Spring training is less than a month away and the San Diego Padres still have some work to do to get ready for the 2024 season. The offense is largely in a decent spot even after the team was "forced" to trade away Juan Soto, but multiple key free agent departures from the pitching staff have yet to be replaced especially when it comes to their starting rotation.
The good news is that this free agent market has moved at the speed of smell this year, so there are a lot of free agent options still available from top end guys like Jordan Montgomery to bargain bin types that can just serve as roster filler. If the Padres were going to pick any year to wait to strike late in the offseason, this was the year to do it.
Complicating matters, though, is that the Padres seem to be very intent (subscription required) on keeping their payroll below the luxury tax threshold for 2024 after exceeding it the past three seasons. Successfully doing so would reset the penalties they have been incurring and help keep costs down in the long-term. That probably means San Diego only has around $30 million worth of wiggle room on this year's books as their current projected luxury tax payroll number sits at at touch over $206 million.
With those numbers and needs in mind, here are some emergency, last-minute free agent signings the Padres can still make this offseason to fill the holes on their roster while still keeping their payroll under control.
In terms of short-term, relatively cheap starters that have real upside, the Padres could do a lot worse than James Paxton. As he showed in the first half with the Red Sox last season, Paxton is still a very capable pitcher (when he's right) who can miss bats and present some real upside for a San Diego pitching staff in desperate need of it with the losses of Blake Snell, Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo this offseason.
Of course, the issue with Paxton has long been that he hasn't been able to stay on the field. He missed the entire 2022 season after having Tommy John surgery and missed time last season with a hamstring injury as well as knee inflammation. The 96 innings he threw last year was the most he recorded since 2019, and he wasn't exactly known as being the pillar of durability before that.
As a result, signing Paxton would represent a bit of a risk. However, he shouldn't be prohibitively expensive because of his age and injury history, and if he can actually stay healthy for a little while, he should be able to provide some quality innings. Right now, the Padres just need to buy time until pitching prospects like Robby Snelling, Adam Mazur and Drew Thorpe are ready to contribute in the big leagues. Paxton would be a fine stop-gap option until they are, but the team should steer clear if he's looking for anything beyond one or two years.