As the New York Yankees wake up Thursday to the thrill of Juan Soto, they should absolutely be in this moment. It’s a glorious day when the industry’s biggest powerhouse adds a generational hitter to team with the game’s best offensive force in Aaron Judge.
Yet it’s also instructive to consider the dominant emotion Soto’s old team, the San Diego Padres, are exuding across the country.
Oh, make no mistake, dealing Soto – and the Padres had little choice, given his massive arbitration salary, his pending free agent status and a debt conundrum the club must escape – is a total drag.
Soto had an MVP-worthy season in 2023, hitting 35 home runs, finishing fifth in the National League in OPS, second in on-base percentage (he’s always in the top three) and first in the majors in walks. He won a fourth consecutive Silver Slugger award – yet finished sixth in NL MVP voting.
That’s because the Padres were the epitome of average, and, given the expectations, incredibly aggravating. You could hear it in manager Bob Melvin’s tone early in the season, although his rift with GM A.J. Preller would more publicly emerge as the two headed for their own divorce after the season.
But no, the greater frustration was with this All-Star cavalcade of talent – Soto to $350 million man Manny Machado to $280 million shortstop Xander Bogaerts to $340 million right fielder Fernando Tatis Jr. – never found any traction.
And that was with a Cy Young Award winner, Blake Snell, fronting the rotation.
Short of watching every inning of all 162 games, it’s foolish to assign specific blame to an aggravating 82-80 season. Surely there might have been times Soto lost sight of a bigger picture for individual gain, but that could be said of any player, in any year and besides, by year’s end, his numbers spoke loudly.
Yet somehow, the formula was off.
“Ultimately we decided to go add five players that are going to potentially play on our roster this year versus one very elite player, and also Trent Grisham, who’s a really good center fielder as well,” Preller told reporters late Wednesday night. “We’ll see how it goes.
“But I think adding those players right now and then being in a spot to do some more things to round out a club, that’s ultimately the route we went with.”
Are the Padres better this morning than they were with Soto? Probably not. But with the Padres’ debt-ratio obligations looming, Preller sounded like a pardoned man in moving $40 million or so off the books, now free to augment that roster.
Check back in January, and the Padres may very well look like a dark horse championship contender, with the prize of the Yankee deal, Michael King, playing a central role.
Ah yes, the Yankees. They sent four pitchers and catcher Kyle Higashioka to San Diego, with King the current prize and top prospect Drew Thorpe the long-term asset. King was their best pitcher in 2022, a crucial bullpen stuntman who fractured his elbow at midseason, a key blow for that 99-win team.
Last year, as he built back his strength, he ramped up to a starting role and by September, was striking out 13 Toronto Blue Jays over seven innings. He will fit very nicely on the Padres’ pitching staff, no matter how they deploy him.
King’s loss will certainly be softened if the Yankees reel in Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto, whose winning bid may land much closer to $300 million than $200 million. With Judge and AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole still performing at career peaks, the time is now to go big.
And that’s fantastic. Yankees fans will appreciate it, and YES Network ratings will reflect it. The Padres can tell you that all-in is awesome – acquiring Soto in August 2022 produced an unforgettable season, from the slaying of the Dodgers in the NLDS to a stirring NLCS that ultimately ended in the rain in Philadelphia.
We’ve all heard more than a few times that That’s Not Good Enough In New York. Yet even as the Yankee desperation to end a 15-year title drought increases, it does nothing to change the rules of engagement in October.
The playoff field is now 12 teams deep. Even a 100-game winner has little advantage, facing a team that survived a wild-card series crucible and is playing particularly well in that moment. Winning 11 to 13 games before you lose two of three or three of five or four of seven is extremely challenging.
Sometimes, a team like the 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks find themselves clutching that winning lottery ticket, a trip to the World Series and a title shot you simply cannot script. Fifteen teams have won pennants since the Yankees got that close; only a handful might have been projected to get that far.
As time goes on, we probably don’t laud the Yankees of the late 1990s enough. Their four titles in six years – and three in a row – now look utterly aberrational as we’re going on three decades with no repeat winners since.
Wednesday, the Yankees threw Soto at the problem. A Yamamoto signing would give them a half-dozen players making at least $27 million. It is not quite a superteam, but that is the approach they are taking. To which the Padres say, good luck. They will try a different approach, and they don’t seem too broken up about it.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Juan Soto trade: Yankees' big move no guarantee for MLB World Series