SAN DIEGO — Last month, the Padres made what they thought was a competitive three-year offer to José Abreu. The fit felt ideal for a team seeking a solution at first base and leadership inside its clubhouse.
So, the Padres experienced some disappointment last week when Abreu opted for a more lucrative $58.5 million deal with the World Series champion Astros. That sentiment was tempered by the fact that Trea Turner, a less intuitive but more dynamic target, was still a free agent.
It did not rise to the level of what team officials felt Monday when Turner agreed to an 11-year, $300 million contract with the Phillies. San Diego, league sources said, offered more guaranteed money than Philadelphia. While the exact terms were not revealed, the Padres had come out of the weekend optimistic that they were about to add an unprecedented third $300 million player — and a third shortstop — to their star-laden roster.
Instead, Turner went to the same team that recently eliminated the Padres in the National League Championship Series.
“We’ve had to see him up close the last couple of years,” president of baseball operations A.J. Preller said. “He’s obviously a tremendous player, and going to the National League, going to a team that represented the National League in the World Series, (we were) probably hoping that he was heading elsewhere.
“He’s a unique player. I think from that standpoint we at least want to entertain that, somebody unique that’s on the free-agent market. That doesn’t happen that often. I think ultimately him signing up with another club; we hoped maybe that was in the other league, honestly.”
Such an admission reinforced an early source of buzz at this week’s Winter Meetings: Preller, forever aggressive, would love to make another splash. But now, with Turner and Abreu headed elsewhere, how the Padres propose to do so is less clear.
The Padres have expressed interest in free-agent shortstop Xander Bogaerts, but people familiar with their thinking indicated a clear preference for Turner. Bogaerts might be the better hitter, but scouts view Turner as a stronger shortstop and, partly because of his rare speed, a more versatile defender. For a team rostering Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ha-Seong Kim, the fit felt more natural, even if Bogaerts is expected to command less money (though still a significant nine-figure sum).
Based on an undeniably strong bid for Turner, money does not seem to be a problem for the Padres, whose projected payroll is near $210 million. Whether they see another “unique” incentive to lavishly spend remains to be seen. The Padres seek solutions for the back of their rotation, first base, left field and designated hitter. After missing out on his top targets in Abreu and Turner, Preller might decide a volume approach is more prudent than chasing a blockbuster.
No one, at least, doubts the general manager’s creativity and propensity for deal-making. Industry sources, for example, said the Padres have met with free-agent catcher Christian Vázquez and discussed incumbent catcher Austin Nola with other teams. One high-ranking team executive on Monday downplayed the nature of trade discussions involving Nola, noting that the Padres are listening on a variety of possibilities.
Vázquez would also represent an offensive upgrade over Nola and arguably a defensive improvement. But the latter is beloved by the team’s pitchers and coaches, and the Padres also have a younger, inexpensive option in Luis Campusano. Vázquez, meanwhile, is simultaneously drawing interest from clubs with a clearer need behind the plate.
In that context, the Padres’ interest in the free agent is not entirely dissimilar from their pursuit of Turner. San Diego already has two catchers, just as it already had two shortstops. The scale, of course, is vastly different. Besides bringing superstar impact, Turner would have helped the Padres address multiple other needs, allowing the club to move Jake Cronenworth to first base and Tatis to the outfield.
Speaking Monday night, Preller said he never approached Cronenworth, a two-time All-Star, about a potential move off second base.
“When you get to a spot where, hey, this is going to happen or this is something that we feel really strong could happen, I think that’s when we looked at, hey, we’re going to have that conversation,” Preller said. “We never got to that point in the last few days.”
Asked if he felt the Padres had come close to striking a deal with Turner, Preller said: “I don’t know. You never know. We just tried to do our homework.”
Yet, despite Turner’s apparent preference for the East Coast, the disappointment emanating from an upstairs suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt was palpable. In Turner, the Padres perceived a singular opportunity. In placing what turned out to be the highest bid, they felt a certain measure of confidence.
The Padres still could attain substantial upgrades, even if those ultimately do not involve Bogaerts or Kodai Senga, another prominent free agent for whom there is ample competition. The offseason is young, and dozens of viable options remain in play. As always, no acquisition seems too lofty for Preller to chase. After Monday’s high-profile miss, however, a blockbuster winter seems a bit less likely.
—The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Matt Gelb contributed to this report.
(Photo: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)