Major League Baseball opens the regular season Thursday after another chaotic spring training dominated by rules changes, injuries, the World Baseball Classic and shifting TV economics.
Despite the tumult, the 30 MLB teams spent $3.8 billion in long-term contracts on 260 free agents. That’s a record, dwarfing the $1.4 billion baseball owners spent on 183 free agents in 2021.
Last offseason, which was dominated by the owner-imposed lockout, the free agent expenses were $3.2 billion on 252 players.
While the New York Mets and Yankees laid out big money for players, the small-market San Diego Padres, trying to win the World Series for the first time in their 54-year history, joined them in a spending spree. The Padres got some good financial news on Wednesday, when Diamond Sports, the parent of Bally Sports San Diego, made its TV rights fee payment to the club.
“It’s a team with whole lot of stars that I haven’t had a ton of in my career,” said Bob Melvin, beginning his 20th year as a big-league manager and second leading the Padres. “And it’s a team with a very high payroll, which I haven’t had a ton of since I’ve been managing.”
That the Mets and Yankees are big spenders is no surprise. The Mets, under second year owner and hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, have the highest payroll in MLB at $334.2 million, far above this year’s initial luxury tax threshold of $233 million. Cohen’s net worth is $17.4 billion.
The Yankees, having re-signed Aaron Judge for nine years at $360 million—the richest offseason contract in MLB—are second at $268 million.
But the Padres in third, at $237 million playing in one of MLB’s smaller markets, is a big surprise.
“I don't spend too much time, if any, thinking about what other people are thinking,” Padres owner Peter Seidler said as spring training opened. “Truly, I care about what we're thinking in this room in San Diego. To me, it just feels great.”
The money is certainly there to spend. Seidler is worth about $3 billion, and minority partner Alfredo Harp Helú has a net worth of $1.6 billion.
Harp Helú, a Mexican businessman, has been a meaningful investor behind much of San Diego’s progress. He owns Mexico City’s Diablos Rojos, and the newly minted ballpark in which the Mexican League team plays—Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú—is named after him. That stadium opened in 2019 at the cost of 3 billion Mexican pesos ($164.6 million). The Padres played the Diablos on March 29, 2019, in an exhibition game to open that facility; Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador became the first Mexican president since 1947 to toss a first pitch at a ballpark.
Obrador will be there again next month, as San Diego will be playing the San Francisco Giants in the Mexico City ballpark on April 29 and 30, as MLB resumes its international commitments this year. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, the Padres were scheduled to play a pair of games against the Arizona Diamondbacks in that stadium. But the series was canceled, along with all of MLB’s international games.
This is the first time Mexico City is hosting regular season MLB games. MLB has played regular season games in Monterrey, Mexico, numerous times beginning with the Padres against the Mets in 1996. The Padres have played in Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey three times.
In 2020, before the international series was canceled, Padres chief executive Erik Greupner said he was excited for the team to be playing in Mexico that year; Northern Baja is a significant part of the team's fan base because of its proximity to San Diego. The Padres have long tried to mine Mexico as a market, considering the international border and the city of Tijuana are only about 50 miles from Petco Park, where the Padres are scheduled to open the season Thursday against the Colorado Rockies.
The team even once had a store in a Tijuana shopping center and ran buses on Sundays back and forth from there to Qualcomm Stadium, the Padres’ former home. While the project wasn't successful due to economic factors, the team hasn't given up on its Mexican fans.
The Padres are excited about the possibilities of this season in general. They made the newly expanded playoffs as an NL Wild Card team last year and shocked almost everyone by defeating the Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers before succumbing to the Philadelphia Phillies in a five-game NL Championship Series.
Since then, they’ve outspent the neighboring Dodgers by adding free agent shortstop Xander Bogaerts on an 11-year, $280 million contract; extending Yu Darvish with a six-year, $108 million deal; and making Manny Machado a Padre through 2033 with a $350 million extension.
The Dodgers downsized under the luxury tax threshold to $217.6 million, fifth-most in MLB, and even though they won a franchise record 111 games and beat the Padres by 22 games last year, they’re considered highly susceptible this season. The Dodgers have won the NL West nine times in the past 10 years, but the Padres hope that streak is in jeopardy.
The Padres haven’t won the West since 2006 and have been to the World Series twice—1984 and 1998—losing both times. Excitement was very high going into both of those seasons, but not like now. There’s so much fan interest in San Diego that the club cut off season ticket memberships when that number reached a record of 24,000 in 43,445 Petco Park.
They were fifth in MLB in attendance last year at just a tad under 3 million and an average 36,931 a game. Three of the four teams that finished above them–the Dodgers, Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves–play in bigger ballparks.
While the Padres are maxing out stadium revenue, the goal is winning the World Series.
“We believe we have a great chance to go after that trophy and to deliver San Diego its first parade,” Seidler said. "We’re here to win a title. That’s what I expect.”