Baseball’s hot stove should have burned bright and hot and then shut off by this point in the offseason, given that there are less than two weeks to go until spring training. Instead, the free agent process is all but guaranteed to trudge on through February, as solid potential additions including Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Marwin Gonzalez, Mike Moustakas, and—of course—Bartolo Colon remain unsigned.
Above that second tier of players who haven’t yet found a suitor in this chilly market, there are legit superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, two players who should be wanted by literally every team in baseball and have instead seen only limited interest from a couple of teams. The Phillies want only one of the two free agent stars, the White Sox seem content to try to snag whomever the Phillies don’t get, and the Nationals definitely would take Harper back if he wanted them, but somehow that’s it. It’s so desperately frigid on the hot stove, in fact, that baseball insiders have apparently been forced to take the San Diego Padres seriously, just to have something new to talk about.
The Padres have been rebuilding for basically a decade, and all that losing eventually netted them one of the highest-rated farm systems in baseball. Still, this is by no means a destination franchise in 2019, and no one’s idea of a contender yet. Of their most highly touted prospects, only the 27-year-old outfielder Hunter Renfroe has so far enjoyed real success at the major-league level. Top minor-league hitter Fernando Tatis Jr. has received virtually universal acclaim and could have a shot at the starting shortstop job this year, but his 2018 in Double-A was a setback, marked by an early slump and a late injury. MacKenzie Gore, the third overall pick in 2017, was hampered by a blister throughout his 2018 season in A-ball, and as a prized young pitcher he’s still at the point where the organization won’t allow him out in public unless he’s covered head-to-toe in bubble wrap. Promising but flawed catching prospect Francisco Mejia, acquired in a deadline deal with Cleveland last year, could improve on San Diego’s promising-but-flawed homegrown catching prospect Austin Hedges, or he might not.
The Padres might hypothetically be set up for the future if all goes well, but they’re nevertheless coming off a 96-loss season in an NL West where they are miles behind the Dodgers and Rockies. Their microscopic payroll gives them no excuse not to pay top dollar for talent, but money is the only thing they can offer any dominant player in his prime to go there right now. Maybe, after the 2020 season, if some of the team’s prospects really pan out, the Padres could make an enticing pitch at Mike Trout on the open market. But at the moment, even the White Sox—with their weaker division and slightly more experienced roster—present a more compelling landing spot for a free agent.
But nothing else is happening, so let’s ignore all that and talk about all the marquee guys the Padres want to bring in right now! First off, there’s Manny Machado, who surely can only be using this team to try and get some leverage, since he can’t be happy with the lack of interest he’s seen so far. Right?
Another long-running offseason drama that has as of now produced zero interesting returns is whether or not the Marlins will dump J.T. Realmuto, a star catcher who is currently being paid like a middle reliever. The Padres traded for Mejia in the middle of last season and still seem bullish on Hedges, but hell yeah, let’s get them into the mix on Realmuto, too.
The cherry on top came today, in the form of a meeting with Bryce Harper, who definitely can’t be sick of playing for teams that haven’t won a playoff series this millennium.
It’s cool if the perennially ignored Padres want to act like power players. Someone has to do it, and if it sparks some real movement that leads actual 2019 contenders to sign some good free agents, even better. But also come on: when the Padres are doing more work than anyone else in terms of getting better in offseason, even if these meetings and talks are mostly marketing campaigns, then something is seriously wrong. Let’s get some more real teams involved here so we can start the dang season on time.