PEORIA, Ariz. — Bob Melvin could not have known that puzzle-building was going to be a vital skill when he signed on to manage the San Diego Padres. But with a rollicking roster stuffed with top-shelf talent, and an almost absurd abundance of shortstops, here he is, pieces tumbling from the box and strewn all over the table.
Xander Bogaerts’s arrival as a free agent this off-season made clear that one of the spring’s trickiest aspects would be fitting all those pieces together. The Padres have what will be one of Major League Baseball’s four highest payrolls in 2023, according to Spotrac, yet the team will frequently be playing as many as four players out of position.
They have been so aggressive that today’s plan often changes with tomorrow’s sunrise. The latest example came Sunday when a looming story line for the team — Manny Machado’s expected opt-out after the season — was eliminated by his agreeing to terms on a new 11-year, $350 million deal, the details of which were confirmed by a person on condition of anonymity because the deal has yet to be officially announced.
Now, Machado (signed through 2033), Bogaerts (2033) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (2034) will presumably grow old together in San Diego as both Machado and Bogaerts have full no-trade clauses. Those deals, and the potential for an even bigger one for outfielder Juan Soto, who is two seasons away from free agency, have led many to wonder how the Padres can possibly afford to pay for all of those stars on a long-term basis.
The Padres’ owner, Peter Seidler, pointing out that “there is a risk to doing nothing, too,” is working to fend off criticism about how “sustainable” this plan is.
“People love that word,” he said of sustainability. “Let’s find a different one. Do I believe our parade is going to be on land or on water or on both?
“Putting a great and winning team on the field in San Diego year after year is sustainable.”
First, the team will need to sort out its various pieces. The domino effect begins with the installation of Bogaerts at shortstop, which means last year’s shortstop, Ha-Seong Kim, will slide over to second base. And last year’s second baseman, Jake Cronenworth, will move to first base.
When Tatis, the team’s starting shortstop from 2019 to 2021, returns from his performance-enhancing-drug suspension on April 20, he is expected to play right field. Soto, who played right field for the Padres after a trade from the Washington Nationals last season, will move to left.
It is the type of situation that could lead to confusion, bruised egos and what may feel like a 1,000-piece box of unhappy players.
Cronenworth downplayed that idea.
“We all can’t wear the same glove at the same position, but we can all contribute wherever we’re playing that day,” he said.
That attitude is most likely the result of Melvin’s having begun a lengthy series of sensitive conversations many weeks ago. He has been pleased at the overall reaction so far.
“They said, ‘Look, we just want to help our team win,’” Melvin said. “And just because Kim’s going to get a lot of reps at second doesn’t mean he might not end up with shortstop on days Xander gets off. And then Croney’s going to play second again as opposed to first. So in the overall look right now, there are some conversations. But there haven’t been any difficult ones to this point.”
For years, teams with sleek, athletic outfields have favored the old cliché: “It’s like we have three center fielders.” Uniquely, the Padres will line up a team of shortstops. Not only is that the natural position of Bogaerts, Kim and Tatis, but Cronenworth also played shortstop at the University of Michigan. Even Machado was a star shortstop in his Baltimore days.
The glut of infield options makes Tatis’s move to the outfield feel fairly permanent, and, unlike the last time the team tried this, it is not contentious. Back in 2021, after a dislocated shoulder popped out multiple times, Tatis was sent by the Padres to the outfield for 24 games during the second half of that season in hopes of keeping him healthier.
He did not appear to enjoy the move, and his normally energetic game dimmed.
“I was frustrated with myself because of my health issues,” Tatis said of the notable downturn.
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During his suspension, which along with injuries cost him the entire 2022 season, Tatis, 24, addressed some of his health concerns. He underwent surgery to repair the shoulder and a revision procedure on his left wrist, which he fractured in a motorcycle crash in December 2021. He is fully healthy this spring, but he has not played in a major league game since Oct. 3, 2021.
Bogaerts, 30, pointed out that playing shortstop can take a huge toll on the body and cited Tatis’s previous injuries as a good reason to try something new, because, he said, “this is a guy that the team, and the game in general, wants to see on the field as much as possible.”
Bogaerts, who endured his own stint of being moved off his primary position in 2014, said he was initially stunned when the Padres, who already had Tatis signed to a long-term deal, approached him with what became an 11-year, $280 million offer. But Tatis, thanks to his myriad issues over the past two seasons, had lost any leverage to quibble about where he plays on the field.
“I knew from the beginning that they were trying to make the team better,” Tatis said of the acquisition of Bogaerts. “Xander is a great player. I knew he would be a key to us winning a World Series.”
Tatis said he was “prepared for everything.” Mostly, he is working in the outfield — Bogaerts cited Tatis’s arm as a huge asset in right field — and when asked whether he thought he would return to shortstop one day, Tatis said he didn’t know.
“A lot of stuff happens in this game,” he said. “You can’t be surprised. I’m just going to be ready wherever they tell me they need me.”
Machado’s new deal seems to lessen the odds of such a return. Bogaerts, to many, had represented insurance in case Machado opted out after this season. If that had happened, Bogaerts could have moved to third base, making room for Tatis at shortstop, but that path now appears blocked.
Even with the team’s defensive positioning having been decided for the foreseeable future, the present for San Diego is complicated by the Padres having several players, including Bogaerts, Kim and Machado, on the verge of leaving for the World Baseball Classic. The time away will limit the opportunity for the double-play combination of Bogaerts and Kim to gain familiarity. And Kim, who is statistically the team’s best defensive option at shortstop, will pause his development at second base to play his natural position for Korea.
“That’s the part I worry about the most, is maybe them not getting as many reps together,” Melvin said of his infielders.
Regardless of how the pieces fit together, the collection of stars had led to a feeling in San Diego that the team, which played in the National League Championship Series in October, is on the verge of something special. The club capped season ticket sales for the first time in history, at roughly 24,000, and has a waiting list. The Padres appear poised to draw three million fans for only the second time in club history and could set a club record.
It is the type of surge that has Machado, 30, scoffing at team owners who complain about the Padres’ soaring payroll.
“They all have the means for it,” Machado said on his first day in camp. “To me, it’s just if they want to or if they want to win. So, Peter has shown an interest that he wants to win.”
And if that shakes up positions or egos, so be it.
“Hopefully it all works out, man,” Bogaerts said. “It’s supposed to be a fun, special season. Hopefully the outcome is something really special.”
James Wagner contributed reporting.