The Juan Soto Trade Chatter Era was as intense as it was short-lived: like two and a half weeks of living inside a dark metal silo with someone banging on the walls from the outside. And even now that the dust has settled and we emerge, squinting out into the glaring and unfamiliar sunlight, it’s hard to grapple with the idea of Soto wearing anything other than Nationals colors.
But grapple we must, because Soto is shuffling into one of the most potent lineups in the sport—one made all the more so by Josh Bell’s inclusion in the Soto deal, the Padres’ contemporaneous trade for Brandon Drury, and the news that Fernando Tatis Jr., is facing live pitching and preparing to go on a rehab assignment.
Since about 2019, when Tatis burst onto the scene and the Padres signed Manny Machado away from the Dodgers, San Diego has been tipped as the team to end the Dodgers’ decade of dominance in the NL West. (Yes, L.A. didn’t win the division last year, but the Dodgers did win 106 games, finish a game behind the Giants, and then beat said Giants in the NLDS. That basically counts.) Nobody’s beaten that drum harder through the past four years than The Ringer; last year, we devoted an entire week of our preseason schedule to the topic. But the Padres have failed to live up to their end of the bargain.
The 2020 NLDS featured one game for the ages, but ultimately ended in a Dodgers sweep. Last year, the Padres dropped back below .500. And in 2022, the heroics of Machado and Joe Musgrove haven’t been able to keep the Friars in touch with their big brothers from up the coast. At the time of the Soto trade, the Dodgers had a 12-game lead on San Diego in the division.
But that was before a trade deadline in which San Diego GM A.J. Preller seemingly tried to make up that entire gap in one day.
Now, 12 games is too big a deficit to close down in two months, no matter what moves the Padres made this week. But should these two teams meet in the playoffs, they’re now much more evenly matched. And given Soto’s unparalleled on-base ability and Tatis’s unique skill set, the Padres may even be considered the favorite.
It’s far from a foregone conclusion that these two teams will meet in October; the Dodgers are all but locked into one of the NL’s two first-round byes, with whoever wins the NL East (probably the Mets, maybe the Braves) set to take the other. (The Dads are in the no. 5 seed, about halfway between the Braves and Phillies.) And it’s not like the Padres are the only team that can challenge the Dodgers or put on a show in the postseason. About two-thirds of what I’m about to write about these two teams applies to the Mets-Braves rivalry as well, and Atlanta has given as good as it’s gotten against L.A. in the past two NLCS.
But great sporting narratives require great rivalries, familiarity, and contrasting styles. The fact that two teams this turgid and swollen with talent play 19 times a year is fun enough, but now they’ve settled into the perfect dynamic to create a definitive rivalry.
“Styles make fights” is a cliché as old as it is true, and from a strict tactical perspective, there’s not much difference between the Padres and Dodgers. Both teams invest heavily in starting pitching and lean on their scouting and development teams to build lineups where all nine positions can get on base and hit for power. The Padres tend to overbuild their bullpen more than the Dodgers do, but that’s a nitpick.
Where they differ is in team identity. The Dodgers, with their 138-year history, classic stadium, crisp white uniforms, seven titles, and 25 pennants, are the establishment. That doesn’t mean they’re stodgy or prone to redassery, but they are the old money in this rivalry. Particularly because they’re in opposition to a franchise with almost no history or identity to speak of. Like, the Padres have Tony Gwynn, Trevor Hoffman, brown uniforms (brown!) and Pitch. (Bring back Pitch!)
The Dodgers’ star players—Mookie Betts, Clayton Kershaw, Freddie Freeman—are affable but fairly straitlaced. And while individual Dodgers are weird, it’s in harmless ways like Cody Bellinger’s space cadet face or Tony Gonsolin’s love of cats.
The Padres, however, have a little edge. Machado is prone to fits of redassery. Tatis’s bat flips set off a nationwide controversy. They have long hair and unbuttoned uniform tops; catcher Jorge Alfaro is gradually turning into an Australian surf-rock guitarist.
Jorge Alfaro is a VIBE. pic.twitter.com/hHyh4WPTDB— San Diego Padres (@Padres) April 11, 2022
The Dodgers play like the best team in the National League, because that’s what they’ve been as far back as anyone can remember. The Padres play like they’re trying to prove to everyone—including themselves—that they belong in that conversation. And hell, if you can’t beat ‘em, trade for the zoomer Ted Williams, right?
It’s important to remember that great rivalries don’t have to be a morality play, or good versus evil. In sports, it’s enough to have the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones, lawful versus chaotic, Dean versus Jess. When the fans of 29 other teams band together to root against the Yankees or Astros, that’s frankly not as interesting as watching neutrals split down the middle based on gut feeling and aesthetics.
So as one of those neutrals, I’m glad to see Soto level the balance of power between these teams and end up with a club that’s not afraid to be a little abrasive.
Make no mistake, Soto understands that he’s an entertainer. But he’s an upbeat, positive, almost Trout-like entertainer: competitive, but friendly above all. So what happens if a little bit of Machado rubs off on him? What happens if the shuffle and the stare become something he does at opponents, a menacing ritual instead of a routine? I’m getting goosebumps.
We won’t have to wait long to see the shape of the next chapter of the Dodgers-Padres rivalry; the two teams meet in Los Angeles this weekend and play each other 12 times in the final two months of the regular season. Presumably, we’re in line for plenty of home runs, hard slides, arguments, and demonstrative celebrations. Maybe we’ll even see the first true shift in the balance of power since the mid-2000s.
Until this winter, when the Dodgers will inevitably trade for Shohei Ohtani and shift it right back.