By Acquiring Juan Soto, Padres Make Their Biggest And Boldest Move Yet
SAN DIEGO—In the months before the 2015 international signing period began, Padres general manager A.J. Preller traveled to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix to watch a workout involving three highly regarded international amateurs.
Shortstops Jeison Guzman and Wander Javier were two of the players on the field that day. The other was 16-year-old outfielder Juan Soto.
Preller liked what he saw from Soto. Chris Kemp, the Padres international scouting director at the time, considered Soto the top player available in that’s year’s international signing class. But in the end, Preller ultimately decided the Padres should focus their time and resources pursuing prized Cuban émigré Yoan Moncada.
Moncada ended up signing with the Red Sox, and by the time the Padres circled back, Soto had agreed to a deal with the Nationals. As Soto rose through the Nationals system and emerged as a generational talent in the ensuing years, the sting of a missed opportunity never quite left Preller.
Seven years later, given another chance to make Soto a member of the Padres, Preller made sure not to miss the opportunity again.
The Padres officially introduced Soto as a member of the organization at Petco Park on Wednesday afternoon, a day after they acquired him and first baseman Josh Bell in the most substantial trade deadline deal in a generation. The Padres traded first baseman Luke Voit, rookie lefthander MacKenzie Gore and four prized prospects in shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielder Robert Hassell, outfielder James Wood and righthander Jarlin Susana to get the deal done, an unprecedented trade haul. But for the chance to finally get Soto, it was a price Preller was more than willing to pay.
“Juan came to Grand Canyon University … and put on an absolute show,” Preller said. “And then some genius told Chris Kemp we should go after another Cuban prospect as our number one guy and made Juan the number two guy even though Chris had him as a number one guy in the class. So seven years later it cost us some other good players, but I say ‘Welcome home.’ ”
The acquisitions of Soto and Bell, as well as all-star closer Josh Hader and 20-home run utilityman Brandon Drury, mark the latest headline-grabbing moves of Preller’s tenure. The Padres traded 11 young players overall, including seven of their top 11 prospects, to remake their lineup and bullpen as they push for a postseason spot.
The moves come against the backdrop of growing pressure on Preller to deliver on promises to make the team a perennial postseason contender. For all of the stars signed to record contracts in free agency and all of the headline-grabbing trade acquisitions in recent years, the Padres have had just one winning record in seven seasons under Preller—and that was the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season.
The franchise’s struggles to compete stretch well beyond Preller’s tenure. The Padres have made the postseason just six times in 53 years of existence. Their all-time .463 winning percentage ranks 29th out of the 30 teams, ahead of only the Marlins.
With owner Peter Seidler showing a willingness to spend unlike any other owner in franchise history, they’ve collected stars en masse and run record payrolls to try to reverse those fortunes. So far, they’ve been unsuccessful.
A batting champion, World Series champion and a two-time all-star already at age 23, Soto is arguably the biggest star of them all. He is under team control through the end of the 2024 season, giving the Padres a chance at three postseason runs with him in their lineup. He represents the Padres biggest and boldest bet yet to not just win in the short term, but to fundamentally change the franchise’s losing identity.
“Mostly all of the conversations (I’ve had since arriving) is just about to win,” Soto said. “Just win. Bring good energy to the clubhouse, to the stadium. Try to bring my spirits from 2019 as a World Champion and try to bring that to here to San Diego, and that's what I'm going to do. That's what I’ve had in my mind since I saw the trade yesterday, and that's what we're going to try to do. Try to make it all the way to the last team standing.”
If Soto and the Padres fail in those goals, the cost could be significant. Gore and Abrams were both top-10 overall draft picks who blossomed into elite prospects and made their major league debuts this year. Hassell and Wood are two of the best young outfielders in the minor leagues. Susana has been the talk of the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League with a fastball up to 102 mph as an 18-year-old. All five are potential future all-stars in the eyes of scouts and executives across the game, even considering Gore’s and Abrams’ initial rookie struggles.
Trading prospects, of course, is nothing new to Preller.
Beginning with the November 2019 trade that sent Luis Urias and Eric Lauer to the Brewers, the Padres have traded 66 prospects or recent prospect graduates in just over two and a half years.
Some have come back to bite the club. First baseman Ty France and righthanded reliever David Bednar blossomed into all-stars with the Mariners and Pirates, respectively. Lauer and Cal Quantrill have settled in as quality starting pitchers for the contending Brewers and Guardians, respectively. Outfielder Hunter Renfroe is on pace for his second straight season batting at least .250 with 30 home runs and an .800 OPS. Righthander Andres Muñoz has blossomed into a dominant setup man with a 3.02 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 41.2 innings for the Mariners this season.
But by and large, most of the players traded in that period have yet to make the Padres regret the decision to deal them. Many are still in the minors and could make the Padres feel differently in a few years, but for a team aiming to contend now, there has been little immediate pain in the context of how much they traded away.
2023 Dynasty Fantasy Positional Rankings: Outfielder
Geoff Pontes and Dylan White rank the top outfielders for dynasty fantasy leagues, including players to target, players to fade and sleepers.
The Padres bet, and one that is reasonably supported by historical precedent, is that the production they get from Soto and Bell will at least match whatever long-term production the players they traded to the Nationals eventually provide, and will likely exceed it.
“It's one of the biggest trades in baseball history,” Preller said. “They (the Nationals) did a great job getting players that are gonna help their organization. When you hear guys like Jay Robertson and Kasey McKeon and Dan Jennings are out scouring our system, you know that unfortunately they're probably going to hit on the guys that they need to hit on to make this type of deal. But you also know that we have a chance to connect because it's a really good baseball group that's won a World Series over there before, and they've been where we're trying to get to.”
In the hours after the trade for Soto and Bell was finalized, tickets for Wednesday’s home game against the Rockies rapidly sold out. When Soto stepped into the batter’s box for his first plate appearance as a Padre in the bottom of the first inning, he received a hearty ovation from the sellout crowd. Bell and Drury each received the same reception in their first Padres at-bats later in the inning.
The warm welcome reflects San Diego’s excitement and hope once again surrounding a high-profile Padres acquisition. The others, although largely successful when examined individually, have failed to result in a team capable of putting together a winning record over a 162-game season.
The Padres made the bet that Soto will be the one to finally lift them to a winning record and, ultimately, a World Series championship. If he does, the price they paid will have been more than worth it.
“It's been a really exciting moment for me, for my family,” Soto said. “A really big part of my career. I'm happy to join this team. I've been seeing this team since day one in the season and they've been doing great job playing good baseball. I'm more than excited to join a winning team and be part of it and try my best to push them as long as we can.”