Can Juan Soto Lead the Padres Past the Dodgers?

SAN DIEGO — Juan Soto had barely landed, Josh Bell had simply sat down and Josh Hader was beginning to study his new teammates’ names when Peter Seidler, the Padres’ proprietor, declared that “the art of the possible is here.”

However simply as rapidly because the Padres had reset all expectations for his or her season — and the franchise’s future — with a frenzied whirlwind on the Main League Baseball buying and selling deadline, the Los Angeles Dodgers delivered a fiery reminder of what San Diego nonetheless has to beat, sweeping their division rivals in a three-game sequence at Dodger Stadium.

Because the sweep was occurring, Seidler mentioned the Dodgers stay “the dragon up the freeway that we’re trying to slay.”

On the very least, San Diego’s daring strikes made it clear that they’re all-in on the dragon chasing. And as Soto and his new teammates journey to Washington for a three-game sequence that begins Friday, the optimism for what may very well be the Padres’ future will supply a harsh reminder to Nationals followers of what as soon as was Washington’s actuality.

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

This, to Seidler, could be the logical execution of “the art of the possible.” To others, it might appear outlandishly not possible: The Padres have already got third baseman Manny Machado, 30, signed for 10 years and $300 million by 2028 and Fernando Tatis Jr., a 23-year-old shortstop and outfielder, for 14 years at $340 million by 2034. Maintaining Soto long-term would exceed each of these offers.

The excellent news is, there’s time. In Soto, 23, they acquired a celebrity who nonetheless has two-and-a-half years of membership management. However his eventual contract calls for will loom massive, even for a group with a quickly increasing funds. This can be a generational slugger who will attain free company at 26. Earlier than the buying and selling deadline, he declined Washington’s supply of 15 years and $440 million, which might have set a file for largest greenback worth of any contract in main league historical past.

And as San Diego absolutely is aware of, Soto’s agent, Scott Boras, will not be within the enterprise of providing reductions.

However Padres followers, in distinction to a popularity for infrequent ambivalence, have responded with wild enthusiasm to the membership’s latest string of massive concepts and greater gambles. San Diego ranked fifth in M.L.B. in attendance at 36,947 followers per sport by Wednesday, trailing solely the Dodgers, St. Louis, the Yankees and Atlanta, the reigning champion. The Padres have been taking part in to 91.5 p.c capability at Petco Park. In line with figures obtained from M.L.B., solely Atlanta (93.4 p.c) ranks larger.

The Padres additionally rank fifth within the majors with a club-record $220 million payroll.

“What we’re still in the process of assessing is how much revenue we can generate from that increased fan support and then, long-term, run the payroll off of something that is organically supportable through revenue we can generate in our local market,” mentioned Erik Greupner, the Padres’ chief govt, who added: “I would say the early returns on this increased commitment to payroll have been very strong and would seem to indicate we would be able to support — year-in and year-out — 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 that anyone does, but I know we’re sure going to find out what level this market will support.”

Past the {dollars} and cents, the Padres paid a steep value for Soto and Bell, a switch-hitting first baseman, in prospects. They despatched a six-piece package deal to Washington that included three gamers who had taken turns being ranked because the No. 1 prospect within the San Diego farm system: the left-handed pitcher Mackenzie Gore, shortstop C.J. Abrams and outfielder Robert Hassell III.

A.J. Preller, the Padres’ president of baseball operations, speaks of the years’ value of sweat fairness that went into buying and creating these gamers, the funding in them as individuals and attending to know their relations, and admits it by no means is simple to ship away top-shelf expertise.

“But as hard as it was to deal those guys, you just don’t get an opportunity to get a Soto, a Josh Bell, a Hader, too,” Preller mentioned. “Players who have been the best players in their positions or field, and still have years of control left. In Juan’s case, he’s just 23 years old and is doing historic things. It was more a unique opportunity, and we looked at it as such. We knew it was going to take a lot and we had a lot in the system leading us into making the deal.”

One 12 months in the past, the Padres swung and missed on the deadline, making an attempt onerous for starter Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner earlier than the Nationals despatched them to the Dodgers. The dragon turned bigger. The Padres saved chasing.

The primary inning of the primary sport of the new-look Padres got here in opposition to Colorado on Aug. 3, and all the things appeared to have fallen into place. One of many group’s different newcomers — Brandon Drury, an infielder acquired from Cincinnati — smashed a first-inning grand slam on the primary pitch he noticed as a Padre. The sellout crowd, buoyed by single-day, club-record ticket gross sales after the Soto information, roared.

San Diego then misplaced 5 video games in a row, together with the three video games to the Dodgers. Inexplicably, the Padres’ seemingly unstoppable offense was held scoreless for 26 consecutive innings earlier than Soto hit his first house run in his new house within the fourth inning on Tuesday night time in opposition to San Francisco.

With a group this gifted, it’s simple to jot down off such a streak as a blip that might be a distant reminiscence come October. That sort of perception is made simple because of Soto, whose enthusiasm has already made an impression on the group. Supervisor Bob Melvin describes him as “a ball of energy” and Machado has observed how Soto makes positive to high-five the opposite outfielders on the finish of every inning.

Soto’s positivity can rival his otherworldly manufacturing: Again in 2019, his first full season in Washington, he despatched again a prototype of what would change into his first big-league bobblehead doll. It wasn’t smiling.

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

Nothing feeds good vitality like success, and Soto, who helped lead the Nationals to the 2019 World Collection title, is itching for an opportunity to do the identical for San Diego.

“It’s another level,” he mentioned of taking part in on October’s massive stage. “It’s another feeling, so you want to get that taste every year, every day. For me, that year was amazing. It was incredible.”

In San Diego, a metropolis that has by no means gained a title in any of the most important North American males’s sports activities leagues, goals are rising. Season-ticket demand is such that, for the primary time in historical past, the Padres are contemplating capping them for subsequent 12 months. Since final week’s buying and selling deadline, the membership already has fielded requests translating into about 1,000 extra season tickets for 2023.

“Obviously, it’s a champagne problem, but we want to make sure our season-ticket members and our new season-ticket members continue to get access to the best seating locations,” Greupner mentioned. “And we’re starting to run out of those.”

Stated Hader, the brand new nearer from Milwaukee: “We’ve got a good squad. I wouldn’t even call it talent anymore, it’s superstars, right?”

What the long run brings, the Padres and their metropolis can not wait to seek out out. However first, Soto will bid what absolutely might be an emotional farewell to D.C. this weekend.

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