Can Juan Soto lead the Padres past the Dodgers?

SAN DIEGO – Juan Soto had barely pitched, Josh Bell had just taken the bench and Josh Hader was beginning to learn the names of his new teammates when Peter Seidler, the Padres’ owner, declared that “the art of the possible is here.”

But just as quickly as the Padres reset all expectations for their season — and the franchise’s future — in a stunning storm at Major League Baseball’s trade deadline, the Los Angeles Dodgers delivered a fiery reminder of what San Diego still has to overcome. their division rivals in a three-game series at Dodger Stadium.

As the cleanup took place, Seidler said the Dodgers remain “the transportation dragon we’re trying to slay.”

At the very least, San Diego’s bold moves made it clear they’re all in on the dragon chase. And as Soto and his new teammates head to Washington for a three-game series that begins Friday, the optimism about what the future holds for the Padres will offer Nationals fans a stark reminder of what was once Washington’s reality.

“The big challenge for us is to play winning baseball, No. 1,” Seidler said this week. “And number 2, play around and see when the best time is to continue talking to Juan. All this is new to him now. It won’t happen anytime soon, but you want him here for the long haul. “

According to Seidler, this would be a logical fulfillment of the “art of the possible”. To others, that might seem outlandish: The Padres already have third baseman Manny Machado, 30, for 10 years and $300 million through 2028, and shortstop and outfielder Fernando Tati Jr., 23, for 14 years and $340 million. million until 2034. Soto’s long-term retention exceeds both of those deals.

The good news is that there is time. In Soto, 23, they acquired a superstar who still has two and a half years under his belt. But his final contract demands will be large, even for a team with a rapidly growing budget. This is a generational slugger who will hit free agency at age 26. Before the trade deadline, he rejected Washington’s offer of 15 years and $440 million, which would have set the record for the largest dollar amount of any contract in major league history.

And as San Diego surely knows, Soto’s agent, Scott Boras, isn’t in the business of offering discounts.

But Padres fans, in contrast to their reputation for sometimes ambivalence, have responded with wild enthusiasm to the club’s recent big ideas and bigger gambles. San Diego was fifth in MLB with 36,947 fans per game through Wednesday, trailing only the Dodgers, St. Louis, Yankees and defending champion Atlanta. The Padres are playing at 91.5 percent capacity at Petco Park. According to data from MLB, only Atlanta (93.4 percent) ranks higher.

The Padres are also fifth in the majors with a club-record $220 million.

“What we’re still in the process of evaluating is how much revenue we can generate from increased fan support and then, in the long term, complement the salaries that are organically supported by the revenue we can generate in our local market.” “said Eric Gruppner, the Padres’ CEO, who added: “I would say the early return on that increased salary commitment has been very strong and seems to indicate that we’re going to be able to support that — year in and year out. – A salary level that exceeds what the Padres have historically been able to command in our market.

“I don’t know the answer yet, and I don’t know that anyone does, but I do know that we’re confident that we’ll find out what level the market will support.”

Beyond the dollars and cents, the Padres paid a hefty price for Soto and Bell, a switch-hitting first baseman prospect. They sent a six-pack to Washington that included three players who were ranked as the No. 1 prospect in San Diego’s farm system in turns: left-handed pitcher Mackenzie Gore, shortstop CJ Abrams and outfielder Robert Hassell III.

AJ Preller, the Padres’ president of baseball operations, talks about years of acquiring and developing these players, investing in them as people and getting to know their families, and admits it’s never easy to send top-shelf talent.

“But as hard as it was to deal with those guys, you just don’t get a chance to get Soto, Josh Bell, Hader, too,” Preller said. “Players who have been the best players in their position or field and still have years of control left. In Juan’s case, he’s only 23 years old and doing historic things. It was more of a unique opportunity and we looked at it that way. We knew it was going to take a lot And we had a lot of things in the system that would lead us to a deal.”

A year ago, the Padres ran out and let go at the deadline, trying hard to get starters Max Scherzer and Trea Turner before the Nationals sent them to the Dodgers. The dragon became bigger. The Padres continued to chase.

The first inning of the new-look Padres’ first game against Colorado on August 3rd seemed to fall into place. One of the team’s rookies — Brandon Drury, a shortstop acquired from Cincinnati — hit the first grand slam on the first pitch he saw as a Padre. A sell-out crowd, thrilled by the club’s record one-day ticket sales following Soto’s news, roared

San Diego then went on to lose five straight games, including three games against the Dodgers. It was inexplicable that the Padres’ seemingly unstoppable offense had gone 26 straight innings without a score before Soto hit his first home run in his new home in the fourth inning Tuesday night against San Francisco.

With such a talented team, it’s easy to write off such a streak as a distant memory in October. Such belief was made easier by Soto, whose enthusiasm has already impressed the team. Manager Bob Melvin describes him as a “ball of energy,” and Machado has noticed how Soto makes sure to strike out five other outfielders at the end of each inning.

Soto’s positivity can rival his otherworldly production: Back in 2019, his first full season in Washington, he sent out a prototype of what would become his first big league bullpen. He was not smiling.

“I like my smile,” Soto said this week in the Padres’ dugout. “I want people to remember that Juan was a happy boy. I don’t want people to remember me as a crazy guy or as a guy who was always angry. I think I have a good character. I like to be happy, I like very good energy, that’s what I want to give to people. I want to give good vibes, good energy.”

Nothing feeds good energy like success, and Soto, who helped the Nationals to the 2019 World Series title, wants to do the same for San Diego.

“It’s another level,” he said of playing on the big stage in October. “It’s another feeling, so you want to get that taste every year, every day. That year was amazing for me. It was incredible.”

In San Diego, a city that has never won a title in any major North American men’s sports league, dreams are growing. Demand for season tickets is such that for the first time in history, the Padres are considering limiting them for next year. After last week’s trade deadline, the club have already made a request that would translate to another 1,000 season tickets for 2023.

“Obviously, it’s a champagne problem, but we want to make sure that our season ticket members and our new season ticket members continue to have access to the best seats,” Gripner said. “And we’re starting to run them out.”

Hader, the new Milwaukee boss, said: “We have a good team. I won’t even call it talent anymore, they are superstars, aren’t they?”

What the future holds, the Padres and their city can’t wait to find out. But first, Soto will say goodbye to DC this weekend.

“It’s not goodbye, see you later,” Soto said. “We have to go back there every year. I’m just going to see people, look for them, contact them. I met people with whom I am going to talk for the rest of my life. I’m not going to say goodbye. I’ll just say I’ll see you later.”

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