Opinion: Fernando Tatis Jr.’s $340 million deal shows risk is minimal, rewards abundant in baseball
MLB 

Congratulations are certainly in order for Fernando Tatis Jr., the only man in baseball history to be guaranteed $340 million before he’s even played 100 games in a season.

All hail the San Diego Padres, who placed a moderate bet to retain one of the game’s most talented players well into the 2030s. Good morning to their fans, who can gamble a slightly smaller sum – $135 – to purchase the jersey of their young superstar knowing it will remain relevant a bit longer than that Justin Upton or Craig Kimbrel gear they might have purchased back in 2015.

Indeed, it’s a generally good day for baseball, a sport that prefers its stars strongly identified to a franchise, the better to render teams beyond New York and Los Angeles recognizable.

Tatis’ 14-year contract also surfaced many greater truths and myths about the game, the deal’s terms startling but its overall impact a relative blip in an $11 billion industry.

Let’s explore some of those, shall we?

The small-market myth

While it was assumed new Mets owner and notorious hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen would upset the unstated world order of baseball economics this winter, it was new Padres control man Peter Seidler who continued Ron Fowler’s work of doing business in the Gaslamp Quarter as if it were George Steinbrenner’s Bronx.

They’ll feature the only infield with two $300 million men, Tatis and Manny Machado both threats to win an MVP any year they’re healthy. The Padres haven’t blinked at huge transactions since they lapped the field to guarantee $144 million to Eric Hosmer in 2018, nor have they skimped on the edges, guaranteeing a reasonable but aggressive $21 million to retain the highly useful Jurickson Profar this winter.

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It may not be enough to catch the Dodgers. Yet at the least, the Padres have crafted a highly watchable and compelling squad that, thanks to the Chargers’ move to That City Up North, now has the USA’s eighth-largest city all to itself.

Oh, you thought San Diego was a small market?

By some measures, sure. With Mexico to the south, the desert to the east and L.A. to the north, Nielsen ranks San Diego as the 29th-largest TV market, wedged between Nashville and Salt Lake City.

Yet lest we forget, the Padres aren’t quite halfway through a 20-year, $1.2 billion local TV contract, which comes with a reported equity stake in their network. They are small market only in the same sense Kroger is small market relative to Wal-Mart: There’s still plenty of cash to go around.

No, the flurry of moves and financial commitments remind us that relevance is a choice. Competing is a choice.

Certainly, some markets have their limitations, from the Rays and A’s crying poor until they get help building new stadiums, to certain franchises in the Central divisions whose market size may be diminishing.

Most of the time, though, creating a compelling product – or, as we used to call it, trying to win – is simply a matter of want.

Tatis Jr. finished fourth in NL MVP voting in 2020. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez, USA TODAY Sports)

The sustainability myth

As Ivy League-educated general managers glibly carry the water for billionaire owners, the word “sustainability” is almost impossible to avoid.

Sure, nobody wants to be good for one season and bad for five. And when the s-word comes from the mouths of execs in Oakland or Cleveland or Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh, it’s at least not totally disingenuous.

Yet baseball’s resident geniuses have managed to condition us to believe that “winning” and “sustainability” are mutually exclusive.

We heard it when the Red Sox traded away Mookie Betts, for a package of players who may or may not comprise a future championship core. We even hear it from Yankees GM Brian Cashman, whose franchise is as close as it gets to having bottomless resources.

When these execs cry semi-poor to justify trading away franchise icons and treat the luxury-tax ceiling like a poison pill in a toxic mortgage, it provides significant cover for owners in dusty, bucolic burgs like Chicago or Atlanta.

Trouble is, franchises as disparate as the Dodgers and Padres prove that going big doesn’t have to create years of darkness on the other side.

To much fanfare, the Dodgers in October 2014 brought in Rays resident genius Andrew Friedman, who has exceeded the club’s significant ask that he spend big but wisely, win big but also build a player-development factory. Friedman has since stretched the club’s NL West title streak from two to eight seasons, delivered three NL pennants and a World Series title.

The Padres? Well, lest we forget the last time ownership instructed GM A.J. Preller to win, he feverishly swapped for the aforementioned Upton and Kimbrel, along with Matt Kemp, and signed James Shields to a $75 million contract.

The Padres lost big and often, yet it was no death knell. Preller famously pivoted back to seller, somehow luring Tatis from the White Sox for Shields in the heist of this century. Three ugly seasons followed, but the club quickly opened back up for business in 2018, luring Hosmer and building the core that now stands.

History will remember Preller as either a wild-eyed transactional freak or a mad genius with fantastic hair. As it stands, the latter seems more likely – particularly if the Padres can, yes, sustain the good times.

Machado and Tatis' contracts are worth a combined $640 million. (Photo: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

The albatross contract myth

Used to be that a nine-figure contract came with an ugly narrative: Sure, the elite player you signed may provide a few years of good production, but that contract will be a pair of cement shoes that will eventually sink your club.

Well, if that’s the case, why has it been so easy to move so many of these so-called millstone deals?

Take away the 10 contracts of at least $215 million signed since 2019 that are still in their honeymoon phase, and we find that 11 of the 25 biggest deals ever signed resulted in the player getting traded or opting out of his deal. Of the 15 that didn’t move, most were players that either remained close to elite throughout the contract (Max Scherzer, Joey Votto, say) or were franchise icons the team would be disinclined to move (Buster Posey, Felix Hernandez, Joe Mauer, Derek Jeter).

Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million deal with the penny-pinching Marlins? Gone. Zack Greinke’s $206 million pact with Arizona? Adios. Detroit’s $214 million impulse buy of Prince Fielder? Shipped to Texas, with an All-Star second baseman as the return.

Sure, there’s risk involved, and trading teams definitely have to send cash along with the massive contract and there’s a few dead deals playing out the string, most notably Chris Davis ($161 million, Orioles) and Albert Pujols ($240 million, Angels). But let’s also not act like signing Machado and Tatis ranks as some profile in courage.

The magnanimity myth

Good on the Padres for taking care of Tatis. They did right by handing him the starting shortstop job in 2019, giving him two full years of service time and a bigger hammer to wield in these negotiations.

Yet despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being handed to players barely young enough to drink, it’s still an ugly world out there for young stars.

Certainly, nobody forced Ronald Acuna Jr. to sign a below-market $100 million extension that could tie him to the Braves through 2028. Yet the Braves, by shipping him to the minors in 2018 despite overwhelming evidence he was one of their best outfielders, pulled the carrot of big dollars unjustly away.

It’s also no coincidence that Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert started the 2019 and 2020 seasons with the White Sox – both signed team-friendly deals binding them to Chicago through 2026 and ’27, respectively.

How much money did these players cost themselves? Consider George Springer, who was offered a spot in the Astros outfield if he agreed to a seven-year, $23 million deal. 

Springer passed. The Astros kept him in the minors to retain an extra year of service. Yet Springer's bet on himself paid off: He earned $50 million over the span the Astros offered him $23 million, and still managed to sign a $150 million free agent deal this winter.

No, it’s usually only serendipity that creates conditions friendly to the player. When the Washington Nationals lost an entire outfield to injury early in 2018, they had little choice but to call up 19-year-old Juan Soto – who never left and is now one of the top five players in the game.

Soto is now raking in a quite livable wage of $8.5 million through arbitration eligibility, and will be halfway to free agency after this season. The likelihood of the Nationals signing him to an extension diminishes as his price tag soars. More likely, Soto in 2026 becomes the first 26-year-old free agent to hit the market since Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in 2018, his contract worth closer to $400 million than $300 million.

Even if some teams still aren’t trying, Soto should find no shortage of suitors.

Perhaps even San Diego.

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