The Padres are in the mix for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado -- will they strike a deal or fall short?

One of the fastest-growing mini-pockets of sports journalism over the past few years is the oh-so-close story. Sure, the story goes, Team X traded Superstar Y to Team Z, or Team A broke the bank to acquire Premium Free Agent B. But here's all the dirt about what almost happened. Here are the other teams that came oh so close to reeling in the big fish.

As fans, we can't get enough of these tales. It's juicy gossip that can gin up otherwise dull offseasons. And it can sometimes provide a window into what teams are thinking, even when a deal doesn't quite materialize.

But there's a flip side to the oh-so-close phenomenon. Teams are acutely aware that fans often lap up these stories. So if you happen to let slip to a reporter that hey, you were in on that star player right down to the end of the bidding, you can earn the sympathy points and participation trophies that come with the territory. Hey, your favorite team has made one interesting move in the past decade? OK, but at least they tried.

All of this brings us to the Padres. If there's one team with a chance to claim the oh-so-close championship of this Hot Stove season, San Diego is it.

Over the past few days, we've learned that the Padres are interested in meeting with All-Star third baseman/shortstop Manny Machado. They're one of a handful of teams still engaged in the J.T. Realmuto trade merry-go-round. And in the latest bit of winter intrigue, a Padres delegation led by managing partner Peter Seidler and general manager A.J. Preller met with Bryce Harper in Las Vegas.

At first blush, this is spectacularly exciting news. In a sport that sees mega-revenue teams shell out for elite talent while smaller-market clubs often refuse to spend real money for stars, hearing that the Padres might be front-runners for all of these players and not, say, the Yankees or Dodgers counts as a breath of fresh air. It would be particularly welcome news for the Friars, one of the most downtrodden teams in sports, still seeking its first World Series crown as it enters its 51st season of existence.

But then you start to wonder. The Padres have been linked with other high-profile players in the past, only to come up (we were told) just short. If you're a Padres fan, should you get excited about this latest round of rumors? Or is this just another case of baseball Kabuki theater?

A year ago, the Padres were said to be one of the runners-up in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes -- maybe even the closest runner-up. When Jake Arrieta remained unsigned heading into March, suddenly the Padres joined the chase. A few months later, the Mets reportedly kicked the tires on Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom trade possibilities, and lo and behold, the Padres were cited as a potential suitor. Near the trade deadline, they supposedly pushed hard to land Chris Archer from the Rays. Then this winter we had rumors of Syndergaard and deGrom again, followed by the alleged courting of Machado, Realmuto, and Harper.

The timing of the supposedly hot pursuits of Machado, Realmuto, and Harper in particular look a little fishy. On Jan. 19, the San Diego Union-Tribune published a story that was supposed to show how the Padres had opened their books to the public, a once-in-a-million-years event in the opaque, dishonest world that baseball owners typically live in.

That article...did not go over well. The Padres blogosphere has already ably dissected the problems with ownership's supposed newfound transparency. The short version is this: The Padres have supposedly been drowning in debt for years, and even after the $68 million payout the team got from MLB's sale of Bamtech to Disney, the team was barely breaking even, and was thus unable to spend anything close to league average on player payroll. How this squares with supposed pursuits of Machado and Harper, or even the team's $144 million signing of Eric Hosmer last winter is anyone's guess. (As an aside, the Hosmer deal already looks like a disaster -- spending huge money on stars is defensible; doing so on second-tier talent is not.)

Figuring out whether or not to believe the Padres' disclosures is a tough task. This is an ownership group that has actually spent real money on talent at times, from the Hosmer bonanza to the 2014-2015 offseason, when the Padres acquired Matt Kemp, the Upton brothers, Wil Myers, James Shields, Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Klesko's third cousin, and Paste from Bases Loaded. But the bottom line is that from a PR standpoint, the Union-Tribune article went over terribly with the fan base, and the team's multiple close calls on blockbuster trades and free-agent signings did nothing to help its credibility.

In a wild coincidence, the Padres almost immediately let it be known that they'd bring back their wildly popular brown uniforms for the 2020 season. Almost immediately after that, we learned that the Padres' interest in multiple star players had suddenly intensified.

The thing about all these big rumors is that of all the teams that finished below .500 last season, the Padres might be the most logical bidders on players like Machado and Harper. All the big top prospects lists just came out, and the Padres landed at the top of virtually everyone's list for minor-league talent, led by potential star infielder Fernando Tatis Jr. Other than Hosmer and Wil Myers, the Padres' balance sheet looks clean for years to come. The Padres have been after a top-tier third baseman since the dawn of time. And while they're flush with corner outfielders, none of those incumbents hold a fraction of the talent and star power that Harper possesses; the Padres could even turn around and trade some of their surplus outfield talent for help elsewhere if need be.

There's a political concept called the Overton window, which includes the range of ideas that people are willing to discuss, consider, and believe. ESPN's Buster Olney recently quoted a talent evaluator from another team who speculated that the Padres could essentially be trying to move the Overton window: Bring up interest in Harper and Machado, then when that supposed interest falls juuuuust short of producing actual signings, fall back on another player, maybe someone like Dallas Keuchel.

The question is, if all of this proves to be simply the Padres doing their due diligence in the hopes of getting a lowball deal on a star player, or just simple misdirection, how will Harper and Machado signing elsewhere go over for fans who got their hopes up? And if all of this buzz over all these big names ends with the Padres getting nothing, how will a smart and oft-burned fan base react?

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jonah Keri writes about baseball and numerous other topics for CBS Sports. He also hosts The Jonah Keri Podcast, which you should subscribe to on iTunes. Previously, he served as Lead Baseball Writer for... Full Bio

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