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Padres’ Soto Trade Extends Free-Spending Quest to Catch Dodgers

For two years, the San Diego Padres have spent big money trying in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers. That cash race profoundly accelerated prior to Tuesday’s trade deadline, when the Padres grabbed outfielder Juan Soto in a deal with the Washington Nationals.

With Soto, San Diego obtained the biggest prize on the market, while also adding first baseman Josh Bell to the package.

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“He’s a generational player,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said about Soto after the deal was made. “We’re on a bumpy road now, and we think this deal we made is going to get us out of it. We made a deal that is being called historical. I call it a good deal for the Nationals and Padres at this time in both our franchises history.”

While the first-place Dodgers passed the deadline leading the Padres by 11 1/2 games in the National League West, the Soto trade continues the teams’ heated off-field competition for talent.

The Dodgers grabbed outfielder Mookie Betts from Boston prior to the 2020 season, gave him a 12-year, $365 million contract, and won the World Series—after they swept the Padres in that NL Division Series.

The Padres countered the following spring by signing Fernando Tatis for 14 years, $340 million, which thus far has paid few dividends because of the shortstop’s injuries.

Then at the 2021 trade deadline, the Padres thought they had grabbed star pitcher Max Scherzer from the Nationals, but the Dodgers prevailed. The Padres missed the playoffs, finishing 11 games out. The Dodgers lost a six-game NL Championship Series to the eventual World Series-winning Atlanta Braves.

That brings us to where the Padres are now after a bevy of trades this week and a $100 million, five-year contract extension to starter Joe Musgrove, a local San Diego product. Tatis, recovering from surgery on a fractured left wrist, could be back sometime this month.

“Without Tatis for the first half of the season we’ve been offensively challenged,” Padres general manager AJ Preller Tuesday said during a late afternoon media conference. “We’re better now. We think we’ve put ourselves into position where we can play deep into October.”

For the short term, though, the Padres have lost their last 14 of 15 to the Dodgers during the past two seasons, and even with 12 more games to play between the two teams this year, including three at Dodger Stadium this weekend, that NL West race appears to be over.

In the new 12-team playoff format—six teams in each league—the Padres are hardly secure right now, holding the second of three Wild Cards spots, leading the now tied for the third spot St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies by 3 1/2 games.

If the season were to end today, they Padres would have to travel to Atlanta for a best-of-three Wild Card series with all the games at Truist Park.

If they survived that, the NL East-winning New York Mets would be next up in a best-of-five NL Division Series. And then perhaps the Dodgers again in the best-of-seven NLCS. The two division winners in each league with the best records get a bye in the Wild Card round.

That’s a tall mountain to climb to the World Series for only the third time in club history. They’ve never won. And this year they’d have to win 14 games to accomplish the feat.

That’s the goal for the immediate future.

The Padres traded away two of their top prospects with big league experience in pitcher MacKenzie Gore and shortstop CJ Abrams, as well as three coveted minor leaguers in the deal for Soto, who’s under arbitration control for the next two seasons.

After the 2024 season when Soto becomes a free agent, Scott Boras, his agent, has already said the player will go to the highest bidder. Soto turned down a recent 15-year, $440 million offer from the Nationals, leading the club, which is for sale, to deal him.

“We’re looking at it as having him for three pennant races,” Preller said. “That’s a lot of time. We’ll obviously get into it and figure out the long-term further down the road.”

The Padres seem to have given up a lot of talent, considering this short and very difficult window. They are vying against a Dodgers club that’s run by Guggenheim Baseball Management, whose parent company runs a $500 billion hedge fund and has seemingly endless money.

The Mets, owned by hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen, made several incremental improvements via the market during the past week, but did not trade any of their top 19 prospects, general manager Billy Eppler said during a post deadline video conference.

“You have to resist the urge to make a snap or impulsive decision and give up large amounts of future World Series expectations in exchange for some marginal gains right now,” he said. “Some of that undisciplined thinking can lead to years of mediocrity and doing the same thing over and over again.”

Eppler wasn’t talking about the Padres, in particular, but the sentiment fits.

Under billionaire owner Peter Seidler, the Padres are fifth in baseball with a $220.8 million payroll just below the initial luxury tax threshold of $230 million. Of that figure, $30.4 million is being paid to injured players and $29 million to players no longer on the roster, many playing elsewhere.

They have a long-term commitment to Manny Machado, who is owed $30 million a year through 2028 with an opt out after the 2023 season. The club can opt out of Wil Myers’ $20 million this offseason and pay him $1 million.

Pitchers Yu Darvish ($20 million) and Blake Snell ($16 million) have one more year each. Musgrove is now signed for $20 million a year through 2027.

Soto is earning $6 million of his $17.1 million to play for the Padres the rest of the season. The latter figure will certainly double via arbitration next season if the Padres don’t sign him to at least a two-year deal.

These are the pending decisions for Seidler and Preller.

“When the time is right,” Preller said, “I’m sure we’ll have those conversations.”

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