Can Juan Soto lead the Padres past the Dodgers?

SAN DIEGO — Juan Soto had barely landed, Josh Bell had just sat down and Josh Hader was beginning to learn the names of his new teammates when Padres owner Peter Seidler said “the art of the possible is there. “.

But just as quickly as the Padres had reset all expectations for their season — and the future of the franchise — with a frenzied whirlwind At the Major League Baseball trade deadline, the Los Angeles Dodgers were a fiery reminder of what San Diego still has to overcome, sweeping their division rivals in a three-game series at Dodger Stadium.

As the sweep unfolded, Seidler said the Dodgers remained “the dragon on the highway that we’re trying to kill.”

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

“The big challenge for us is to play winning, No. 1 baseball,” Seidler said this week. “And no. 2, play it and see when is the best time to talk to Juan about an expansion. Everything is new to him right now. It’s not going to happen anytime soon, but you want it here for the long haul, period.”

This, for Seidler, would be the logical execution of “the art of the possible”. For others, it may seem strangely impossible: The Padres already have third baseman Manny Machado, 30, signed for 10 years and 300 million dollars until 2028 and Fernando Tatis Jr., a 23-year-old shortstop and outfielder, for 14 years to $340 million until 2034. Keeping Soto in the long term would exceed these two agreements.

The good news is that it is time. In Soto, 23, they acquired a superstar who still has two-and-a-half years in control of the club. But his possible contract demands will loom large, even for a team with a rapidly growing budget. He’s a generational puncher who will reach free agency at age 26. Before the deadline for exchanges, it declined Washington’s offer of 15 years and $440 millionwhich would have set a record for the largest dollar value 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, contrary to a reputation for occasional ambivalence, have responded with wild enthusiasm to the club’s recent spate of big ideas and bigger bets. San Diego ranked fifth in MLB with 36,947 fans per game through Wednesday, behind only the Dodgers, St. Louis, Yankees and defending champion Atlanta. The Padres played at 91.5% capacity at Petco Park. According to figures obtained from MLB, only Atlanta (93.4%) ranks higher.

The Padres also rank fifth in the majors with a club record $220 million payroll.

“What we’re still evaluating is how much revenue we can generate from this increased fan support and then, in the long run, manage the payroll of something that’s organically supportable through revenue. that we can generate in our local market,” said Erik Greupner, general manager of the Padres, who added: “I would say that the initial feedback on this increased payroll commitment has been very strong and would seem to indicate that we would be able to sustain — year after year — a level of payroll that exceeds what the Padres have historically been able to do in our market.

“I don’t know the answer yet, and I don’t know if anyone does, but I know we’re definitely going to find out what level this market will hold.”

Beyond the dollars and cents, the Padres paid a high price for Soto and Bell, a hard-hitting first baseman, in prospect. They sent a six-piece package to Washington that included three players who had taken turns to be ranked No. 1. 1 prospect in the San Diego farm system: left-handed pitcher Mackenzie Gore, shortstop CJ Abrams and outfielder Robert Hassell III.

AJ Preller, president of baseball operations for the Padres, talks about the years of money invested in acquiring and developing these players, investing in them as people and knowing their family members, and admits it’s never easy to fire top talent.

“But as hard as it was to deal with those guys, you just don’t get a chance to get a Soto, a Josh Bell, a Hader too,” Preller said. “Players who have been the best players in their position or on their pitch, and who still have years of control. In Juan’s case, he is only 23 and doing historic things. It was more of a unique opportunity, and we saw it as such. We knew it was going to take a long time and we had a lot of things in the system that led us to close the deal.

A year ago, the Padres swung and missed the deadline, trying hard for starter Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner before the Nationals sent them to the Dodgers. The dragon got bigger. The Padres continued to hunt.

The first inning of the new-look Padres’ opener was against Colorado on August 28. 3, and everything seemed to fall into place. One of the team’s other newcomers — Brandon Drury, an infielder acquired from Cincinnati — broke a first-inning Grand Slam on the first pitch he saw as a Padre. The sold-out crowd, buoyed by record single-day ticket sales after the Soto news, roars.

San Diego then lost five straight, including all three to the Dodgers. Inexplicably, the Padres’ seemingly unstoppable offense was held scoreless for 26 straight innings before Soto hit his first home run in his new home in the fourth inning Tuesday night against San Francisco.

With such a talented squad, it’s easy to dismiss such a streak as a blow that will be a distant memory come October. This kind of belief is made easy thanks to Soto, whose enthusiasm has already impressed the team. Manager Bob Melvin describes him as “a ball of energy” and Machado noticed how Soto makes sure to tag the other outfielders at the end of each inning.

Soto’s positivity can rival his otherworldly output: In 2019, his first full season in Washington, he felt a prototype of what would become his first big league bobblehead doll. It was not smiling.

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

Nothing fuels good energy like success, and Soto, who helped lead the Nationals to the 2019 World Series title, is looking forward to the chance to do the same for San Diego.

“It’s another level,” he said of October’s big scene. “It’s another feeling, so you want to have that taste every year, every day. For me, this year has been amazing. It’s been amazing.”

In San Diego, a city that has never won a title in any of the major North American men’s sports leagues, dreams are growing. The demand for season tickets is such that, for the first time in history, the Padres are considering capping them for next year. Since last week’s trading deadline, the club have already fielded requests resulting in around 1,000 more season tickets for 2023.

“Obviously it’s a champagne issue, but we want to make sure our subscribers and new subscribers continue to have access to the best locations,” Greupner said. “And we’re starting to run out of it.”

Hader, the new closest to Milwaukee, said, “We have a good team. I wouldn’t even call it talent anymore, they’re superstars, right?”

What the future holds, the Padres and their city are eager to find out. But first, Soto will give what is sure to be an emotional farewell to DC this weekend.

“It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later,” Soto said. “We have to go back every year. I’m just going to see people, keep looking for them, keep in touch. I’ve met people who I’m going to talk to for the rest of my life. I’m not going to say goodbye. I’ll just say see you later down the road.