The Padres Got a Sword. But Can They Slay the ‘Dragon’?

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

But just as quickly as the Padres had reset all expectations for their season — and the franchise’s future — with a frenzied whirlwind at the Major League Baseball trading deadline, the Los Angeles Dodgers delivered 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 was happening, Seidler said the Dodgers remain “the dragon up the freeway that we’re trying to slay.”

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

“The big challenge for us is to play winning baseball, No. 1,” Seidler said 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.”

In Manny Machado and Soto, the Padres have a devastating lineup that will only get better when Fernando Tatis Jr. returns from injury.Credit…Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

This, to Seidler, would be the logical execution of “the art of the possible.” To others, it may seem outlandishly impossible: The Padres already have third baseman Manny Machado, 30, signed for 10 years and $300 million through 2028 and Fernando Tatis Jr., a 23-year-old shortstop and outfielder, for 14 years at $340 million through 2034. Keeping Soto long-term would exceed both of those deals.

The good news is, there’s time. In Soto, 23, they acquired a superstar who still has two-and-a-half years of club control. But his eventual contract demands will loom large, even for a team with a rapidly expanding budget. This is a generational slugger who will reach free agency at 26. Before the trading deadline, he declined Washington’s offer of 15 years and $440 million, which would have set a record for largest dollar value of any contract in major league history.

And as San Diego surely knows, Soto’s agent, Scott Boras, is not in the business of offering discounts.

But Padres fans, in contrast to a reputation for occasional ambivalence, have responded with wild enthusiasm to the club’s recent string of big ideas and bigger gambles. San Diego ranked fifth in M.L.B. in attendance at 36,947 fans per game through Wednesday, trailing only the Dodgers, St. Louis, the Yankees and Atlanta, the reigning champion. The Padres have been playing to 91.5 percent capacity at Petco Park. According to figures obtained from M.L.B., only Atlanta (93.4 percent) ranks higher.

The Padres also rank fifth in 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,” said Erik Greupner, the Padres’ chief executive, 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.”

Soto’s enthusiasm has caught the attention of his new teammates. But the Padres are still very much chasing Freddie Freeman and the Los Angeles Dodgers.Credit…Harry How/Getty Images

Beyond the dollars and cents, the Padres paid a steep price for Soto and Bell, a switch-hitting first baseman, in prospects. They sent a six-piece package to Washington that included three players who had taken turns being ranked as the No. 1 prospect in 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’ worth of sweat equity that went into acquiring and developing those players, the investment in them as people and getting to know their family members, and admits it never is easy to send away top-shelf talent.

“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 said. “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 year ago, the Padres swung and missed at the deadline, trying hard for starter Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner before the Nationals sent them to the Dodgers. The dragon became larger. The Padres kept chasing.

The first inning of the first game of the new-look Padres came against Colorado on Aug. 3, and everything seemed to have fallen into place. One of the team’s other newcomers — Brandon Drury, an infielder acquired from Cincinnati — smashed a first-inning grand slam on the first pitch he saw as a Padre. The sellout crowd, buoyed by single-day, club-record ticket sales after the Soto news, roared.

Soto has been an immediate hit with Padres fans. Whether the interest is enough to sustain the team’s long-term payroll demands is an open question.Credit…Gregory Bull/Associated Press

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

With a team this talented, it is easy to write off such a streak as a blip that will be a distant memory come October. That kind of belief is made easy thanks to Soto, whose enthusiasm has already made an impression on the team. Manager Bob Melvin describes him as “a ball of energy” and Machado has noticed how Soto makes sure to high-five the other outfielders at the end of each inning.

Soto’s positivity can rival his otherworldly production: Back in 2019, his first full season in Washington, he sent back a prototype of what would become his first big-league bobblehead doll. It wasn’t smiling.

“I like my smile,” Soto said in 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.”

A rough first week should be easy enough to forget once San Diego rights its ship. But Soto and the Padres are likely to be judged by one metric: October success.Credit…Gregory Bull/Associated Press

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

“It’s another level,” he said of playing on October’s big 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 city that has never won a title in any of the major North American men’s sports leagues, dreams are growing. Season-ticket demand 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 already has fielded requests translating into about 1,000 more 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 said. “And we’re starting to run out of those.”

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

What the future brings, the Padres and their city cannot wait to find out. But first, Soto will bid what surely will be an emotional farewell to D.C. this weekend.

“It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later,” Soto said. “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.”

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