Martinez, for instance, would be an ideal fit for this lineup, as would Justin Turner, Jorge Soler or even someone like former Phillie Rhys Hoskins. Rangers postseason hero Mitch Garver makes sense both as a DH option and a backup to catcher Luis Campusano, assuming the team doesn’t bring back free agent Gary Sanchez. They could also make a run at a true center fielder with a bit more polish at the plate, like Michael A. Taylor, Kevin Kiermaier or Korean import Jung Hoo Lee.
Now the bad news: As things currently stand, it’s hard to see how their desperate need for not just one but multiple starting pitchers is compatible with ownership’s mandate to cut costs. Snell figures to hold out for a massive payday as he enters free agency for the first time following a Cy Young season. The bidding for Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto is already heating up. Lucas Giolito is a nice bounce-back candidate and Southern California native — and former Dodger Kenta Maeda could be looking for a return to SoCal as well — but it’s hard to know how Preller will attack this problem unless we know how much money he has at his disposal. Which brings us to the elephant in the room.
The single cleanest way for San Diego to get under its reported budget number would be to deal Soto, who’s entering his final season before free agency and should command something around $30 million in arbitration. The 25-year-old was his typical spectacular self in 2023, but selling now — as opposed to, say, the trade deadline — could not only give Preller some financial flexibility to work with but also help replenish the pipeline with Minor League and young Major League talent. Can Soto fetch, say, Logan Gilbert from the Mariners, or any number of intriguing young pitchers from the New York Yankees (either a big-leaguer like Clarke Schmidt or Michael King or high Minors names like Chase Hampton, Drew Thorpe, Clayton Beeter or Will Warren)? Can San Diego take those savings and use them to lure someone like Cody Bellinger back to Southern California — or take that prospect return and swing another deal? (Max Kepler and Alex Verdugo would both make a lot of sense on this team.) It seems like just running things back isn’t an option in 2024, and it’s hard to see how Preller maneuvers his way to a substantial upgrade without moving Soto.