March 7, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Inside Fernando Tatis’ 14-year, $340-million Padres deal

Spare us the East Coast nonsense. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees might be the most hyped rivalry in baseball, but the best coast has the best rivalry right now.

“I know,” Blake Snell said, “it’s a little feisty lately.”

In the blue corner, the defending World Series champion Dodgers. In the brown corner, with bats flipped as high as the Coronado Bridge, the San Diego Padres.

Snell spoke on a video conference Wednesday morning, as the Padres welcomed the Cy Young winner and their new staff ace to spring training. What Snell had to say in the morning faded into a footnote by the evening, when the Padres agreed with shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. on the longest contract in baseball history: 14 years, for $340 million.

For this season, the deal changes nothing. Tatis would have been the Padres’ shortstop anyway, and the team could have signed him for $1 million. Fangraphs projects the Dodgers with a 98% chance to make the playoffs and the Padres a 93% chance; no other team has a smoother path toward October.

The Padres this winter imported Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove for their starting rotation.

“We’ve noticed,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said last week, when he introduced Trevor Bauer: We’ll see you Snell, who won his Cy Young three years ago, and we’ll raise you Bauer, who won his Cy Young last year.

With the Tatis signing, the Padres handed their swinging friar a megaphone and told him to shout to the masses: Trust us, San Diego! We’re not here for one or two playoff runs; we’re here to drive the Dodgers crazy for the rest of the decade!

The Padres have a sports-mad city to themselves. And what sweeter way to win than to beat L.A., the city to which San Diego’s NBA and NFL teams fled?

We’ll see. The Dodgers have won eight consecutive division championships; the Padres have five division championships in their 52 seasons.

And what, Dodgers fans might wonder, does the Tatis signing mean for the Dodgers’ chances of retaining their shortstop? Absolutely nothing.

Corey Seager is eligible for free agency after this season. The Dodgers signed Mookie Betts for $365 million on the eve of his walk year and Clayton Kershaw for $215 million on the eve of his. They let Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Rich Hill try free agency one winter and signed them all. They let Turner try free agency again, and they signed him again.

The Dodgers are blessed with such financial resources that they do not have to sign a young player early because they worry about getting outbid in free agency. They can afford to wait. If Cody Bellinger’s performance dips, or if he is injured, the Dodgers are not on the hook for a long-term deal.

In smaller markets, where the Dodgers and Yankees are feared as financial Goliaths, teams can entice a young player with security and accept the risk that comes with a long-term contract.

The Tampa Bay Rays did that with Snell, then traded him to the Padres anyway, freeing themselves of all but $11 million of his $50-million contract. That is the Rays’ way. They also traded David Price, Chris Archer and James Shields before their contracts ran out. They win, but they have not sold even 2 million tickets since their inaugural season.

The Padres’ attendance jumped 11% in 2019, when they signed Manny Machado. Since then: Slam Diego, the first playoff appearance in 14 years, and now the Tatis deal.

The Padres could sell 3 million tickets in 2022. They are developing the land around Petco Park. They are the only game in town for corporate sponsors. There is money to be made, and a good chance Tatis emerges as the face of baseball, coupling exceptional talent with a flair that Mike Trout shuns. At 22, Tatis is the youngest player to appear on the cover of the “MLB The Show” video game.

Yes, the Padres are on the hook to Machado and Tatis for a combined $640 million. But guess what team has the most players in Baseball America’s ranking of the top 100 prospects? Yes, the Padres.

Maybe this all works out, and Tatis signs another lucrative contract at 35. Maybe he hobbles to the final season of the new contract, when Turner will be 50.

“We’re aiming for the big cake,” Tatis memorably said last year. He was talking about the World Series. But, in another winter in which too many owners served their fans a heaping portion of financial flexibility, the Padres served their fans Wednesday with quite a sweet treat.