Do the San Diego Padres and AJ Preller have one final big move up their sleeve to establish this team as a mega contender alongside the Los Angeles Dodgers? After a run to the NLCS without one of their most important pieces, an aggressive approach in free agency really doesn’t seem farfetched.
That’s why the Pads cannot be ruled out in the Aaron Judge sweepstakes. Yes, the New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and even Dodgers have been listed as the top three destinations for the star slugger, but there’s certainly a wild alternate Preller universe where Judge is a Padre.
There are a few reasons why it’s possible. One is that the Padres aren’t afraid to spend big anymore. The baseball world saw what happened since 2018 when San Diego started its transformation. The Juan Soto/Josh Hader trade deadline solidified it.
The Padres had the fifth-highest attendance in all of MLB last year, behind only the Braves, Yankees, Cardinals and Dodgers. They beat the Mets, Astros and Blue Jays, which is significant. They averaged just ~700 fewer fans per game than the Yankees. The organization knows they can reel in even more fans with the addition of one more colossal star player.
Speaking of money, that brings us to our next point: the payroll. Preller, who seems like a spendthrift after some poor early investments, actually has the team set up nicely for the foreseeable future.
Padres can’t be ruled out in chase for Yankees star Aaron Judge
Check out the Padres’ projected total payroll from 2023-2028 with guaranteed money, arbitration salaries and contract options, per Baseball-Reference:
- 2023 – $166.4 million
- 2024 – $134.9 million
- 2025 – $150.2 million
- 2026 – $132.2 million
- 2027 – $155.3 million
- 2028 – $122.7 million
They finished with a $242 million payroll in 2022, so it’s obvious there’s still room for them to spend a good amount of cash, even if they wanted to remain below the first tax tier of $230 million. Should Judge get a $35-$40 million AAV salary, that’d easily fit into the long-term picture for San Diego, who would then have a three-headed monster of Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Judge for quite some time. Don’t forget about Juan Soto for the next to years as well!
And what if Judge’s free agency lags like Machado’s did a few years back? That’s how the Padres secured his services — because nobody was willing to top $300 million. Some might be hesitant about Judge entering his age-31 season, which could put the Padres in an advantageous spot if others refuse to present him the offer he desires.
Then there’s the whole “insurance” aspect of it all. Are the Padres content with what they have from a franchise player standpoint?
Tatis Jr. has played in just 273 games and missed the last 194 game due to an injury suffered from a motorcycle accident and then a PED suspension. Machado has an opt-out following the 2023 season. Is there a world in which he exercises it after an MVP-caliber campaign next season to get even more money based on how free agency has treated top talent in recent years? We’d say it’s unlikely, but it could happen. Then the Padres would be down one of the best all-around players in the sport.
In the event Tatis Jr. ends up being a bust because of his off-field issues or Machado leaves, Judge could be the steady superstar presence in San Diego. Best-case scenario, the Padres have three MVP candidates on the books through at least 2028, costing them anywhere from $75 million to $100 million. They have an ace-like starter in Musgrove signed through 2027 at just a $20 million AAV, too, so all they’d need to do is add a couple pitchers and have Preller work his magic on the trade market after 2024, and this could be one of MLB’s powerhouse rosters.
As for the defensive alignment, perhaps Judge plays some center while Soto remains in town and then shifts to right when the former National eventually departs in free agency. Nobody would complain if Trent Grisham was kicked to left (or off the roster) as a result of acquiring Judge.