December 1, 2023

The franchise started in 1969, another expansion team with funny uniforms that lost 110 games. Five decades passed, with a few Hall of Famers but no championships. Then, after years of aggressive spending and front office trades, Juan Soto led the team all the way.

This scenario played out for the Washington Nationals in 2019 when they finally won the World Series. The San Diego Padres are hoping for a sequel of their own.

The Padres — expansion cousins ​​of the Montreal Expos, who eventually moved to Washington — were never particularly close to a title. Their last scheduled World Series game was on October 25, 1998, Game 7 against the Yankees in the Bronx. They were swept, and the game was never played. This is the day Soto was born in the Dominican Republic.

Now Soto is a Padre, in the next phase of a career off to an almost unparalleled start. With his age-23 season still underway, here are some of the 10 most similar players in history to Soto through age 22, according to Baseball reference: Hank Aaron, Miguel Cabrera, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Mike Trout.

Soto is so good. That’s why he could confidently turn down a $440 million contract offer from the Nationals last month. That’s why he commanded an extravagant package of players from the Padres in a deal that shook the sport at Tuesday’s trade deadline.

Washington sent Soto and Josh Bell — a switch-hitting force at first base — to San Diego for first baseman Luke Voight and five young players: C.J. Abrams, McKenzie Gore, Robert Hassell III, Jarlin Susanna and James Wood. All five were highly regarded amateurs who had thus far delivered on their promise. None have yet played a full season in the majors.

The move leaves the Nationals with next to nothing from their championship team, just discouraging reminders of bad investments and false potential. Stephen Strasburg makes $35 million, but can’t avoid injury. Patrick Corbin, who makes $23.3 million, is 15-38 since the World Series. Outfielder Victor Robles, once a top-five prospect in the sport, is a bust.

The team wasn’t ready to win before Soto’s free agency after the 2024 season. By trading Soto now — with three potential postseason runs for the acquiring team — the Nationals got excellent value in return. Building around Soto might have been the best option, but that was a risky bet with the team for sale and agent Scott Boras’ history of earning top dollars in free agency.

The Nationals have eagerly pursued Bora’s best customers. General manager Mike Rizzo, with the support of the Lerner family, built five playoff teams in eight seasons through 2019, mostly through members of Team Boras like Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer, Soto, Strasburg and Jayson Werth.

But when you play at the high stakes table, you can lose the same way you won. And now the Nationals are losing more than any other team.

The Padres appear to be in a big slump as well — finally. They cannot maintain their level of spending, both in dollars and in projected capital, forever. But their general manager, AJ Preller, spent years preparing for life as a prospect and is now living the fantasy.

Few of his peers amass high-profile prospects like Preller, and few are as willing to part with them. In recent seasons, Preller has traded a full rotation of established starters in first: Mike Clevinger, Yu Darvish, Sean Manaea, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell.

In 2019, he convinced ownership to make third baseman Manny Machado the first $300 million player in baseball history and then gave even more money to shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. before last season: $340 million over 14 years; Tatis was just 17 years old when Preller stole him from the Chicago White Sox in a trade for James Shields in 2016.

The deal for Soto and Bell wasn’t even the only headline for the Padres at the deadline: Josh Hader, a four-time All-Star closer, reached a deal with Milwaukee on Monday and the versatile Brandon Drury (.274 with 20 home runs) joined Tuesday in a deal with Cincinnati.

The team also parted ways with first baseman Eric Hosmer, who was originally part of the Soto trade but after invoking his limited no-trade clause was sent to the Boston Red Sox.

All of this has been a long time coming for the Padres — a long, long time. They endured nine straight losses before making the playoffs in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the only season since 1998 with a playoff round win.

Last year started with promise, but ended with a bang: 18 games over .500 on Aug. 10, the Padres were four games under to finish the season. They fired manager Jayce Tingler and signed Bob Melvin – a three-time Manager of the Year winner – from Oakland.

Tatis has not played this season after breaking his wrist in an offseason motorcycle accident, but he should soon begin a rehabilitation mission. Melvin already has the Padres in playoff position at 58-46 through Monday — and he still hasn’t written Bell, Soto or Tatis into the lineup. That’s a big plus for bolstering a league-average offense, and the Padres already have a top-10 pitching staff.

Many other teams can dream of a deep postseason run — the Dodgers, Yankees, Astros, Mets and Braves all entered Tuesday’s trade deadline at .600 or better. They are the elite of the bigs, and the Padres aspire to join them.

Those five franchises, of course, have something else the Padres lack: a World Series championship. Soto left the Nationals before his 24th birthday, and there’s something sad about that. But now he has the chance to lift a second team to its first parade, and that pursuit will be enticing.

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