Calling it the biggest trade in deadline history is a bit overdramatic, but there’s no doubt the San Diego Padres sent a shockwave through the baseball world last week, when they acquired Juan Soto (and Josh Bell) from the Washington Nationals for a six-player package that included three recent top eight draft picks. Soto is the kind of player who can swing the balance of power in a postseason race and in a postseason series. He’s a dynamic, generational hitter, and he’s still only 23.
“We feel like we’re better,” Padres GM AJ Preller said during the introductory press conference, stating the obvious (video). “Obviously, he’s Juan Soto. He speaks for himself. What he’s done at 23 years old and the type of talent he is, he’s arguably the best hitter in baseball. That should be a big help for our club. Getting Josh Bell also, offensively another switch-hitter who’s having a great year that can swing the bat, it should help us a lot.”
The Padres won Soto’s first game in San Diego and the Petco Park crowd was electric. Then the baseball gods humbled them nice and good with a three-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers last weekend. It was quite a punch in the face, a good reminder that the road to the World Series goes through Chavez Ravine, and the Padres still have a dragon to slay.
Soto was appealing and required such a massive prospect package to acquire not only because he’s one of the game’s best players, but also because he will remain under team control through 2024. The Padres acquired him for three pennant races. This is a franchise that has not been to the postseason in a 162-game season since 2006. Clearly, they are going all-out to get over that hump, beat the Dodgers, and win the franchise’s first World Series.
Like every other franchise, the Padres have a few questions to answer moving forward, even with Soto in tow. The importance of answering those questions in a positive way is now heightened, because success in this game can be fleeting, and the last thing San Diego wants to do is waste the Soto era with a series of bad decisions. Here are four questions facing the franchise as they move forward with the Soto era.
1. Where does Tatis play?
This might be San Diego’s single biggest question moving forward. Fernando Tatis Jr., who is nearing a return from his broken wrist, played 20 games in right field and seven in center field in addition to 102 games at his usual shortstop last season. He’s also played some center field during his minor-league rehab assignment this year. So, is he a shortstop or an outfielder?
“I really don’t know yet,” Padres manager Bob Melvin told MLB.com last month when asked where Tatis will play when he returns. “It depends on once he gets here where our need is. This guy can play any position on the field. I don’t think we’re saying, ‘this is the particular position for him.’ It’s just as much about conditioning and getting his arm in shape being in the outfield.”
I don’t think there’s a wrong answer here. Assuming Tatis mans center field rather than right (pushing Soto back to left), he’s going to play a premium up-the-middle position either way. This is just something the Padres have to settle. Pick one position and stick with it, and the position they pick will impact the rest of the roster. Consider the 2023 possibilities:
Grisham has regressed badly since his 2020 rookie season and Jurickson Profar is having a season good enough to decline his $7.5 million player option and test free agency this winter. Also, Kim has rebounded nicely from his tough rookie season. He’s been a league average hitter and an above-average defender this year, perhaps because playing everyday during Tatis’ absence allowed him to get more comfortable and into a rhythm. He was a part-time player for the first time in his career in 2021.
Again, I don’t think there’s a wrong answer here, and the two defensive alignments above each have their own pluses and minuses. It’s not overly difficult to find a new first baseman and a new DH in the offseason, and if the Padres do put Tatis in center, it’s not like they would need to find a new shortstop. Kim is a ready-made replacement. Grisham is important. If the Padres are not committed to sticking with him, then Tatis at short means they’d need two outfielders this winter, including a center fielder. That’s a lot of work.
Personally, I think Tatis is best suited for center field given his skill set (elite speed and an unfortunate knack for errant throws) and I think that’s where he fits the roster best. Tatis in center and Kim at short is preferable to Tatis at short, Kim potentially in a super utility role, and a question mark in center. No one asked me though. One way or the other, the time is coming for the Padres to pick one position and put Tatis there permanently. He’s been a shortstop, but working out in the outfield isn’t an accident.
“Wherever they need me,” Tatis told MLB.com last month. “We’re going to talk. But I’ve been (doing my rehab work) mostly at shortstop so far. I’ve been moving around everywhere, but it’s been mostly shortstop so far.”
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2. How do they fill out the rotation?
Prior to the Soto trade the Padres could plausibly claim they had seven MLB-caliber starting pitchers: Yu Darvish, Mike Clevinger, MacKenzie Gore, Sean Manaea, Nick Martinez, Joe Musgrove, and Blake Snell. San Diego wisely locked up Musgrove to a long-term extension last month, but Gore was included in the Soto trade, Clevinger and Manaea will be free agents after the season, and Martinez seems to have found a home in the bullpen the last few weeks (plus he can opt out of his contact this winter).
That means San Diego’s rotation depth chart looks something like this heading into the 2022-23 offseason:
- Joe Musgrove
- Yu Darvish
- Blake Snell
- Maybe Nick Martinez?
- ??? (because every team needs a sixth starter)
- ??? (every team needs a seventh starter too)
Ryan Weathers is having a miserable season in Triple-A (79 runs in 96 innings) and Adrian Morejon’s injury history is likely to keep him in the bullpen moving forward (where he has a chance to be great). Reiss Knehr is a solid depth option more than someone who should be penciled into a contender’s Opening Day rotation at this point in his career. Perhaps Triple-A lefty Jay Groome, who came over in the Eric Hosmer trade and was the No. 12 pick in the 2016 draft, can contribute next year? I’m sure the Padres hope so.
Furthermore, Darvish and Snell will become free agents after next season, so San Diego’s projected 2024 rotation — Soto’s last year of team control — is Musgrove and four question marks. That’s not uncommon (how many teams know who their Nos. 4 and 5 starters will be two years from now?) but you can see why Preller & Co. may prioritize starting pitchers with multiple years of control this coming offseason. It would be great if Groome and Weathers can be 2024 factors, but it’s hard to count on it.
Re-signing Clevinger and/or Manaea is always an option. They’re trending in opposite directions — Manaea has really struggled in recent weeks while Clevinger is beginning to look like his old self as he gets further away from his second career Tommy John surgery — though that might just mean Manaea provides better bang for the buck. Would it really surprise anyone if Manaea was the healthier and more effective pitcher in 2023 and beyond? I don’t think so.
Chris Bassitt, who knows Melvin well from all their years with the Athletics, will be a free agent this offseason and is a high-end innings guy who would fit San Diego’s 2023 and beyond rotation wonderfully. I mean, he would fit every team’s 2023 and beyond rotation wonderfully, but especially San Diego’s. That said, Bassitt’s next contract is likely to come in around $20 million per year, plus you’ll presumably have to give up draft picks and international bonus money to sign him seeing how qualifying offers are still a thing. He’ll be costly.
Planning the rotation long-term is difficult because pitchers carry so much inherent injury risk — remember when the Mets planned to ride Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz to glory? — so this isn’t so much a problem as it is something the Padres have to figure out (like most teams). They have enviable rotation depth now, even with Gore traded and Martinez in the bullpen. After this season, building as deep and as reliable a starting staff figures to be much more difficult.
3. Will payroll continue to climb?
According to FanGraphs, San Diego’s payroll for competitive balance tax purposes sits at $242.2 million, well over the $230 million threshold. The Padres exceeded the CBT threshold for the first time last year (they paid roughly $1.3 million in tax), so, as a second-time offender, they will be taxed 30 percent for every dollar over the threshold this year. That works out to $3.66 million. Chump change for a major-league franchise.
The CBT threshold jumps to $233 million in 2023 and, as a third-time offender, the Padres would be taxed 50 percent on the overage if they exceed the threshold again. The Padres will pay Hosmer to play for the Red Sox the next few years but Wil Myers‘ onerous contract expires after this season, which provides some relief. The club currently has approximately $157 million on the books for CBT purposes next year not including arbitration-eligible players, a couple of whom are significant:
- Juan Soto: $17.1 million in 2022 (estimated $26 million in 2023)
- Josh Hader: $11 million in 2022 (estimated $15 million in 2023)
- Jake Cronenworth: Pre-arbitration in 2022 (estimated $4.5 million in 2023)
- Tim Hill: $1.325 million in 2022 (estimated $2 million in 2023)
- Trent Grisham: Pre-arbitration in 2022 (estimated $2 million in 2023)
- Austin Nola: Pre-arbitration in 2022 (estimated $2 million in 2023)
- Nabil Crismatt: Pre-arbitration in 2022 (estimated $1.5 million in 2023)
- Adrian Morejon: Pre-arbitration in 2022 (estimated $1.2 million in 2023)
- Non-tender candidates: Austin Adams, Jorge Alfaro, Matt Beaty, Cam Gallagher
(Pre-arbitration-eligible players earn something close to the $700,000 league minimum salary.)
Soto and Hader are the big earners — Soto is already setting arbitration salary records and Hader is in line to smash Jonathan Papelbon’s arbitration salary record for a reliever ($12 million in 2011) — but the other players add up quick. Assuming the Padres non-tender those four players and keep everyone else at our estimated salaries (emphasis on estimated), that’s $211.2 million on the books for CBT purposes next year, giving the team a little more than $20 million in wiggle room under the $233 million.
Keep in mind that $211.2 million does not include re-signing or replacing Bell, Clevinger, Manaea, Profar, Brandon Drury, Pierce Johnson, and stalwart Craig Stammen. Ownership could push payroll over the CBT threshold again and frankly they should. San Diego’s window to win a title is pretty clearly defined as now through 2024. That’s how long Soto is under control and how long we can reasonably assume Machado and Musgrove will be at their peak. 2025 is when the window ostensibly begins to close.
If the Padres want to unload money after the season, they will have some options. Lefty Drew Pomeranz is owed $10 million next year and he’s missed most of this season following flexor surgery, though he is on a minor-league rehab assignment and should rejoin the team soon. The Yankees attached a good but not great prospect (righty Frank German) to Adam Ottavino to unload his $8 million salary last year. Could San Diego do something similar this winter to unload Pomeranz and his $10 million salary?
What about Snell? He’s owed $16.6 million next season and perhaps there’s a way to trade Snell and land a controllable young starting pitcher in return, while also reducing salary. Snell can be frustrating, but on his best days he can dominate even the best lineups, and another contender could be willing to roll the dice on that upside. The Braves have Bryce Elder and Kyle Muller stashed in Triple-A, for example. What about the Twins and, say, Josh Winder? I’d call a Snell trade unlikely but hardly impossible.
Padres ownership should be willing to go over the CBT threshold in 2023 (and 2024) to capitalize on this opportunity. Rarely does an organization find itself with three talents like Machado, Soto, and Tatis in their primes. This is not the time to pinch pennies, and give chairman Peter Seidler credit, he’s been willing to spend the last few years. Too many owners treat player payroll as an expense, not an investment. Sports have a unique kind of brand loyalty. Fandom gets passed down through generations and I’m not sure the Padres fanbase has ever been more energized than it is right now. The franchise will reap the rewards long into the future.
So, continue spending, beyond the CBT threshold if necessary. The Padres running a payroll on par with the Dodgers or Mets is unlikely, but given where the Padres are right now, with the players they have in place and where those players are in their careers (right smack in the middle of what should be their most productive years), I see no good reason to treat the CBT threshold as a payroll limit moving forward. The last two years tell us San Diego can afford to spend beyond it, so keep doing it.
As for signing Soto long-term after the 2024 season, let’s worry about that when the time comes. He’s already rejected several monster extensions and seems likely to head out into free agency in a few years. With Machado making huge dollars and the big money years of Tatis’ extension set to kick in around then, it seems unlikely the Padres will be able to sign Soto long-term, though never say never. Right now, I think they should proceed as if they will have him through 2024 and only 2024, and prioritize those years. And if they manage to re-sign Soto after that, great.
4. Will any young players contribute?
The Padres have traded a lot — a LOT — of young talent in recent years, though the farm system is not barren. Groome could be a factor at some point next year. Catcher Luis Campusano, who turns only 24 in September and has had several cups of coffee the last few years, could begin an apprenticeship under Nola in 2023. Infielder Eguy Rosario has followed up last year’s breakout in Double-A with an even better season in Triple-A and could factor into the 2023 mix. Relievers Steven Wilson and Ray Kerr will be available to provide cheap bullpen innings. San Diego still has some exciting young talent on the cusp of the big leagues.
That said, the Padres have had issues finishing off the development of their top young pitchers in recent years, with Weathers and Chris Paddack the most notable examples (Gore less so because he got his mechanics ironed out this year). Unless that changes, filling out the rotation with cheap homegrown talent figures to be difficult the next few years. The Padres do not lack pitching talent (Weathers and Groome were very highly regarded not too long ago) but there’s a big difference between talented prospect and MLB contributor. Getting young pitchers over the hump has been challenge the last few seasons.
One thing San Diego lacks is a young outfielder ready to step into next year’s lineup to replace Profar (or Grisham). Obviously a Julio Rodríguez or Michael Harris II type would be ideal, but even someone like Steven Kwan or Christopher Morel would go a long way toward solving the long-term outfield situation without soaking up a big chunk of payroll. Perhaps there’s a trade to be made this offseason — the Pirates stand out as a team overloaded with MLB-ready outfielders, particularly lefty hitters — though signing a free agent is always the easiest, most straightforward way to fill a need.
The Padres still have some young talent they’ll be able to plug into the MLB roster in the coming years, but not a ton. The good news is they’ve already done the hard part. You win championships with stars (more accurately, you win championships with star-caliber performances, and stars are most likely to give you them) and the Padres have already assembled a star-laden core. The foundation is in place and it’s excellent. They’ll just need to improve the supporting cast in the coming years. It’s easier said than done. It’s also much easier than building what San Diego already has in place.