Can Padres shed payroll and also improve?

Sep 30, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; San Diego Padres left fielder Juan Soto (22) watches his RBI-double against the Chicago White Sox during the second inning at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

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The Padres ranked third in payroll in all of baseball in 2023. Is it possible to lower the overall payroll yet still improve the team?

Now that the Padres’ 2023 season is over, it’s time to evaluate where the team is at financially and begin putting the pieces together towards a better 2024. The Padres ran out a team with the third-highest payroll in MLB at a shade over $253 million, per Spotrac. Only the two New York teams spent more on players in 2023.

None of those three franchises made the 2023 postseason.

According to reports, including San Diego Union Tribune’s Kevin Acee, the team aims to have “player commitments of around $200 million.” A.J. Preller’s press conference this week leads us to believe it might not be a hard stop at 200, but they would certainly like to deflate the balloon a little.

Some of the shedding will occur naturally. Impending free agents Blake Snell, Josh Hader, and Drew Pomeranz erase over $30 million from the books from 2023 to 2024.

As of now, the team has committed around $171 million in 2024. That is not counting arbitration for the likes of Juan Soto, which is likely to be record-setting. He earned $23 million this past season and put together a campaign that should garner him MVP votes, being fifth in the National League in both offensive WAR and OPS+.

Predicting the amount Soto will get in his final season of arbitration is tricky. It’s likely he will at least flirt with the $30 million threshold. If that is true, that puts the Padres right around $200 million without considering any other moves or arbitration cases.

Other arbitration-eligible players include Austin Nola, Trent Grisham, Tim Hill, Scott Barlow, and Adrian Morejon.

It’s difficult to project how much those players will cost in arbitration. Those five players received a total of just over $9 million.

Let’s assume they will get raises and cost collectively around $15 million. That, plus Soto’s assumed raise, puts them around $216 million without any other moves. Still, that’s almost $40 million lower than the payroll in 2023.

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First off, let’s eliminate one scenario from this dilemma, which is if the Padres can possibly improve while also shedding some payroll.

That does not include trading Soto.

There are very few if any, scenarios where the Padres come out better on paper in 2024 than they did in 2023 without Soto in the lineup. That’s illogical. He played all 162 games this season and was San Diego’s most reliable offensive weapon. He set a career-high with 35 homers with an All-Star level .930 OPS. You don’t voluntarily part with a guy like that, especially when he only turns 25 this month.

So, how can the Padres shed payroll and still field a competitive team?

Let’s look at the players under contract.

Nick Martinez currently has a $16 million club option. If the team declines it, the deal turns into an $8 million player option. That would free up at least $8 million, assuming Martinez utilizes his player option. Martinez was valuable to the club this season, appearing in 63 games with a 3.43 ERA over 110 innings.

It’s possible that if the Padres decline his option, he tests his open market, hoping to get more than $8 million.

Starting pitching is always at a premium, so the Padres might want to hold onto Michael Wacha. Especially with the assumed departure of Cy Young candidate Blake Snell. Similar to Martinez, Wacha will be owed $16 million each of the next two seasons if the Padres opt into the deal.

That might not be prudent, given the current state of the organization. If they decline the option, it turns into a possible three-year, $19 million deal if he opts in himself.

So in 2024, if the club declines his option, they would save roughly $9 million on payroll if he chooses to return on this player-option portion.

However, given Wacha’s solid 2023, with a 3.22 ERA and 127 ERA+ over 134 innings, he may be worth more than $7 million in free agency. The Padres risk losing Wacha altogether if they decline his option.

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The best-case scenario is that they decline both Martinez and Wacha’s options, saving them $17 million, yet both players return on their player options.

The worst-case scenario is both players opt for free agency, and the Padres lose two quality pitchers after also losing Snell and Josh Hader.

Seth Lugo ($7.5 million) and Matt Carpenter ($5.5 million) also have player options.

Lugo pitched well enough (3.57 ERA, 26 starts) to test his value in the open market.

However, there is little-to-no chance Carpenter opts out of his deal. He was nothing short of atrocious this season (-0.3 WAR, .176 AVG, 81 OPS+) and would not get anything anywhere close to $5.5 million in free agency.

He also has virtually zero trade value. The Padres might need to get creative if they are going to rid themselves of Carpenter’s deal if they can at all.

But this is about the team also getting better. Let’s assume the best-case scenario of Wacha and Martinez returning but saving the team $16 million. That puts their number back down to $200 million from the previous total.

Also, it’s time to cut bait with Nola. He had a -0.5 WAR with a .146 average this season. Whatever he is set to make in arbitration should be irrelevant. The Padres have Luis Campusano for full-time catching duties.

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The biggest needs are starting pitching and another first base or designated hitting slugger.

Garrett Cooper provided some pop in spurts for the Padres after coming over from the Marlins. In total, he hit 17 homers in 123 games. He would certainly not break the bank to return and be the everyday first baseman.

That would allow Jake Cronenworth to get off of first base and be the versatile player that makes him so valuable.

Brandon Belt is familiar with the Padres from all his time in San Francisco. He is coming off of a solid season in Toronto, with a 136 OPS+. Given his age, he would not demand a gaudy contract.

On the pitching side, let’s assume they are priced out of the Snell sweepstakes. He will likely look for top dollar, as he should.

They are also probably out on Sonny Gray after he had a solid season, including an All-Star bid.

Michael Lorenzen was an All-Star this season as well. Over 153 innings, he posted a 4.18 ERA and 105 ERA+. He faded down the stretch after a solid first half. He could provide some depth after the Padres lose some pitching.

With Soto, the other arbitration cases, and signing one of Cooper or Belt, and a cheaper starting pitcher like Lorenzen, they are likely over $210 million but still far lower than last season.

If the Padres are truly going to improve in 2024 without breaking the bank, it might be time for another sizable trade. Another starting pitcher is desperately needed.

Corbin Burnes began the 2023 disgruntled in Milwaukee. He is just two seasons removed from winning the NL Cy Young and posted a 127 ERA+ this year. Acquiring him will inherit his final year of arbitration, likely around $12-15 million. That obviously will cost the Padres some prospect capital.

That’s probably as high as they are willing to go regarding payroll.

In conclusion, this scenario has the Padres adding one of Garrett Cooper and Brandon Belt, with Michael Lorenzen and Corbin Burnes to the pitching staff. This also is dependent on Martinez and Wacha still being on staff. If they both opt out completely, that will leave the Padres scrambling to address a severe lack of pitching depth.

The answer yes, it is possible for the Padres to improve while scaling back payroll. It’s already going to be lower naturally, with some inflated contracts coming off of the books. This is just one of dozens of scenarios where it can happen.

The core of Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Ha-Seong Kim, Soto, and Jake Cronenworth will all return, barring franchise-shaking moves. One would assume that is a solid group to build around, even with more conservatism than last offseason.

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