The San Diego Padres missed out on their top target from the Washington Nationals at the 2021 trade deadline, when the Dodgers swooped in to acquire Max Scherzer—and Trea Turner for good measure—at the last minute. But Padres general manager A.J. Preller wasn’t going to let history repeat itself in 2022.
Hours before this year’s deadline on Tuesday, Preller struck, reportedly agreeing to trade four prospects, young pitcher MacKenzie Gore, and Luke Voit to the Nationals in exchange for Josh Bell and Juan Soto. Sorry, that should read “JUAN SOTO,” all-caps, because this is an all-caps kind of trade that immediately makes the Padres a more dangerous playoff contender and bolsters their lineup with a future Hall of Famer who’s still too young to be in his prime.
Even if the solution wasn’t Soto, the Padres needed offensive improvements to balance out their 2022 roster. They boast one of the majors’ best rotations, with Yu Darvish and the just-extended Joe Musgrove serving as headliners, Mike Clevinger pitching well since returning from Tommy John surgery, and either Blake Snell or Sean Manaea slotting in nicely to the no. 4 spot in the event of a playoff series. The bullpen isn’t deep, but features perhaps the majors’ best closer in Josh Hader, added in a trade Monday. Overall, San Diego ranks sixth in MLB in pitching WAR, and that’s without Clevinger, Snell, and Hader for large portions of the season.
But the lineup was more rickety, despite Manny Machado’s MVP-level play. While a bunch of other Padres have above-average batting lines this season, nobody else has joined Machado with true upper-level production: Machado’s wRC+ this season is 145, but no other Padre had a higher mark than Jurickson Profar’s 122. The team’s overall wRC+ is just 99—which is tied for 16th in the majors, worse than that of any other playoff contender.
The Padres needed an offensive upgrade, preferably at first base and in an outfield corner. This trade accomplishes both of those goals. But they didn’t just make any upgrade—they acquired the best young player ever to change teams. That’s no exaggeration: As MLB’s Sarah Langs noted Tuesday, Soto is the first player in MLB history, age-23 or younger, to be traded in the middle of a season in which he was named an All-Star. He’s also the first player in MLB history to make multiple All-Star teams and change teams before turning 24.
Soto isn’t just a run-of-the-mill All-Star, either. He’s one of the best young hitters ever, with a preternatural feel for the strike zone that has helped him lead the majors with a 21 percent walk rate and rank third with a .408 on-base percentage, even in what for him qualifies as a down year.
He isn’t a perfect player, to be fair. His power, prodigious enough to win a Home Run Derby, can come and go, even as he consistently reaches base. Despite his youth, his speed has already declined, and he’s long been a below-average base runner. And his defensive output has completely cratered this season, as he ranks last among all outfielders with negative-9 outs above average.
But there’s no need to pick nits with a player possessed of Soto’s superb skills, which made him the unanimous no. 1 pick in our 25-and-under ranking in April. He might be consciously lessening his defensive effort this season, for one, as his predecessor in D.C., Bryce Harper, did before leaving; Soto rated as one of the best outfield defenders just last season. And his bat is so extraordinary that any team should want him even if he starts fielding like Henry Skrimshander when he developed the yips. Soto ranks in the top 10 in career wRC+ through age-23, and every other player ranked that high is either in the Hall of Fame, a lock to get there after retiring, or Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Best Hitters Through Age 23
|Fernando Tatis Jr.
Tied for number 11 on that list, by the way, is Fernando Tatis Jr., Soto’s new teammate in San Diego. That’s another key aspect to this deal: Tatis, who’s missed all of this season but is set to start a rehab assignment this weekend, will join the Padres lineup at some point soon, too. Thus far, the Padres’ middle of the order has consisted of Machado surrounded by a bunch of decent hitters: Jake Cronenworth, Voit, Eric Hosmer. (Hosmer was included in an initial incarnation of this trade before exercising his no-trade clause.) Now it’ll add Soto, Tatis, and Bell, whose 142 wRC+ in 2022 means he’s basically hit as well as Machado and Soto this season.
And for all of that exciting infusion of talent, the Nationals—who, amid a potential ownership sale, decided to trade Soto two and a half years before he reached free agency after he rejected extension offers—didn’t even seem to receive a sufficient return. C.J. Abrams is the highest-ranked prospect headed to Washington, as he checks in at no. 11 on FanGraphs’ list and brings tremendous speed and defensive versatility to his new club.
But there are questions about whether he’ll ever hit, given his .232/.285/.320 slash line in his first 139 MLB plate appearances. Abrams’s combination of poor power and plate discipline is extremely rare for a plus hitter; in fact, he’s one of 16 players this season with a walk rate below 5 percent and an isolated power mark below .100 (min. 100 plate appearances), and all 16 have a below-average overall batting line. It’s a small sample, but by these measures, Abrams’s bat looks like that of washed-up Yadier Molina or ex-Cardinal Edmundo Sosa, who was just traded to the Phillies for an anonymous reliever.
Abrams isn’t the only player headed to Washington, of course, and odds are that at least one of Abrams, Robert Hassell III (FanGraphs’ no. 41 prospect), James Wood (no. 66), Jarlin Susana (unranked), and Gore (previously the sport’s best pitching prospect; now hurt, and likely a mid-rotation arm at best) will produce for the Nationals for the rest of the decade.
But odds are also almost certain that they won’t produce like Soto will during the remainder of his time in San Diego, because the Padres didn’t acquire Soto for only this season, but also for each of the next two—meaning three playoff runs. And conveniently for them, the ZiPS projection system forecasts that Soto will be the majors’ most valuable player over those seasons. The Padres could also try extending Soto even longer, as the Dodgers did after trading for Mookie Betts, or as the Padres themselves already did with Tatis.
In light of the unprecedented nature of a trade of a player this good and this young, Soto himself seemingly should have commanded more prospect capital than the Nationals acquired in return. He ranked sixth on FanGraphs’ trade value list last month, even though he’ll win hefty salaries in arbitration over the next two seasons and even though he has less team control than anyone else in the top 20. That the Padres pulled off that swap while also solidifying the lineup with Bell registers as a historic heist.
This kind of swashbuckling, transactional approach to roster construction is Preller’s modus operandi—which he furthered even after the Soto trade Tuesday, when he acquired Reds utility man Brandon Drury in the midst of a career year. The new Padres’ starting lineup, rotation, and back end of the bullpen will consist of zero players who started their career in the organization, and just one who didn’t join the club via trade:
C: Austin Nola, trade
1B: Josh Bell, trade
2B: Jake Cronenworth, trade
SS: Fernando Tatis Jr., trade
3B: Manny Machado, free agency
LF: Jurickson Profar, trade
CF: Trent Grisham, trade
RF: Juan Soto, trade
DH: Brandon Drury, trade
SP: Yu Darvish, trade
SP: Joe Musgrove, trade
SP: Mike Clevinger, trade
SP: Blake Snell, trade
SP: Sean Manaea, trade
CL: Josh Hader, trade
That list is remarkable. So is the Padres’ new talent base, for both this season and beyond. And so is the fact that a team based not in a glamorous market but in San Diego can display this level of aggression and financial wherewithal to build the majors’ most exciting team.
The Padres won’t win the division this year, given the Dodgers’ commanding 12-game lead. But they’ll be a force to reckon with in the wild-card round, and the rest of the postseason if they advance, and next year and the year after that. They just acquired the best young player to change teams in MLB history. The analysis isn’t hard: They won the trade deadline by a long shot.