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Can Juan Soto Lead the Padres Past the Dodgers?


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

But just as quickly because the Padres had reset all expectations for his or her season — and the franchise’s future — with a frenzied whirlwind on the Major League Baseball trading deadline, the Los Angeles Dodgers delivered a fiery reminder of what San Diego still has to beat, sweeping their division rivals in a three-game series at Dodger Stadium.

Because the sweep was happening, Seidler said the Dodgers remain “the dragon up the freeway that we’re attempting to slay.”

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

“The large challenge for us is to play winning baseball, No. 1,” Seidler said this week. “And No. 2, play it out and see when one of the best time is to discuss with Juan about an extension. It’s all recent to him immediately. It’s not going to occur anytime soon, but you wish him here long-term, period.”

This, to Seidler, could be the logical execution of “the art of the possible.” To others, it could seem outlandishly unimaginable: The Padres have already got 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 each of those deals.

The excellent news is, there’s time. In Soto, 23, they acquired a superstar who will likely be under club control for 2 and a half years. But his eventual contract demands will loom large, even for a team with a rapidly expanding budget. This can be 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 might 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, will not be within the business of offering discounts.

But Padres fans, in contrast to a popularity for infrequent ambivalence, have responded with wild enthusiasm to the club’s recent string of massive ideas and greater 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 capability at Petco Park. In keeping with figures obtained from M.L.B., only Atlanta (93.4 percent) ranks higher.

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

“What we’re still within the means of assessing is how much revenue we are able to generate from that increased fan support after which, long-term, run the payroll off of something that’s organically supportable through revenue we are able to generate in our local market,” said Erik Greupner, the Padres’ chief executive, who added: “I’d say the early returns on this increased commitment to payroll have been very strong and would appear to point we might have the opportunity to support — year-in and year-out — a level of payroll that exceeds what the Padres have historically been capable of do in our market.

“I don’t know the reply yet, and I don’t know that anyone does, but I do know we’re sure going to search out out what level this market will support.”

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 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 equity that went into acquiring and developing those players, the investment in them as people and attending to know their members of the family, and admits it never is straightforward to send away top-shelf talent.

“But as hard because it was to deal those guys, you simply don’t get a chance to get a Soto, a Josh Bell, a Hader, too,” Preller said. “Players who’ve been one of the best players of 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 singular opportunity, and we checked out it as such. We knew it was going to take loads and we had loads within the system leading us into making the deal.”

One yr ago, the Padres swung and missed on 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 primary inning of the primary game of the new-look Padres got here against Colorado on Aug. 3, and every thing looked as if it would have fallen into place. One among the team’s other newcomers — Brandon Drury, an infielder acquired from Cincinnati — smashed a first-inning grand slam on the primary pitch he saw as a Padre. The sellout crowd, buoyed by single-day, club-record ticket sales after the Soto news, roared.

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 recent home within the fourth inning on Tuesday night against San Francisco.

With a team this talented, it is straightforward to write down off such a streak as a blip that will likely be a distant memory come October. That sort of belief is made easy due 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 opposite outfielders at the top of every 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 turn out to be his first big-league bobblehead doll. It wasn’t smiling.

“I like my smile,” Soto said within the Padres’ dugout this week. “I would like people to recollect Juan was a completely satisfied guy. I don’t want people to recollect me as a mad guy or as a man who was at all times indignant. I actually have good personality, I believe. I wish to be completely satisfied, I like really good energy, that’s what I would like to present to the people. I would like to present good vibes, good energy.”

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

“It’s one other level,” he said of playing on October’s big stage. “It’s one other feeling, so you wish to get that taste every yr, each day. For me, that yr was amazing. It was incredible.”

In San Diego, a city that has never won a title in any of the most important North American men’s sports leagues, dreams are growing. Season-ticket demand is such that, for the primary time in history, the Padres are considering capping them for next yr. 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 wish to be sure our season-ticket members and our recent season-ticket members proceed to get access to one of the best seating locations,” Greupner said. “And we’re beginning to run out of those.”

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

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

“It’s not goodbye, it’s so long,” Soto said. “We’ve got to return there every yr. I’m just going to see people, keep on the lookout for them, keep up a correspondence. I’ve met those who I’m going to discuss with for the remaining of my life. I’m not going to say goodbye. I’m just going to say so long on down the road.”

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