Why a healthy Machado could thrive in 2024

January 22nd, 2024

This story was excerpted from AJ Cassavell's Padres Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

In the buildup to Spring Training, MLB.com is breaking down the Padres’ roster, position by position. Today's newsletter focuses on third base.

Previously: C | 1B | 2B | SS

A year ago, the Padres and  tied their long-term futures to each other. Again.

Having inked a record-setting 10-year contract in 2019, Machado was approaching an opt-out in that deal. He informed the club he planned to exercise it, unless the two sides could come to an agreement on an extension.

Sure enough, that extension materialized in the form of an 11-year, $350 million contract, the largest deal in franchise history and third-largest extension in the history of the sport.

As such, there’s probably no position on the Padres’ roster as solidified as third base. That's true even with Machado coming off elbow surgery and perhaps his least productive season in San Diego.

But before we get into all of that, here’s a breakdown of where things stand overall for the Padres at the hot corner:

On the 40-man roster: Machado, Ha-Seong Kim, Matthew Batten, Eguy Rosario, Tucupita Marcano

Departures: None

Top 30 prospects: Graham Pauley (No. 12), Rosario (No. 16), Rosman Verdugo (No. 21), Marcos Castañon (No. 25), Nerwilian Cedeño (No. 30)

What is Machado's health status?

Machado's subpar 2023 season (by his standards, at least) can be largely attributed to the fact that he played through serious elbow pain for most of the second half. That injury forced him to serve as DH down the stretch. Two days after the season ended, Machado underwent a right elbow extensor tendon repair to address the tennis elbow that had bothered him since '22.

The surgery put Machado's status for Opening Day in doubt, though manager Mike Shildt and general manager A.J. Preller each recently noted that Machado is progressing quickly. Earlier this month, Shildt told 97.3 The Fan that Machado has begun hitting and playing catch. That would seem to indicate that he's on a trajectory to be ready for the start of the season. We'll get a clearer indication once Spring Training begins.

Machado's recovery timeline appears to be quicker on the hitting side than the throwing side. So, it's entirely possible that the Padres would open 2024 the same way they finished '23 -- with Machado as their regular DH. Even if that's the case, it won't be long before the two-time Gold Glover is back at third.

What can the Padres expect from Machado in 2024?

If he's healthy? Another All-Star-caliber season. He’s still Manny Machado, after all. In a down year -- a year in which he played through an injury that required surgery -- he still hit 30 homers and notched a .782 OPS.

In each of the three prior seasons, Machado received MVP votes, and there's no reason to think he won't return to that level. Plus, health has rarely been a concern for Machado, who hadn't previously spent time on the injured list since 2014.

Perhaps the most pertinent question surrounding Machado in 2024 is his role as the team's de facto captain. The Padres fell well short of expectations in ‘23, and Machado -- fairly or not -- bore much of the blame publicly for the team's chemistry issues. In reality, that blame shouldn't have fallen so squarely on Machado. There was plenty to go around, and Machado is generally revered by his teammates for his work ethic and willingness to play through pain.

Of course, there's a simple fix to any lingering chemistry issues: winning. A healthy Machado -- one of the best players on the planet -- should help with that.

Who else do the Padres have at third base?

The Padres are well-equipped to handle a scenario in which Machado starts the year at DH. Kim, the reigning utility Gold Glove Award winner, can slide from second to third, with Jake Cronenworth moving from first to second. (That still requires an addition at first base, but they were probably going to do that anyway.)

Still, it's worth keeping an eye on Pauley, who has drawn rave reviews from Padres and rival evaluators alike. The team's No. 12 prospect, Pauley already looks like a coup for the scouting department. A 13th-round pick out of Duke in 2022, Pauley posted a .931 OPS across three levels last season, advancing as high as Double-A.

With Machado's early-season status in question, Pauley is a player to watch in camp. There are questions about his glove at third, but the Padres likely wouldn't be asking him to play there every day. He’s also taken reps at second and in both outfield corners. On a team in dire need of left-handed bats, Pauley will have every opportunity to earn a bench spot.

The verdict

Machado got the surgery he needed. Coming off a disappointing year, he has plenty to prove in 2024. So do the Padres, who were a trendy World Series pick last year but have been an afterthought nationally this winter. Machado is the type of player who internalizes that stuff and uses it as motivation.

It should surprise no one if Machado is back in the MVP discussion this fall.