Manny Machado is the New Face of San Diego Baseball

When Manny Machado’s new 10-year, $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres ends, he will still be younger than Robinson Cano is right now. This observation from CBS’s Mike Axisa is a great place to start in evaluating the Friars’ blockbuster deal with the 26-year-old superstar.

Love him or hate him, we can all agree that Machado is one of the best players in baseball. In 2013, ‘15, and ‘16, he posted WARs of 6.7, 7.1, and 6.9, and in 2018 he had the best offensive year of his career, batting .297 with 37 home runs and a .905 OPS, 46 percent better than the average Major League hitter. We’ll get into makeup later, but the first issue to tackle is the prudence of giving any player superstar money for ten years. Is it risky? Absolutely. Regardless of a player’s age, there is always risk of unforeseeable events throwing off your projections, and that risk increases the further into the future you try to project.

Just look at the Cubs’ Jason Heyward, who, like Machado, was 26 when he signed his 8-year, $184M contract. At that time, Heyward had a career .784 OPS, and it seemed reasonable to expect similar production for at least the first half of the deal. Shockingly, however, Heyward has posted just a .688 OPS through his age 26, 27, and 28 seasons—the most productive window in an average hitter’s career. As for career-debilitating injuries, often neck or back issues, these can hit players who seem at risk for short careers, like Prince Fielder, and those who seem like they should perform well into their mid-thirties, like David Wright.

In the absence of major injuries, though, a sudden Heyward-esque decline in that prime window is very much the exception to the rule, and Machado’s 10-year timeline contrasts significantly with the twin 10-year, $240M contracts that will pay Albert Pujols all the way through age 41 and Robinson Cano through age 40. Machado will “only” be 35 years old when he begins the last of his 10 years under contract.

While hoping for a player to provide any value at age 40 goes beyond wishful thinking, it’s actually plausible for a star like Machado to still be pretty damn good in that age 31 to 35 range. In 2018, for instance, we saw stellar seasons from J.D. Martinez (31 years old by season’s end, 1.031 OPS), Paul Goldschmidt (31, .922), and Matt Carpenter (33, .897), plus 35-and over outliers in Joey Votto (35, .837 OPS), Ben Zobrist (37, .817 OPS), and Nelson Cruz (38, .850 OPS). That’s not to say you’d commit $150 million right now just to get the rights to Machado from age 31 to 35; of course, if Machado delivers on the front half of this deal, he won’t have to be worth a full $150M on the back half for the signing to be a success. So let’s dig deeper into what San Diego can expect from Machado these next five years.

When evaluating a free agent, we usually start by looking for areas in which he excels. In Machado’s case, I’d ask: what areas doesn’t he excel in? The only one you can point to is speed, where he’s average, and even then, he stole 14 bases in 16 tries in 2018. Power? Machado has averaged 36 home runs a year from 2015-18—his 142 in that span ties Mike Trout for seventh. Even after moving from the band box of Camden Yards to the pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, (and facing unfamiliar NL West pitching), Manny hit 13 homers in 66 games for a 30-homer full season pace. According to MLB’s “Savant” collection of Statcast data, he was just inside the top 25 in average exit velocity (91.6) and barrels per plate appearance percentage (8.5%); Petco Park has a reputation for stifling power hitters, but those numbers play anywhere.

In fact, the great Eno Sarris over at The Athletic notes that while Petco features deep gaps, it’s actually well above average for high-velocity fly balls getting out to left field. As indicated by “Barrels”—balls off the bat at 98 mph+ and at sweet spot launch angles (usually between 20 and 35 degrees)—Machado has an elite fly ball profile, and his 4-year spray chart shows well over half his home runs go to left field.

(View spray charts at ProspectsLive’s Minor Graphs, created by @smada_bb)

So Padres GM A.J. Preller can feel good about his new franchise player bringing power to San Diego. Setting home runs aside, Machado is also a great pure hitter. With a .282 career average, Machado has batted over .290 in two of the past three seasons. Last season was a career year for him not just in OPS but in walk-to-strikeout ratio, as he posted an excellent 70 walks to 104 Ks. Standing 6’3”, he’s a long-limbed athlete with terrific plate coverage, notably on display when he scalded this Gio Gonzalez pitch to left center in Game 1 of the NLCS.

Sure, it was a 2-0 changeup, but that swing gives you a great feel for how Machado’s bat speed and hand-eye complement his plate coverage so that he can handle pitches low and away without suffering from the holes that other long-levered hitters do.

Just as his age should distinguish this deal from famous albatross contracts, so should Machado’s sterling defensive profile. Quickly run through a mental list of bad long-term position player deals. They’re usually for first baseman or corner outfielders, right? As soon as those guys decline at the plate, there’s nothing to separate them from league-average players (or worse). In stark contrast, Machado is a two-time Gold Glove winner at third, and he played a very good shortstop for the Dodgers last year. Thinking through the course of the contract had he signed with a different club, one envisions Machado playing shortstop for 3-5 years then sliding over to third base á la Alex Rodriguez. Of course, with Fernando Tatis Jr. the heir apparent at shortstop in San Diego, Machado will move to third much sooner than that—the left side of the Padres’ infield promises to be as dynamic as any in baseball. Even if injuries compromise Manny’s lateral movement, his arm is just so unbelievably good that it’s easy to see him making great plays from foul ground into his thirties.

Oh yeah, and as for injuries, Machado has averaged 159 games a year the past four seasons, tops in baseball. Like Robinson Cano, Machado has come under criticism for not running the bases hard enough, but guess what? If you’re going to ask someone to take the field for more than ONE THOUSAND GAMES over a decade-long contract, there’s probably a better chance of him pulling it off if he’s not always busting out of the box.

Appreciating just how productive Machado has been, the only question I had coming into the offseason is: how good is Manny’s makeup? Ah, yes, good old “makeup,” a squishy term that we can’t quantify with statistics. Like many of you, I was disappointed with some of Machado’s actions this postseason, most notably when he dragged his foot across Jesus Aguilar’s ankle in the NLCS (Aguilar, by the way, should 100 percent not have been lounging on the first base bag like that). There were also some illegal slides into second base, one of which was called for an interference double play, and Machado infuriated basically everyone watching when he pimped a near-homer into a single in Game 3 of the World Series.

So there are some genuine concerns. But let’s note the date of this signing: February 19. The Red Sox clinched the World Series on October 28th. That means Preller and his team have had four months to learn as much as they can about Machado’s personality and professionalism, asking dozens if not hundreds of people who have played with or against him, coached him, or gotten to know him off the field. Padres brass no doubt met with Manny himself for several hours this offseason. Is it possible that this research and personal interaction revealed positives about Manny’s character that don’t always come through in 20-second twitter clips or SportsCenter highlights? Of course it is!

Let’s not forget that we’ve seen plenty of charming moments from Machado through the years. Ask his former teammates in Baltimore or LA and they rave about the positive energy and competitive edge he brings to a clubhouse. Orioles fans adored him, Dodgers fans rallied around him, and while a player’s marketability is often overhyped to justify overpaying, there is a very real monetary value to the TV and social media attention that follow Machado and the thousands of his jerseys the Padres will sell. (In fact, more orders for Machado jerseys will have come in by this weekend than did for Freddy Galvis in all of 2018, methinks.)

And by the way, is anything Manny did any worse than such playoff antics as A-Rod slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove in 2004 or Roger Clemens throwing a sharp broken bat at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series? While both players inspired hatred from fans, they were obviously extremely impactful on winning, which is what the Padres are trying to do by signing Machado. We should acknowledge his low moments, but let’s not act like those automatically doom a long-term commitment to this exciting, dynamic player.

Lastly, it’s worth stressing two crucial aspects of Manny’s Dodger tenure: LA never would have won their division without him, and they never would have made the World Series without him! Baseball Reference credits Machado with 2.8 WAR as a Dodger…it took a Game 163 tiebreaker for them to beat Colorado and win the NL West, so his play was essential to LA avoiding a Wild Card game at Wrigley Field. Without Machado, the Dodgers’ postseason might have been over before it’d even really started. Once they got into the playoffs, he produced an OPS over .800 in the NLDS and, more importantly, the 7-game NLCS, where every run counted. After a magical 2017 run, for the Dodgers to make it back to the World Series despite a 16-26 start to 2018 and the devastating loss of Corey Seager speaks to Machado’s remarkable impact.

In conclusion, the San Diego Padres just supercharged their rebuild with a young, marketable star. A.J. Preller’s goal of competing within the next few seasons now appears eminently realistic: with arguably the best farm system in baseball, the Padres expect to line up good everyday players and All Stars next to Machado. In 2019, we could see Fernando Tatis Jr. and Luis Urías up the middle, Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejia at catcher, Manny Margot, Franchy Cordero, Franmil Reyes, Hunter Renfroe, and Wil Myers in the outfield, and bounce back candidate Eric Hosmer at first base. And as valuable starters emerge from the minor league treasure chest of MacKenzie Gore, Chris Paddack, Luis Patino, Adrian Morejon, Michael Baez, Logan Allen, Ryan Weathers, Cal Quantrill, and Anderson Espinoza…and if a Joey Lucchesi, Eric Lauer, Jacob Nix, or Dinelson Lamet hits his ceiling?

The next five years of San Diego baseball promise excitement and, potentially, playoff success. Plugging an MVP-type player into that future is a bold move that should have Padres fans thrilled.

Follow Jacob on Twitter @thereeljz