San Diego Union-Tribune: Padres’ big spending paid off with postseason berth

Peter Seidler saw his top-6 payroll end a playoff drought, one year after spending big dollars didn’t work out

 

Go big or go home.

 

That’s how Peter Seidler, Padres control owner and longtime private-equity investor, approached the team’s 2022 season.

Seidler juiced the player payroll to $233 million — sixth in 30-team Major League Baseball, per MLB-compiled figures reported by The Associated Press.

The Padres were like the Clampetts crashing Beverly Hills.

Though the jalopy wheezed and sputtered, they didn’t go home, heading instead to New York this week for the club’s first playoff game off a full season since 2006.

Go big or go home?

See the National League playoff field, where all six teams occupy the NL’s top-6 in player payroll.

 

Four of those clubs — Padres included — blew past MLB’s “soft salary cap” to incur a luxury tax.

Seidler tipped off this spree early in a tenure that began in August 2012, saying the Padres would begin to sustain playoff contention about 2020. He implied the payroll would rise far from the lower-tier levels he maintained in most years between 2013-2020.

When the Padres took MLB’s sixth-ranked payroll — easily a club record — into the 2021 season, the splashy effort spurred attendance and favorable publicity. On the field, the starting pitching withered after three good months, the offense vanished too often and the Padres ended up 79-83.

 

Seidler didn’t back down.

Behaving like a casino owner waiting for the probabilities to swing the results in his favor, he not only stayed the course, he approved an even bigger payroll, raising it about $50 million from 2021 to 2022.

MLB, dealing him a widely anticipated assist, added a third wild card to each league’s playoff field.

 

Not done flexing the team’s financial muscles, Seidler supported the team’s trades in early August. At a time when Fernando Tatis Jr. seemed on the verge of rejoining them, the Padres traded for closer Josh Hader and ate money on Eric Hosmer’s long-term contract to complete the trade that brought in Juan Soto and Josh Bell.

Again, the payroll rose.

The Padres were gunning to win this year’s World Series. Then came the announcement Tatis would be unavailable until 2023 because of a failed drug test.

 

They’re still eyeing a World Series run that would be impossible absent the wild-card berth they claimed Sunday.

It’s a bit crude to say the Padres bought themselves a playoff spot, but there’s some truth to it and that should prompt no criticism. MLB is, if nothing else, a big business. Does anyone think the Yankees’ active streak of 30 consecutive winning seasons isn’t economically driven? Or that, absent huge financial advantages, the Dodgers would’ve celebrated their ninth West title in 10 years last month?

Seidler had witnessed only losing seasons since buying into the Padres, other than the pandemic-shortened 60-game season in 2020.

 

MLB payroll isn’t always a rough approximation of destiny, particularly in the American League, where the Rays, A’s and Guardians often stretch dollars into playoff berths or strong contention.

Cleveland, sporting an $82 million payroll, swept a two-game set in San Diego en route to 90-plus wins and the AL Central title. But in raising the ante, both last offseason and this summer, Seidler helped the Padres outlast the Milwaukee Brewers, who ended up seventh in the NL’s six-team playoff race.

San Diego’s payroll was $80 million larger, and for the Brewers, the 2023 cost of retaining Hader, their often dominant but increasingly expensive, slump-ridden closer, fed into the decision to trade him west, even as the Padres loomed as a wild card-race rival.

 

The Padres took on Hader while knowing he’d command a big salary next year — at least $15 million — despite the club’s long track record of success with low-salary closers.

The Brewers gambled on not only replacing Hader with set-up reliever Devin Williams but also replacing Williams. Instead, the Brewers posted an MLB-high 15 blown saves after the trade. The Padres, who’d sent struggling closer Taylor Rogers to Milwaukee, saw their bullpen outperform Milwaukee in adjusted ERA (sixth versus eighth in NL rankings) and win probability added (fourth to 12th).

Hader rallied after his July slump bled into August. Over his final nine outings, he allowed no earned runs and recorded five saves. Meantime, one day after a fatigued Williams blew a save, a Brewers defeat Sunday punched San Diego’s playoff ticket.

 

Go big or go home?

The Padres would be golfing if not for the huge 2022 seasons they reaped from two players whose price tags scared other teams.

Recall that deep into the 2018-2019 offseason, Seidler and A.J. Preller signed Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300-million contract that was the highest for a free agent in MLB history at the time.

 

“Manny Machado is a generational talent, and we’re ecstatic that he’s chosen to spend his prime years in a San Diego Padres uniform,” Seidler said in a joint statement with Executive Chairman Ron Fowler.

Preller got Yu Darvish in December 2020 by agreeing to take on the 33-year-old’s three-year, $59-million contract and sending the Cubs four lower-level prospects, one of whom Preller signed with a Panama-record bonus. If not entirely driven by economics, the Darvish trade nevertheless was a case of the big-market Cubs turning to Seidler’s Padres for a measure of financial relief.

Seidler’s big play this year doesn’t appear a one-off bet. Whether it’s sustainable to maintain top-tier payrolls for several more years (uh, probably not) is a topic for another day, but the Padres have their core players — Machado, Darvish, Soto, Jake Cronenworth, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, Ha-Seong Kim, Hader and Tatis — under control through at least 2023. Enjoy the party.

Nash Sanderson