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In Juan Soto, Padres general manager AJ Preller FINALLY lands his franchise cornerstone

AJ Preller had already blown one chance to sign the new Ted Williams. He wasn’t going to be denied again.

From the moment the Washington Nationals put their all-world outfielder Juan Soto up for sale, seven years after swiping him from under Preller’s nose, the San Diego Padres general manager smelled his opportunity.

Generational talents like Soto are never available this young, Preller knew. And life definitely isn’t fair enough to give you a second chance – having missed out in the 2015 international signing period when Soto was the Padres’ No1 target as a 17-year-old in the Dominican Republic.

But after Soto rejected a 15-year, $440million contract extension last month, the Nationals put him on the block, and the impossible dream was on for Preller. Known for blockbuster moves, this one would top the lot, and scratch the itch that had burned ever since he’d first seen Soto play.

At 4pm Eastern on Tuesday, in a eight-player deal that will alter the face of the sport, his dream became a reality. Soto was finally a Padre.

It takes a lot for a sport as protective of its past as baseball to allow comparisons with an all-American hero like Ted Williams – a San Diego native and iconic hitter who missed parts of five seasons in a Hall-of-Fame career to serve as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War. 

A.J. Preller, President of Baseball Operations and General Manager of the San Diego Padres, looks on before the game between the Atlanta Braves and the San Diego Padres at Petco Park 

In a eight-player deal that will alter the face of the sport, Juan Soto finally became a Padre

In a eight-player deal that will alter the face of the sport, Juan Soto finally became a Padre

And yet the parallels are drawn, and they’re legitimate. That’s just how good Soto is. His eye at the plate is his calling card, latching on to the spin and speed of a pitch unnaturally early, then working out which ones to leave, and which to crush. 

That combination of plate discipline and power has meant that other teams have given up pitching to him. Soto has more walks than hits in 2022, and is on track to lead the league in free passes for a second year in a row, all before turning 24, when most players are making their first steps in the big leagues.

This season is a so-called down year for Soto, and yet he has an .894 OPS, which would be his worst so far but is still in baseball’s top 10 in 2022. A characteristic second-half tear, buoyed by his new surroundings and the thrill of a pennant race, would put him in good position for a third consecutive top-five finish in the National League Most Valuable Player voting.

Through his first five seasons, he owns a career OPS+ of 160 (60 percent above the league average), and the only players with a better mark at his age are Williams, Mike Trout, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial and Albert Pujols. That’s truly exalted company and is the reason the sport went into a frenzy when the Nationals decided – with two more years of control left but no sign of an extension in sight – that they couldn’t keep Soto anymore.

Ted Williams became the last MLB player to hit .400 in a single season in 1941

Ted Williams, a San Diego native and iconic hitter, missed parts of five seasons in a Hall-of-Fame career to serve as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War

Ted Williams, a San Diego native and iconic hitter, missed parts of five seasons in a Hall-of-Fame career to serve as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War (right)

Former Angeles teammates Mike Trout (left) and Albert Pujols (right) are two of five players who outpaced Juan Soto offensively prior to the age of 24

Former Angeles teammates Mike Trout (left) and Albert Pujols (right) are two of five players who outpaced Juan Soto offensively prior to the age of 24

Through his first five seasons, Soto owns a career OPS+ of 160 (60 percent above the league average), and the only players with a better mark at his age are Williams, Mike Trout, Ty Cobb (right), Stan Musial (left) and Albert Pujols. That's truly exalted company and is the reason the sport went into a frenzy when the Nationals decided - with two more years of control left but no sign of an extension in sight - that they couldn't keep Soto anymore

Through his first five seasons, Soto owns a career OPS+ of 160 (60 percent above the league average), and the only players with a better mark at his age are Williams, Mike Trout, Ty Cobb (right), Stan Musial (left) and Albert Pujols. That’s truly exalted company and is the reason the sport went into a frenzy when the Nationals decided – with two more years of control left but no sign of an extension in sight – that they couldn’t keep Soto anymore

No player this young and this good has ever been traded before – there simply is no fitting comparison – not the Miguel Cabrera deal in 2007, when the Marlins prodigy was two years older than Soto is now and shipped to Detroit in the off-season, and not even Boston selling a 24-year-old Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000 in 1919.

Even Ruth hadn’t put up these numbers just yet.

The trade deadline was a one-man show, Soto’s natural habitat. He thrives in the spotlight, having looked like a major leaguer since day one. He came up in 2018 as the youngest player in the sport and on his first start, he hit the very first pitch he saw for an opposite-field three-run home run. 

The only missing piece for the Padres may be shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. (pictured), who is set to return from a wrist injury any day now

The only missing piece for the Padres may be shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. (pictured), who is set to return from a wrist injury any day now 

A year later, he carried the Nationals all the way to glory in the World Series, where he had a 1.178 OPS with three home runs – off a couple of players on track to join him in Cooperstown one day, Gerrit Cole (twice) and Justin Verlander.

Watch him hit and you’ll see a showman in the batter’s box, crouching low and contorting his body as pitches sail by off the plate, before turning back to face the pitcher with a glare, daring his opponent to challenge him.

Last month, with the rumors swirling as two-thirds of the league was linked to him, Soto showed no signs of any pressure in winning the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium. A day later, the hometown fans chanted ‘Fu-ture Dod-ger’ at him in the outfield during the All-Star Game, but their team only made the final two in the Soto sweepstakes.

For once, the Padres got the better of the Dodgers. Preller had been on the brink of trading for Max Scherzer from the Nationals last summer, before LA swept in and took him away. But on Soto, things would be different. 

It’s a seismic shift for a franchise that has never won a World Series title, has not been to the Fall Classic since the year Soto was born and has not even had a winning record in a 162-game season since 2010. They entered the deadline 12 games back of the Dodgers in the NL West this season, and even Soto can’t help them overhaul that deficit with 60 games to go. But he’s not swapped coasts to help San Diego win division titles, he’s there for the playoff runs – at least three of them before his contract expires.

He slots into a lineup headed by six-time All-Star Manny Machado, bolstered by first baseman Bell and waiting on the return of Fernando Tatis Jr. No longer will teams be able to pitch around him, as there’s another monster awaiting in the on-deck circle. With further deadline additions of infielder Brandon Drury and closer Josh Hader, this is now a serious World Series contender.

Manny Machado #13 of the San Diego Padres smiles and celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run in the sixth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field on July 23

Manny Machado #13 of the San Diego Padres smiles and celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run in the sixth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field on July 23

The Padres’ only worry now is – can they keep Soto long-term? Washington’s $440m offer wasn’t enough, and his agent Scott Boras wants his players to test their value in free agency, which Soto will reach after the 2024 season and will almost certainly result in baseball’s first $500m contract. With Machado already signed for $30m a year until 2028, Tatis locked into a 14-year, $340m deal and now hometown ace Joe Musgrove having inked a $100m contract until 2027, something will have to give.

While the Padres have a young lineup, there is more experience in the rotation, led by longtime starter Yu Darvish (pictured)

While the Padres have a young lineup, there is more experience in the rotation, led by longtime starter Yu Darvish (pictured)

But they don’t need to worry about that now, with two and a half years of Soto secured. They may never need to worry about it, if he leads them to a championship in that time and both parties pivot elsewhere after 2024. And if he does walk in two winters’ time, this deal is still a steal for the Padres.

For Soto and Bell, San Diego gave up three players with major-league time (first baseman Luke Voit, shortstop CJ Abrams and left-handed starter Mackenzie Gore) and three of their top 14 prospects (#1 Robert Hassell III, #3 James Wood and #14 Jarlin Susana). Make no mistake, this is one of the biggest hauls the sport has ever seen, and the Nationals can add them to a growing young core including Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz, who they got last summer from the Dodgers for Scherzer and Trea Turner. Voit, thrown in at the last minute after Eric Hosmer invoked his no-trade rights and got a move to Boston instead, is a more than acceptable replacement for Bell.

But is that really enough? This is arguably the best player the Nationals franchise has ever produced, a player getting Hall of Fame consideration when he’s barely old enough to order a beer, and a beloved member of the clubhouse that manager Davey Martinez called ‘my son’.

This was Washington’s one chance to set themselves up for years, to justly ask for everything under the sun. And what they ended up with feels a little light. Of course, no deal was ever going to seem ‘fair’ for both sides, because that would demand that it hurt too much for one or both of them. 

Washington was under the gun, as they looked at a ticking clock represented by the time left until Soto became a free agent, which his lack of interest in signing a long-term deal made all the more pressing.

Todd Savitch, a longtime season ticket holder, feigns sadness while taking a selfie after Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto (22) and Washington Nationals first baseman Josh Bell (19) were traded to the San Diego Padres

Todd Savitch, a longtime season ticket holder, feigns sadness while taking a selfie after Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto (22) and Washington Nationals first baseman Josh Bell (19) were traded to the San Diego Padres

Soto is arguably the best player the Washington Nationals franchise has ever produced

Soto is arguably the best player the Washington Nationals franchise has ever produced

But nevertheless, the Padres have pulled off an astonishing deal. And all credit to them for going for it, in the country’s 27th-biggest media market and having already traded away a wealth of prospects in the last two years to sign their entire starting rotation of Musgrove, Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Mike Clevinger and Sean Manaea, as well as catcher Austin Nola and center fielder Trent Grisham. Prospects give you hope that one of them might turn into Soto in five years’ time, but Soto gives them certainty.

Washington can assess their return in the aggregate. Leaving aside the Bell for Voit swap, will the five young talents they got back be worth more than Soto over their careers? The problem with looking at it like that is that Soto creates all that value as one player, not five, leaving four other roster spots to produce even more. Not to mention that the whole point of being in baseball is to win a World Series, not top the farm rankings.

Reflecting on the deal, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was asked about his interactions with Preller and the Padres. ‘They’re not afraid,’ he said. ‘Their ownership’s not afraid and AJ Preller’s not afraid. They were aggressive – and we made a deal you’d call historical.’

Season ticket holder since the beginning, Neal Denton, wearing Nats gear and a SD hat poses next to a poster of Juan Soto after Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto (22) and Washington Nationals first baseman Josh Bell (19) were traded to the San Diego Padres

Season ticket holder since the beginning, Neal Denton, wearing Nats gear and a SD hat poses next to a poster of Juan Soto after Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto (22) and Washington Nationals first baseman Josh Bell (19) were traded to the San Diego Padres

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