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Manny Machado matures into the leader the Padres believe they need to surpass Dodgers

San Diego Padres star Manny Machado runs the bases after hitting a home run against Philadelphia Phillies.
San Diego Padres star Manny Machado runs the bases after hitting a home run against Philadelphia Phillies in Game 2 of the NLCS in October.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)
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Manny Machado’s locker in the San Diego Padres’ spring training clubhouse is prime real estate: at the main entrance, next to the three-foot tall speaker pumping the music into the room. Friday morning, hours before their Cactus League opener, it was tuned to laidback oldies.

Teammates greeted Machado as they walked by his space. Ha-Seong Kim gave him a hug. Xander Boegarts extended a hand. Machado switched between English and Spanish, depending on the teammate. He was lively. He was vibing.

The 2023 Padres are perhaps the most talented — and definitely the most expensive — team in franchise history. The roster brims with stars acquired via trade and free agency over the past four years. Thick World Series expectations hover for the small-market entity punching above its weight.

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In the middle of the galaxy is Machado, the uber-talented third baseman who has evolved into the club’s unquestioned leader — a role he acknowledged he’s had to grow into since arriving after a rent-a-player stint with the Dodgers.

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“It’s about being yourself,” he said. “I think being free, just opening up a little bit.”

Machado, 30, wasn’t that person in his four months with the Dodgers in 2018. Los Angeles acquired him at the trade deadline from the Baltimore Orioles to play shortstop for the injured Corey Seager. He helped them reach the World Series for the second straight year.

But Machado was far from a fan favorite. He was lambasted for his effort and fueled the criticism when he told Sports Illustrated he wasn’t “Johnny Hustle.” He prompted a benches-clearing kerfuffle when he kicked Jesús Aguilar’s foot at first base in the NLCS. His final act — dropping to his knee after whiffing on a pitch in the dirt to end the World Series — seemed fitting.

Returning to the Dodgers that offseason was never an option; Seager was under club control for another three years and Justin Turner was entrenched at third base. But what about next offseason?

Machado last week confirmed he plans to opt out of his 10-year, $300-million contract after the season. He could be one of the top free agents, headlining the class with Shohei Ohtani, Julio Urías, Blake Snell and Aaron Nola.

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The Dodgers, meanwhile, will have money to spend. They are slated to have more than $66 million come off the books. Ohtani will undoubtedly be their top target. If they strike out with him, Machado could be the best hitter left on the market.

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The organization is “split” on entertaining a reunion with Machado, according to a person with knowledge of the team’s thinking who is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Machado is said to be open to a return to Los Angeles but that’s expected; eliminating one of the league’s richest teams from the bidding isn’t good business.

The Dodgers don’t have an obvious need for him. Max Muncy, who has a player option for 2024, is the Dodgers’ starting third baseman this season. Miguel Vargas, who will play second base in 2023, played third base more than any other position in the minor leagues. The Dodgers could use either player at the position.

San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado points during a game against the San Francisco Giants in October.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

But Machado resides in another stratosphere. He’s a six-time All-Star. He owns two Gold Gloves. He finished second in the NL MVP race last season — arguably his best offensive campaign — after batting .298 with 32 home runs and an .898 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

He’s been considered one of the sport’s best defenders since becoming a regular a decade ago. He hasn’t missed more than 12 games in a season since 2014. He placed fifth on MLB Network’s player rankings list this week.

“Sometimes it looks like he’s not trying because he’s so good at it,” Padres reliever Craig Stammen said. “But if you talk to him and watch how he thinks about the game, you understand how locked in he is every day.”

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Still in his prime, Machado is poised to become one of the few players to ever secure two lucrative long-term contracts. Padres owner Peter Seidler hopes it’s in San Diego again.

“I really hesitate to talk about hypothetical situations, whether it’s with a free-agent player or one of our own,” Seidler said this week. “I will say: Manny is my top priority.”

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Machado’s presence in San Diego embodies the organization’s trajectory. He signed with the Padres in 2019 when their uniforms were still a nondescript blue and white, and San Diego was best known for being the Dodgers’ punching bag. The deal was the largest ever for a free agent when he signed but it has fallen to the 11th-biggest. He was 26, wealthy, and not ready to lead.

“I’ve learned a lot along the way,” Machado said. “People make mistakes. I think the beauty from it is you learn from it and you grow.”

Machado highlighted Stammen and former Padre Eric Hosmer as role models in his maturation. Stammen, the Padres’ longest-tenured player, said Machado didn’t realize his standing within the club when he arrived.

“When you’re a young player in the major leagues, you come up looking up to other guys and you don’t quite know when everyone starts looking at you,” Stammen, 38, said. “When he signed the big contract here, all eyes were on him. Now, he’s definitely become the leader in this clubhouse and the guy we look to. He takes care of us. And he’s a great teammate.”

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San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado smiles before Game 1 of the NLCS in October.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

With Machado, the Padres have gone from afterthought to toppling the Dodgers to reach the NLCS in October. Last summer, they traded for Juan Soto and Josh Hader. This winter, they added Boegarts, Matt Carpenter, Nelson Cruz, Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha. Their payroll is pushing $275 million. With it, they are considered co-favorites with the Dodgers to win their first NL West title since 2006 and have generated so much excitement that they capped season-ticket sales.

“I saw the vision from the beginning,” Machado said, “and it’s coming true.”

Whether Machado is around to see it through beyond 2023 is unclear. The number of teams interested in him might be limited until Ohtani makes a decision, but the Padres would face competition for his services regardless. Both New York clubs would be possible landing spots. Other teams would surface with strong interest. The Dodgers could end up being one of them if they miss on Ohtani. They’ll have the money.

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