How the San Diego Padres' unconventional master plan nabbed Juan Soto, the trade deadline's biggest fish

How the San Diego Padres’ unconventional master plan nabbed Juan Soto, the trade deadline’s biggest fish

ON AUG. 1, the San Diego Padres were 58-46. They had the fifth-best record in the National League but were 12 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team they’ve attempted to catch up to for decades.

This is the Padres — a franchise with only rare scattered periods of success throughout its 54-year history, a franchise known more for its dubious decision-making (those hideous mustard yellow uniforms of the 1970s, once drafting Matt Bush over Justin Verlander) than for winning. This is a franchise that was 18 games above .500 last August, only to finish the season with a losing record.

And yet on Aug. 1, the Padres made the first of the trades that would send shock waves throughout baseball. That day’s deal was to acquire All-Star closer Josh Hader. The next day, the team finalized the blockbuster trade to end all blockbusters, bringing Juan Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego, plus a deal for utility man Brandon Drury.

Suddenly, the Padres are better positioned than ever to win a World Series, or at least have their best opportunity since the Yankees swept them in the 1998 Fall Classic. They can roll out a fearsome foursome of Soto, Bell, Manny Machado and, when he soon returns to the lineup, Fernando Tatis Jr.

“It’s going to be really tough to go through,” Soto said in his introductory news conference on Wednesday. “I wish good luck to all the pitchers.”

No, the Padres probably aren’t going to catch the Dodgers in the National League West this season. The Dodgers are too far ahead and too good to collapse. But suddenly, Los Angeles’ road to the World Series might go through San Diego — or vice versa. The two teams begin a three-game series Friday night at Dodger Stadium for the first of 12 games remaining with each other and then, as currently positioned, the Padres would meet the Dodgers in the division series if San Diego gets through the best-of-three first round, probably against the NL East runner-up.

“It’s an exciting time,” Bell said. “The time is now for the Padres, so let’s get after it.”


How did the Padres get here? In a time when young, homegrown and — the key word here — inexpensive players are valued more than ever by front offices, the Padres have gone in the opposite direction, emptying a farm system for proven stars — in the case of Soto and a few others, verified superstars, in fact.

As the Padres begin their series against the Dodgers, only three players on the 26-man roster are homegrown: relievers Adrian Morejon, signed out of Cuba in 2016, and Steven Wilson, an eighth-round pick in 2018; and backup infielder Matthew Batten, a 32nd-round pick in 2017. (And Batten’s time on the roster is likely temporary until Tatis is ready.) Compare that to the Dodgers, who have nine homegrown players, including Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias, Tony Gonsolin, Will Smith and Cody Bellinger.

Machado came to the Padres as a free agent, but most of his teammates arrived via high-profile trades. That includes the entire starting rotation — Joe Musgrove, Mike Clevinger, Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Sean Manaea — and even Tatis, who was acquired as a 17-year-old minor leaguer. It was one of general manager A.J. Preller’s first big wins: Before he had even played a professional game, Tatis was stolen from the White Sox for James Shields after Preller saw him on the back fields in Arizona.

If there has likely never been a team constructed quite like the Padres, there definitely has not been a general manager in recent times like Preller — fearless, bold and, in the belief of some, perhaps a little reckless.

Preller was hired after the 2014 season after the Padres had gone 77-85, their fourth consecutive losing season. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 2006. Their best player had been outfielder Seth Smith. Then-Padres chairman Ron Fowler hired Preller with the mantra: Win now.

Preller proceeded to fail in epic fashion. In a brazen parade of big-name trades, the Padres acquired Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Craig Kimbrel. Among the players traded away: catcher Yasmani Grandal, plus two recent first-round draft picks, Max Fried and Trea Turner. All told, the trades would produce 26.6 WAR of value for the Padres, while Preller traded away 81.6 future WAR (counting value only through a player’s first six seasons of team-controlled service time). And that figure will climb even higher — Turner’s initial team-controlled years go through the end of this season, and Fried’s through 2024.

The worst part: The 2015 team won fewer games than the 2014 squad.

It was time for a rebuild — and, as in all things, Preller was going to go about it in his own style.

On July 2, 2016, the Padres opened the international signing period by agreeing to contracts with 16 teenagers worth more than $14.1 million. It was the last year of an uncapped international signing period, and the Padres announced loud and clear that the 100% tax on the overage of their $3.3 million bonus pool would be no impediment to their plan. They were going to do in the international market what no team ever had the gumption to before: spend money with an almost limitless abandon, convention be damned.

By the following June, the Padres had spent more than $40 million on 48 players, lavishing individual bonuses of $11 million (to Morejón), $7 million, $4 million, $3 million, $2.25 million and on and on. With the penalties for spending, their overall outlay totaled more than $80 million. The total bonus spending for all 30 teams in 2016 was just over $210 million — meaning that the Padres accounted for 19% of it themselves.

The class birthed its share of big leaguers — Morejón, Jorge Oña, Luis Patiño, Tucupita Marcano, Gabriel Árias, Michel Báez and Ronald Bolaños. The return has yet to equal the layout, especially with limits imposed on the Padres’ next two international classes for exceeding their pool. And yet the Padres’ actions in 2016 offered another reminder that Preller neither thinks nor acts like any of his contemporaries. He is the king of the moon shot, willing to try what others dare not.

“He doesn’t care,” said one AL GM. “He built up and tore down a team in a year, and when you do that and essentially get to start from scratch, you don’t worry about your job status. A lot of us are afraid of trading a guy who turns into a star and it reflecting poorly on us. He’s done it a few times and it doesn’t change his approach. It’s like it’s the cost of doing business.”

This attitude toward team-building reached its apex Tuesday when Preller executed one of the biggest trades in baseball history. He acquired Soto and first baseman Bell for left-hander MacKenzie Gore, shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, right-hander Jarlin Susana and veteran first baseman Luke Voit. The cost was high, to be sure. In one seismic trade, the Nationals rebuilt completely a mediocre farm system. But the Padres added a Hall of Fame-caliber hitter who doesn’t reach free agency until after the 2024 season.

“We’re looking at it as three years, three pennant races, with one of the best hitters, maybe the best hitter, in the game,” Preller said after the deal. “That’s a long time.”

How the Padres, whose major league payroll well exceeds $200 million despite playing in the game’s 10th-smallest market, pulled off this sort of deal speaks to what they do well — and, perhaps, don’t do well. They are, unquestionably, one of the best teams at identifying talent in baseball. They’ve crushed their first-round picks, choosing Gore (third overall), Abrams (sixth) and Hassell (eighth) in 2017, 2019 and 2020, respectively. They stole Wood, a massive power prospect, in the second round of the 2021 draft after doing the same with Jackson Merrill, who was part of the Soto trade talks, with the 27th pick of the first round. They routinely flourish in Latin America, watching Susana, signed for $1.7 million in January, stand out in the Arizona Complex League.

What Preller hasn’t done, at least consistently, is hold on to his best young players. Besides Turner, Fried and Grandal, among the others he has dealt before they debuted or early in their careers: Luis Castillo, Ty France, Emmanuel Clase, David Bednar, Josh Naylor, Cal Quantrill, Franmil Reyes and Patiño. That’s six 2022 All-Stars, if you’re counting. The yin of Preller always coexists with the yang, and to this point, for all his maneuvering, his constant recalibration of where his franchise is and where it needs to be, the Padres have yet to have a winning season in a full year — a streak that will likely end in 2022. The only playoff series they’ve won was the best-of-three first-round series over the Cardinals in 2020.

After four years of rebuilding, that was the season the Padres went all-in. After signing Machado in 2019 to a 10-year, $300 million contract and seeing Tatis emerge as a dominant, breathtaking player as a 20-year-old rookie that year, the Padres were ready to challenge the Dodgers. COVID hit, but at the trade deadline that year, Preller unleashed six trades, with 17 prospects moving to new organizations. The big move was seven young players going to Cleveland for Clevinger and reserve outfielder Greg Allen.

After losing to the Dodgers in the second round, Preller dug in even deeper that offseason. The Padres acquired Darvish and Snell on the same December day and then traded for Musgrove in January. Snell hasn’t been anything near the Cy Young winner he was for the Padres in 2018, but Darvish has been excellent and Musgrove has emerged as one of the best starters in the majors, recently signing a five-year, $100 million extension that locks him up through 2027.

“This is always how A.J. has operated,” said another NL executive. “There are a lot of teams whose decision-making is made by the model, not guided by it. He is the model.”

In the 2021 offseason, even after it was revealed in spring training that Tatis had broken his wrist in an offseason motorcycle accident, Preller stayed the course. He added Manaea to the rotation and acquired closer Taylor Rogers from the Twins (on Opening Day!). The Padres played well enough without Tatis to remain in a strong wild-card position.

But to compete with the Dodgers, they needed something else. And Juan Soto was available.

The Soto trade is Preller’s latest gambit, his Apollo 8, the thing that changes everything. Preller is, for now, the high-risk slugger, willing to trade strikeouts for big hits. What he wants, more than anything, is to be like Soto: someone who has a better eye for success than anyone else in his field — and who still wallops those home runs.


The closest historical comp to these Padres would be the mid-’90s Mariners. Trying to build a winner around homegrown stars Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez, plus Randy Johnson and Jay Buhner (both acquired as prospects), then-GM Woody Woodward made one desperate trade after another. From 1995 to 1997 he traded away six former first-round picks: Roger Salked, Marc Newfield, Shawn Estes, Ron Villone, Jason Varitek and Jose Cruz Jr. (Make it seven if you include Tino Martinez, although he was an established major leaguer when he was traded to the Yankees in 1996.)

Unfortunately, Woodward didn’t stop there. He also traded Derek Lowe, Joe Mays and a young Class A first baseman named David Arias, traded to the Twins in 1996 for one month of Dave Hollins. After joining the Twins organization, Arias elected to be known by his paternal family name: Ortiz.

All told, the Mariners would trade away more than 160 career WAR, 386 wins, more than 1,000 home runs and one Hall of Famer. Most of the players acquired were simply rentals: Tim Belcher, Andy Benes, Hollins, Roberto Kelly. Lowe and Varitek were traded for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. The only player to make a significant impact for the Mariners was Jamie Moyer, who re-signed with them and won 145 games for the franchise.

More importantly: Those Mariners never did reach a World Series.

The big difference between Woodward and Preller is that most of Preller’s big acquisitions, except for Manaea and Bell, who are free agents at season’s end, have come with additional years of team control. Clevinger had an additional two seasons when he was acquired, Darvish and Snell three, Musgrove two. Hader isn’t a free agent until after 2023 and Soto, of course, until after 2024. That’s on top of Machado and Tatis, who is signed through 2034 after his $340 million mega-extension last year.

None of this would be possible if the ownership group acted like your typical small-market franchise — or, arguably, plenty of big-market franchises. Peter Seidler, previously a minority owner, purchased a controlling interest in the Padres in November 2020.

“We have a fantastic owner,” Preller said at Wednesday’s news conference to introduce Soto and Bell. “He wants to win badly.”

It’s not just lip service: The Padres’ payroll has increased from $143 million (17th in the majors) in 2019 to second highest in 2021 to an estimated $230 million in 2022 — and that was before the Soto/Bell and Hader trades, which will tack on another $14 million or so.

“Everybody in our organization is excited to have you here,” Seidler said to Soto and Bell on Wednesday. “And equally important, as you’ll see on the field tonight, it’s going to be electric. Our fans have a really special, kind of mutually fun dynamic with the players. They play off of each other and bringing you into the organization is a special moment for all of us.”

Yes, that’s ownership speak of sorts, but it also rings true. The Padres, fifth in the majors in average attendance, drew more than 44,000 fans for Soto’s first game. Ticket prices on the secondary market skyrocketed. A healthy Tatis will invigorate the lineup even more. It is an exciting time to be a Padres fan.

Of course, now they have to beat the Dodgers (not to mention the Braves, perhaps the Mets in the National League Championship Series, and then the American League champion in the World Series). Nobody said it would be easy; A.J. Preller has made sure it will be plenty fun.

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