Even with their disappointing postseason exit, the 2020 MLB season was a smashing success for the San Diego Padres. The club finally made the jump from rebuilder to contender, and finished with the third best record (37-23) and second best run differential (plus-84) in baseball. They are loaded with talent and are set up to contend for years to come.

The centerpiece of San Diego’s core is shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who will surely receive MVP votes after hitting .277/.366/.571 with 17 home runs in 59 games this year. Between the offense and his much improved defense, Tatis was a 2.5 WAR player in the abbreviated season. He is one of the game’s brightest stars and he’s only 21. I’m not sure any single player is more important to their franchise than Tatis.

Not surprisingly, Padres GM A.J. Preller confirmed the team is interested in signing Tatis to a long-term contract on Wednesday. He added the interest appears to be mutual. Here’s what Preller told reporters, including MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell:

“It was just such a short season and such a sprint to the finish line that I don’t think there was a lot in the middle of all of that for trying to put a contract negotiation in there,” Preller said. “We’ll start to look more seriously at that here this offseason, and it sounds like there’s interest on both sides, so we’ll see where that goes.”

Refreshingly, the Padres did not manipulate Tatis’ service time last season. Tatis was on the Opening Day roster, so he is under team control another four years. He will make something near the league minimum salary as a pre-arbitration-eligible player in 2021 before going through arbitration each year from 2022-24. Tatis will not qualify for free agency until the 2024-25 offseason.

The natural benchmark for a Tatis extension is Ronald Acuna Jr.’s eight-year, $100 million contract with the Braves. They are two of the game’s brightest young stars, so the contract comparison fits. There is one small problem though: Acuna signed his contract after his first MLB season. Tatis has played two years and is closer to arbitration and free agency. That gives him more leverage.

Many players signed extensions at Tatis’ service time level (i.e. four years away from free agency) but very few have his resume. Two recent extensions at this service time level can help guide the Padres and Tatis during contract negotiations:

Moncada had a breakout 2019 season but it was his only true star-level season prior to signing the extension. Bregman signed his extension after two star-level seasons, including a fifth place finish in the MVP voting in 2018. Here is the structure of Bregman’s contract, which is very straightforward:

  • 2019: $640,500 (final pre-arbitration year)
  • 2020: $13 million (first arbitration year)
  • 2021: $13 million (second arbitration year)
  • 2022: $13 million (third arbitration year)
  • 2023: $30.5 million (first free agent year)
  • 2024: $30.5 million (second free agent year)

Bregman’s deal values his arbitration years at $13 million apiece and his free agent years at $30.5 million apiece. That does not mean Tatis should sign for exactly that, but it provides context and potential framework for an extension. A six-year contract would keep Tatis in San Diego through the 2026 season, his age 27 season. He’d still hit free agency at a very young age.

Tatis is, truly, the most important Padres player since the late Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, and it stands to reason Preller & Co. want to keep him in San Diego as long as possible. A 10-year extension would lock Tatis up through age 31 and would check in at over $200 million if the deal values his free agent years at $30.5 million apiece. He might even be able to push for $300 million, though this far away from free agency, I don’t think he’d get it.

The Padres are a traditional small market team but they’ve spent big recently, most notably extending Wil Myers and signing Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado as free agents. Hosmer’s frontloaded contract — he’ll make $21 million a year from 2018-22 and $13 million a year from 2023-25 — will expire after Year 5 of a hypothetical Tatis extension. Myers’ deal is up after 2022. The Padres have some payroll relief coming before Tatis enters his huge money-making years.

The great unknown here is the financial impact of the pandemic. Teams have lost untold revenue this year and the financial future of the sport is uncertain. How long until fans are allowed back into the stadium? Even if they are allowed back in next year, what’s the maximum capacity and how many people will actually show up? The free agent market is expected to be depressed this winter is a result, and it figures to be depressed in future years as well.

Tatis is a megastar and, similar to Mookie Betts, he is the rare player who won’t see his earning potential take a big hit following the pandemic. He’s too young and too valuable. He’s going to get paid. It’s just a matter of Tatis and the Padres finding common ground on dollars and years. I’m sure San Diego will be motivated to get a deal done. They just have to convince Tatis to buy-in long-term.

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