PEORIA, Ariz. — The traffic was light just after day break, so I kept driving, past the exit for the Chicago White Sox, who are waiting on decisions from Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, to the exit for the San Diego Padres, who are waiting on decisions from Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, maybe 10 miles along AZ-101.
The drama that held up the early offseason, that dominated the winter meetings and that bled into January has survived the early days of spring training as well, a hamstring strain that doesn’t change your gait but with every step reminds you it’s there.
The Padres, like everyone whose plans could include one (or both) of Harper and Machado, who must sort out the consequences of getting one (or both) or neither, on Saturday went through their routines, exercised their compartmentalization skills, waited on the phone to ring. Sunday will probably be about the same.
You’d find the same program in about every camp, even where there will be no Harper or Machado, because those are the signings that could kick over the trade for a corner outfielder no longer necessary in Philadelphia or San Francisco or Chicago, an infielder in some of those same places, or frees money for another of Scott Boras’ idling clients, third baseman Mike Moustakas among them. Deeper still: Does, say, a Nolan Arenado extension change the ask on Machado? Or does a Machado breakthrough alter Arenado’s expectation, which changes the tenor of his negotiation with the Colorado Rockies, which revises the long- and short-term objectives of, say, the New York Yankees?
And if everyone is treading water, firm in their asks and offers, is the only remaining trigger the calendar? Maybe when position players begin practicing. When exhibition games start. When February turns to March, the month that will host regular-season games. Are we waiting for someone to blink or fall into a coma?
A.J. Preller is a sight. The general manager of the Padres stood near noon in foul territory, his arms folded, watching some of his early campers take batting practice. The sun came and went. He wore gray sweats that bagged in the seat and bunched at his shoes. A light top was a size too big and in spots billowed against a cool breeze. An ear piece hung by a wire from his right pocket, as if in a holster. He said hello, then his pocket rang, he excused himself and went off to perhaps see if anyone had blinked.
“We’re dead set on winning and winning as quickly as possible,” the Padres’ manager, Andy Green, had said earlier. “What exists in that clubhouse this day is enough to go win baseball games.
“Patience, not my strongest asset. So there’s been times where you go through this over the last three years and it’s been tough. It’s been tough, I know, on the fan base, on ownership, on the front office, on the coaching staff, on the players. But what you get proud of is the attitude that guys show up to the ballpark with. To work. Smile. Upbeat. Positive. You control those things through the rebuild process. And now you want to flip the page to the winning process.”
A year ago, on Feb. 19, Preller signed his first baseman, Eric Hosmer, to the richest contract — $144 million over eight years — in franchise history. A fourth-place team became a, well, fifth-place team.
Now the Padres are in, perhaps peripherally, perhaps with both feet, on two of the more expensive free agents in baseball history. And they are back into mid-February. And Preller, like general managers across the game, have only to wait, to strategize, to prioritize the what-ifs that play in the foreground of a brewing labor showdown.
On the verge of his fifth full season on the job, Preller’s high-water mark is 74 wins. Last year, the Padres had 66 wins. The names you know are coming. The talent is coming. The results remain static. Like the White Sox.
And everybody drums their fingers. Stretch at 9. Bullpen at 10. BP at 11. Look up at the end of all that. List this guy on top of the depth chart at third base, or this guy in right field, and wonder again if that’s how it’s going to be.
So, exit on Camelback Road or Bell Road, only the uniforms and the names and the personalities change. The calendar is the same. Go to Scottsdale instead, and the San Francisco Giants wait. To Maryvale, and the Milwaukee Brewers wait. Pick a town in Florida. You can see March from most any of them.
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