March 18, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
San Diego Padres: Payroll Tetris
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the payroll artists Houston Astros and San Diego Padres.
There are so many ways to encapsulate the new-look Padres.
The offseason target was right-handed power, with the winter acquisitions of Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Derek Norris assigned to crack through the dense marine layer at Petco Park. Interestingly, the right-handedness had little to do with park dimensions, as Petco finished as the toughest park in the majors for right-handed batters last season (park factor of 90) while lefties didn't fare much better, with a 91 park factor that was the second-lowest mark in the game for south-side swingers.
Perhaps Preller likes the idea of stacking the lineup against division foes Clayton Kershaw (who has no split) and Madison Bumgarner; or maybe the Padres were just sick of finishing in the bottom third in baseball for home runs, particularly in a modern run-scoring environment that places power at a premium. The Pads also have a cheap-yet-effective bullpen, an element has been a hallmark of San Diego clubs since Kevin Towers was running the show.
But the most striking element of the Padres overhaul is how new general manager A.J. Preller has massaged the payroll. In a pure money sense, the Friars were already in unprecedented territory last season with an Opening Day roster that cost $90.6 million, representing a $22 million bump over 2013 and almost $17 million more than any other Padre roster since Y2K was a thing. The total had swelled to almost $104 million by the end of the season, setting last year apart from the apparent $75 million ceiling that had previously defined San Diego's full-season budget, but the relative spending spree only moved them up two spots in the payroll standings, where they placed just 24th in the league. In 2015, after an offseason of wheeling and dealing to acquire impact players, the Padres' Opening Day payroll is set to be: approximately $97 million.
The key is in how Preller has structured the deals that he has brokered. The simplest case is with James Shields, who signed a four-year deal for $75 million late in the off-season, but that deal is set-up such that he is getting paid $10 million in 2015 and $21 million in each season thereafter (plus a club option for 2019 at a reduced rate). Preller can afford to do this because he has nearly $50 million coming off the books after this season, and though some of that money will need to be reallocated to replace guys like Upton and Ian Kennedy, it's safe to say that the team won't miss signing the paychecks for guys like Carlos Quentin, Will Venable, and Cory Luebke, a trio that will dent the bottom line by $17.6 million this season.
The standout example of Preller's payroll machinations is the trade for Matt Kemp. The Dodgers are picking up $32 million of the $107 million remaining on Kemp's contract, easing the financial burden for San Diego, and the distribution of that 32 million shekels allows for further maneuverability—$18 million of the L.A. portion is paid out in 2015, bringing his cost to the Padres down to just $3.25 million this season, and the Dodgers will contribute another $3.5 million per year for the duration of the deal (bringing Kemp's annual cost down to $18.25 million). In fact, the only two players making eight figures from the Padres this season are Upton ($14.7 million) and Shields ($10 million on the nose).
Preller has targeted every shape of contract in his first off-season at the helm: expensive veterans, rental players, pricey free agents, and young players with several years of team control remaining. Put it all together, and the Padres have a workhorse starter and middle-order bat at a cost the team can stomach for the foreseeable future, in addition to a young core of players who are good and cheap. They have the roster to contend in 2015, and next winter Preller will have plenty of financial flexibility to play his expert brand of payroll Tetris.