The San Diego Padres are baseball’s most fascinating experiment

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By Amit


As his team readied for its first full squad workout of 2023, San Diego Padres owner Peter Seidler had some explaining to do. How dare he, owner of the team in one of Major League Baseball’s smallest media markets, plan to begin the season with its third-highest payroll? Doesn’t he know owners in markets like his do not spend like that? Doesn’t he realize that if one small-market owner pushes the limits, it is an informal indictment of those who do not do the same?

Here are the alleged crimes for which Seidler is here to answer, the ones about which Colorado Rockies owner Dick Monfort expressed concern earlier this year, the ones that undermine the claim that differences in market size create insurmountable revenue differences that make the whole endeavor hopeless for teams without endless money to spend.

“The trick for smaller markets has also always been sustainability. Hats off to Peter Seidler. He’s made a massive financial commitment personally to making this all happen,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said last week. “The question [becomes]: How long can you continue to do that?”

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Thus, Seidler is the unassuming mastermind of MLB’s most fascinating experiment, the man challenging the long-standing hypothesis — posited most often by his fellow small-market owners — that the unbridled spending of those in the most lucrative markets will eventually render it impossible for those in the smaller ones to keep up. If New York Mets owner Steve Cohen can put $370 million into his roster, for example, what chance could the team from little San Diego have?

For Seidler’s small-market peers, the inconvenient answer to that question appears to be “as good of a chance as anyone.” Seidler has spent so much money that his team will not receive revenue-sharing funds under the system the owners and players bargained to combat those disparities. Instead, his Padres will pay revenue sharing fees to other teams, Manfred confirmed last week. His Padres knocked Cohen’s Mets out of the postseason last year. They are outspending the Los Angeles Dodgers as things stand in 2023; they’re the first “small-market” team to rank in the top five in payroll since 2014.

In fact, in the 20 years before Seidler took over majority ownership of the team in 2020, the Padres never saw their payroll climb above 17th highest in the sport. By the end of the 2021 season, it was firmly in the top five. Seidler’s revolutionary hypothesis is clear: The best way to keep up with the big-market teams is, quite simply, to try.

“We’re here to win a title,” Seidler told reporters Tuesday, according to “That’s what I expect.”

That anyone would find Seidler’s financial exuberance surprising, let alone problematic, speaks to the strange state of Major League Baseball. Owners from Cincinnati to Colorado to Baltimore have bemoaned their inability to spend freely as a condition of their market size, a complaint Seidler has rendered almost comical by spending $272 million on his roster while the Oakland Athletics, for example, have less than $55 million on their Opening Day payroll, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

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But winning in small markets has never been as simple as spending or not spending. The Tampa Bay Rays, Milwaukee Brewers and Cleveland Guardians have established themselves as annual contenders without laying out nearly the money the Padres have in recent years.

“Certainly they’re doing everything they can to compete. We are, too,” Brewers General Manager Matt Arnold said in Arizona last week. “The markets are very different. We’re comfortable with the resources we have to use to compete.”

“I think each market has its own strengths, its own opportunities, its own ways of operating,” Guardians President Chris Antonetti said. “Our challenge is to understand the realities of our market and how do we do the best we can to win as much as possible within that.”

But reality is often in the eye of the beholder, and Antonetti admitted he is keeping a curious eye on the Padres to see what happens in San Diego in the long term.

“Oh yeah,” he said with a laugh. “There’s definitely that.”

The baseball-wide implication, one Antonetti didn’t outline explicitly even as Manfred and others have done so, is that no one is sure how long the Padres can continue to fund this kind of spending. In theory, investing in a successful team draws in more fans, sells more tickets and yields more revenue.

But no one has tested that theory quite like these Padres, who have a waiting list for season tickets for the first time and who saw their fan fest overrun by thousands just a few weeks ago.

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“There’s a unique set of circumstances that impact the way organizations are run. And our situation is unique. We have a very sports-oriented and hungry fan base,” Seidler said. “And we believe if we continue to build that trust, they will continue to come. And it’s about winning, and it’s about being exciting, and it’s about our fans young and old knowing that they’re going to be able to watch great, exciting players year after year after year.”

A decade ago, when Seidler was a minority owner, the Padres were entering the third of nine straight losing seasons. Their biggest star was a third baseman named Chase Headley. Their highest-paid player was Carlos Quentin at less than $10 million per season. They drew 2.1 million fans.

Now, their roster includes some of baseball’s biggest stars and contracts, with Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto and Xander Bogaerts together in a lineup that would have been incomprehensible for this franchise 10 years ago. Last year, they drew 2.9 million, trailing only some of the game’s most loyal fanbases: the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals and Braves. They have reason to believe they could draw more than 3 million fans in 2023.

“When we talk about risk,” Seidler said, “there’s a risk to doing nothing.”

Seidler has committed more than $900 million to Machado, Tatis and Bogaerts alone, piling on contract after contract seemingly without worrying that, win or lose, revenue jumps or not, the bill will come due someday. When Machado announced he plans to opt out of his deal this offseason, seemingly because he thinks he can make more than the $30 million annually the Padres committed to him through 2028, Seidler said re-signing him at that price is “our top priority.” Can other small-market teams learn from that approach?

“I think they all [can],” Machado said last week. “. . . Peter has said he wants to win, and it’s showing.”

Players have long argued that all owners could spend more than they do. They make those arguments informally in interview sessions like Machado’s. They have made them at the collective bargaining table, where the owners locked out the players last year over differences of opinion on that question and others, where the fight over whether small-market teams need a salary cap to compete has gone on for decades in some form or another. The question, perhaps, is whether Seidler’s Padres become evidence for defenders of that cap or for the players’ prosecution of it.

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