The San Diego Padres open another head-to-head three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday night at Petco Park.
But what was one of the hottest rivalries in baseball during the first three months of the season has cooled tremendously simply because of San Diego’s position in the standings.
The third-place Padres trail the surprising first-place San Francisco Giants in the National League West by 13 games and the second-place Dodgers by 10 1/2.
John Moores, the previous owner of the franchise, said he has a piece of advice for his successor Peter Seidler, a nephew of former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley.
“Be calm. I’m mean it’s baseball. You just don’t know,” Moores said in a phone interview.
The Padres are a small- to mid-market Major League Baseball team, and despite their current value of $1.76 billion always will be so.
Seidler, though, is spending like a large-market team, building up a club-record $175.8 million player payroll this season. That total includes long-term deals worth $789 million with three key players: Fernando Tatis (14 years, $345 million); Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million); and Eric Hosmer (eight years, $144 million). Machado can opt out after the 2023 season.
Yet, the Padres are struggling again to make the playoffs.
“You talk about making a huge bet, you’ve got to admire Peter for it, as I do,” Moores added.
The Padres’ worth is more a reflection of the big-league baseball market, in which all teams have gained value during the pandemic despite losing more than $3 billion in operating revenue during the past two seasons.
“We’re not a small-market franchise,” Seidler said before the season. “We represent the eighth largest city in America, and that’s the kind of trust we have with our great city, our fans and the people that support us.”
But money doesn’t necessarily buy success in sports. Not only are the Padres double-digit games behind the division leader, they even find themselves trailing Cincinnati by a game for the NL’s second Wild Card berth.
They were only 2 1/2 games out in the West on July 1, but Tatis has been on the injured list three times because of a left shoulder injury and COVID-19. And even more significantly, the pitching staff has been riddled with injuries.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way, but it’s a crap shoot, Moores said.
“You just have to catch lightning in a bottle,” he added.
Moores bottled lightning in 1998, when the Padres won only their second National League pennant. They haven’t won another since. In November of that year, a public advisory vote passed to build a new facility eventually called Petco Park.
The Padres accumulated a $53 million payroll that season. The big-market New York Yankees, who won an overall record 125 games that year and swept them in the World Series, had spent $67.7 million.
It was a one-off because once San Diego voters approved the ballpark measure, Moores disassembled the team.
The club’s other pennant was captured in 1984, just after owner Ray Kroc passed away and his wife, Joan, inherited the team. It was built by club president Ballard Smith, despite Joan’s determination not to invest any money in it.
“We were just trying to build a winner for Ray,” Smith recalled about that season.
After Kroc, the McDonald’s empire founder, was leveled by a stroke, Smith signed free agents Steve Garvey and Goose Gossage and traded with the Yankees for Graig Nettles. The Padres payroll that season was $7.8 million, but it wasn’t enough to defeat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
Seidler’s situation is different, according to Smith.
“He’s created a feeling in town that this is not a one-shot deal, that this is something that could be good for a while,” Smith said. “Whether that’s going to happen, I don’t know. I mean, there was no expectation back in 1984 that we were going to win the division until we got to the end of the season.”
The expectations for these Padres, though, have been immense. Moores and Smith both still live in San Diego and say they are watching closely. Smith has attended a few games. Moores says he gets up every day at 4 a.m. and checks the Wild Card standings.
“It’s been a pretty rough last couple of weeks, though,” Moores, now 75, said. “Once they get in, they’ve got the roster to beat anybody, but they have to get in.”
Tuesday’s clash against the Dodgers was supposed to open a rush to the playoffs in the season’s final 35 games, during which the Padres could have controlled their owned destiny.
Nineteen of those games are against the Dodgers and Giants. The Padres are thus far 7-3 against the Dodgers and 4-5 vs. the Giants.
Alas, at their current pace, the odds are now long those games will have much meaning.
Wait ‘til next year.
“Over the last five years we’ve been able to build an organization that year in, year out has a chance to play deep into October,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller said in a phone interview. “The core of our players and the farm system give us the feeling that we’re going to continue to be able to do that here.”
To be sure, it hasn’t been an awful season for the Padres. They are 10 games over .500, but the two teams ahead of them are a combined 67 games above that mark and because their depth has helped them weather injuries to numerous key players.
The Dodgers have spent a Major League-record $267.3 million, $57.3 million above this season’s competitive balance tax threshold of $210 million. The Giants have spent $159.8 million, and improved themselves mightily with the acquisition of Kris Bryant from the Chicago Cubs at the July 30 trade deadline.
The Padres, with 17 pitchers on the injured list, needed front-line pitching at the deadline and didn’t get any. The Dodgers obtained Max Scherzer from the Washington Nationals. The Padres countered by trading for All-Star second baseman Adam Frazier from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“This year the pitching has been devastated both by injury and the exhaustion of throwing too many innings,” Smith, also 75, said.
On Monday, the Padres fired pitching coach Larry Rothschild as the dominoes start to fall.
They operationally lost almost $100 million last year, hosting an abbreviated 30-game home season without fans because of the coronavirus. This year, they aren’t expected to make any operating revenue at Petco again. They didn’t play in front of a full house until June 17, when California health restrictions were lifted.
They’ve done very well at the gate since then but are averaging 24,156 in 64 home games, down from 29,585 in 2019, the last full season before COVID. Their player payroll is $71.6 million more now than it was then.
The Padres perennially lose money, but their owners recoup when the team is sold. The Krocs bought in for $17 million and sold for $70 million. Moores bought the franchise for $80 million and sold it for $800 million.
Seidler has a big payday ahead of him if and when he decides to cash out. For now, he’s gone toe-to-toe since the off-season with the Dodgers, matching trades and signings of big-name players.
He’s put the Padres back on the baseball map, but competitively, the results are yet to materialize.
“You and I shouldn’t be surprised,” Moores said. “It’s always tougher on smaller-market clubs during the second half of the year as guys get worn down. It makes you gulp pretty hard to see what Peter’s done. I just hope it works out.”