The Padres Go for Broke With a Roster of Superstars

The franchise started in 1969, just another expansion team in funny uniforms that lost 110 games. Five decades passed, with a few Hall of Famers but no championships. Then, after years of aggressive spending and trading by the front office, Juan Soto led the team all the way.

That scenario played out for the Washington Nationals in 2019, when they finally won the World Series. The San Diego Padres are hoping for a sequel of their own.

The Padres — expansion cousins of the Montreal Expos, who eventually moved to Washington — have never been especially close to a title. Their last scheduled World Series game was on Oct. 25, 1998, Game 7 against the Yankees in the Bronx. They were swept, and the game was never played. That’s the day Soto was born in the Dominican Republic.

Now Soto is a Padre, on to the next phase of a career with a nearly peerless beginning. With his age-23 season still in progress, here are some of the 10 most similar players in history to Soto through age 22, according to Baseball Reference: Hank Aaron, Miguel Cabrera, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Mike Trout.

Soto is that good. That is why he could confidently turn down a $440 million contract offer from the Nationals last month. That is why he commanded an exorbitant package of players from the Padres in a deal that rattled the sport on Tuesday’s trading deadline.

Washington sent Soto and Josh Bell — a switch-hitting force at first base — to San Diego for first baseman Luke Voit and five young players: shortstop C.J. Abrams, pitcher MacKenzie Gore, outfielder Robert Hassell III, pitcher Jarlin Susana and outfielder James Wood. All five were highly regarded amateurs who have so far made good on their promise. None have yet played a full season in the majors.

The move leaves the Nationals with almost nothing from their championship team, just discouraging reminders of bad investments and false potential. Stephen Strasburg makes $35 million but cannot escape injury. Patrick Corbin, who makes $23.3 million, is 15-38 since the World Series. Outfielder Victor Robles, once a top-five prospect in the sport, is a bust.

First baseman Josh Bell will join Soto in San Diego. Bell, who can be a free agent this off-season, was hitting .301 through Monday.Credit…Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The team was not poised to win before Soto’s free agency after the 2024 season. By trading Soto now — with three potential postseason runs for the acquiring team — the Nationals received extraordinary value in return. Building around Soto might have been the better option, but that was a risky bet with the team for sale and the agent Scott Boras’s history of extracting top dollar in free agency.

The Nationals have eagerly chased Boras’s best clients. The general manager Mike Rizzo, with backing from the Lerner family ownership, built five playoff teams in eight seasons through 2019, largely via Team Boras members such as Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer, Soto, Strasburg and Jayson Werth.

But when you play at the high-stakes table, you can lose in the same way you won. And now the Nationals are losing more than any other team.

The Padres would seem to be in for a big fall, too — eventually. They cannot sustain their level of spending, both in dollars and in prospect capital, forever. But their general manager, A.J. Preller, spent years preparing for life as a contender, and now he is living out the fantasy.

Soto leaves Washington with a batting title, a Home Run Derby crown and a World Series ring.Credit…Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Few of his peers gather high-impact prospects like Preller, and few are as willing to part with them. Within the last few seasons, Preller has traded for a full rotation of established starters in their primes: Mike Clevinger, Yu Darvish, Sean Manaea, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell.

In 2019, he persuaded ownership to make third baseman Manny Machado the first $300 million player in baseball history, then gave even more money to shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. before last season: $340 million for 14 years. Tatis was only 17 years old when Preller stole him from the Chicago White Sox in a trade for James Shields in 2016.

The deal for Soto and Bell was not even the only headliner for the Padres at the deadline: Josh Hader, a four-time All-Star closer, arrived in a trade with Milwaukee on Monday, and the versatile Brandon Drury (.274 with 20 home runs) joined on Tuesday in a deal with Cincinnati.

The team also parted ways with first baseman Eric Hosmer, who was initially part of the Soto trade but after invoking his limited no-trade clause was sent to the Boston Red Sox instead.

Soto and the Nationals seemed like the future of baseball in 2019. The team was unable to keep its young core together.Credit…Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

All of this is a long time coming for the Padres — a very, very long time. They endured nine losing seasons in a row before making the playoffs in the pandemic-shortened season of 2020, the only season since 1998 with a victory in a playoff round.

Last year began with promise but ended with a thud: 18 games over .500 on Aug. 10, the Padres were four games under by season’s end. They fired Manager Jayce Tingler and signed Bob Melvin — a three-time Manager of the Year winner — away from Oakland.

Tatis has not played this season after breaking his wrist in an off-season motorcycle accident, but he should soon begin a rehabilitation assignment. Melvin has already put the Padres in playoff position at 58-46 through Monday — and he still has not written Bell, Soto or Tatis into the lineup. That is a whole lot of thump to boost a league-average offense, and the Padres already have a top-10 pitching staff.

Plenty of other teams can dream of a deep postseason run — the Dodgers, Yankees, Astros, Mets and Braves all reached Tuesday’s trading deadline with a .600 winning percentage or better. They are the majors’ elite, and the Padres aspire to join them.

Those five franchises, of course, have something else the Padres lack: a World Series championship. Soto is gone from the Nationals before his 24th birthday, and there is something sad about that. But now he has a chance to lift a second team to its first parade ever, and that pursuit will be captivating.

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