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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.

Previous team previews: Giants | Royals | Dodgers | Rays

SAN DIEGO PADRES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 84-78
Runs Scored: 619
Runs Allowed: 593
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .241/.300/.384 (.261)
Total WARP: 30.9 (10.2 pitching, 20.7 non-pitching, including 0.7 from pitchers)

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.

Thank you to Cot's Contracts for all of the payroll data (here's the Padres page), which can also be found here at Baseball Prospectus.

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wonkothesane1
3/18
I don't know that I would refer to next season as having plenty of payroll flexibility. All the commitments they have made, plus the arbitration raises and Benoit's option equals a payroll in 2016 that is on par with what they are paying in 2015. Which would be fine except that includes losing Upton, Kennedy, Venable and Shawn Kelley. They seem more handcuffed than flexible unless the owners up the payroll.
jfranco77
3/18
True, but... they can replace Upton "for free" with Renfroe, and Kennedy with Wisler. They need their prospects to hit, but assuming they do, they at least have some capability to replace a lot of that production.
wonkothesane1
3/18
That's fine. Even if that works, there's still no flexibility. The payroll will be maxed out, just with less of a drop off in talent. The flexibility is a myth.
tombores99
3/18
They have $56M already committed to 2016. Arb raises to Ross and Cashner will tack another $15M or so to the ledger, and they have a couple Arb 2's (Alonso and Thayer) that will likely add another $5M. They also have a handful of arb 1's (5 of them, so let's say another $5-6M). We will see whether they exercise the $8M option on Benoit ($1.5M buyout already included in totals)- if they do, then yes, they are around $88M for 17 players. Declining Benoit would leave about $82M allocated to 16 players. So your point is well-taken, wonkothesane1, and I may have overshot their financial flexibility a bit for 2016. But they still have some breathing room, and picking up the option on Benoit is not a foregone conclusion. I, for one, am still excited to watch Preller's next round of payroll Tetris.