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The pandemic especially hurt Padres revenues, yet they’re spending to win anyway

Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish prepares to throw against the Cincinnati Reds.
Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish prepares to throw against the Cincinnati Reds on May 20, 2018, in Cincinnati.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

We don’t mean to pick on the Cleveland Indians, but their words represent those of a league whose owners have spent years persuading fans to root for prudent financial management. This year brought a pandemic, and so of course the decline in revenue would mean layoffs, furloughs and payroll cuts.

“We are in a worse financial position today than we were eight months ago,” Indians President Chris Antonetti told reporters in October.

True, no doubt, for the Indians and each of the other 29 teams. But the team that might have been hurt the most by the pandemic is the one that just worked out deals to acquire starting pitchers Blake Snell and Yu Darvish on consecutive days.

They are the San Diego Padres, a thoroughly enjoyable team that its home city could not enjoy in person last summer, at least not without access to the balconies and rooftops that overlooked Petco Park.

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The Padres’ attendance jumped 11% in 2019, when Manny Machado was the newest attraction. In 2020, the summer of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Slam Diego, the season when the Padres posted a winning record for the first time in 10 years and advanced to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, let’s say the Padres’ attendance would have jumped an additional 11%.

The San Diego Padres send three of top 14 prospects to Tampa Bay to acquire 2018 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell.

Even with that conservative estimate, the Padres would have sold 2.66 million tickets. The last time they sold so many tickets, in 2007, the starting rotation included Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, Hall-of-Famer-to-be Greg Maddux, new Texas Rangers general manager Chris Young, and David Wells in his farewell season.

The Padres’ attendance probably would have jumped even higher in 2021, but no one knows how many fans can attend games next season, and whether any will be allowed when the season starts.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has said teams generate about 40% of revenue on game day: tickets, parking, T-shirts, beer, hot dogs and, in the case of the Padres, fish tacos and insanely good tri-tip sandwiches. That game-day revenue is more critical to the Padres than to most other teams, as their media revenue is limited because they play in one of the smallest media markets in the major leagues.

Sacramento is a larger media market than San Diego.

The list of teams in larger markets that are cutting payroll includes the Indians, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Chicago Cubs.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell throws a pitch.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell throws a pitch on Sept. 17 in Baltimore.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

The Pirates might not be in position to win in 2021, but the Indians traded Mike Clevinger to the Padres last summer. They still made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, they still have unanimous Cy Young winner Shane Bieber, and they still have dynamic shortstop Francisco Lindor. So, yeah, they’re shopping Lindor. Financial flexibility, you know.

The Rays got to the World Series and, two months later, traded an ace to the Padres to save money. The Cubs got to the playoffs for the fifth time in six years and, two months later, traded an ace to the Padres to save money.

Clevinger, Snell and Darvish represent the baseball commodity that is supposed to be most difficult to acquire: premium, proven, controllable starting pitching. The Padres acquired all three within six months. Of their six top prospects last July, as ranked by Baseball America, the Padres still retain four.

That is a testament to the Padres’ deep farm system, built during a major league drought in which the owners invested heavily in player development and international scouting. But that also is a testament to the Padres for playing to win, a mission we can no longer assume goes without saying everywhere else.

Rachel Luba, the agent for free-agent pitcher Trevor Bauer, took public notice Monday.

“Looks like the Padres are finally tired of the Dodgers owning the NL West,” Luba tweeted.

A mostly atrocious Angels 2020 season nevertheless had several moments worth savoring. Of course, many involved Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Anthony Rendon.

Whether the additions of Snell and Darvish can lift the Padres past the Dodgers in 2021 remains to be seen. The Dodgers lived through the winter of “rock star” Padres general manager A.J. Preller in 2014, then shrugged and won the National League West in 2015, for the third consecutive year. The Dodgers now have won the NL West eight consecutive years.

But the Padres, in a position to win, have put the pennant first and the pandemic second. It is a welcome reminder to owners that they should back up their talk of teams as public trusts, especially when their ballparks are publicly financed.

Bud Selig, the former commissioner, loved to talk about hope and faith. We’re sorry we must offer this clarification: Selig meant that owners should offer hope and faith to fans, not investors.


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