SAN DIEGO — It took one brief, first-inning at-bat for two of baseball’s most luminous young talents to demonstrate their collective potential to wreak havoc.
Fernando Tatis Jr., running on the first pitch to Juan Soto, beat a throw to second base for an apparent stolen base that was later ruled a balk by San Francisco Giants right-hander Alex Cobb. Soto, swinging at the very next (and first official) pitch he saw, deposited an elevated splitter in the left-field seats. Then, after Soto completed his third home run trot in three games, he and Tatis collaborated on a home run celebration they debuted early this season.
“It’s a new dance that people have been doing in the streets in the (Dominican Republic),” Soto said after the San Diego Padres’ 4-0 win Sunday at Petco Park. “They move their arms and their whole body, and we’re just rocking with it. … The song style’s Dembow. Anything Dembow, there’s gonna be a dance close to that.”
Soto and Tatis are both 24 years old, both Dominican and both among the most recognizable stars in the major leagues. Soto surfaced with the Washington Nationals as a teenager, won a World Series the next year and drew early, frequent comparisons to Ted Williams. Tatis debuted with San Diego on Opening Day 2019, became the fastest player in major-league history to tally 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases and, like Soto, placed top five in National League MVP voting in 2020 and 2021.
“I love playing next to Juan,” Tatis said recently. “He’s a generational talent. What he brings every single day is just winning baseball.”
“I mean, you can see if you put both of us (together) in 2021, it would have been really wild,” Soto said last week. “I think we have a lot more in our tank. We just have to figure it out together.”
Whether they will get much more of such an opportunity remains to be seen.
Sunday’s victory gave the Padres three in a row, this coming after they submitted their most listless performance of the year in the series opener against San Francisco. It also gave them a 65-73 record. To pull off an all-time rally, the Padres probably do not have to win every one of their 24 remaining games.
They would just have to win almost every one.
“Until we’re out, we’re out, and we’re waiting for that miracle,” Manny Machado said.
In the meantime, the Padres are guaranteed to face the kind of difficult questions that come with investing in a $250 million roster now seen as an abject disappointment. Here is one of the most critical: Should the Padres move Soto this offseason, less than two years after he arrived in San Diego in perhaps the biggest trade-deadline deal ever?
The past three games showed why the Padres maybe shouldn’t. Soto homered in all three, just as he did in each of his first three games in August. It has been a subpar year by his lofty standards, yet he still leads the team with 28 home runs and an .893 on-base plus slugging percentage. The weekend showed how Soto can work in potent concert with his fellow star teammates.
Manny at the plate, Blake on the mic… 🧑🍳🤌💋 pic.twitter.com/ViSscJEDdF
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) September 3, 2023
Across a series win against the contending Giants, Xander Bogaerts, Machado and Tatis also homered.
Soto, however, is the only member of the quartet without a long-term contract. Now, he and the Padres are late into a season that has fully illustrated the risks in building a top-heavy roster that includes several megadeals.
“Hopefully he can stay here a very long time,” Tatis said, “but I feel like that’s a front office (decision).”
The Padres may be compelled to decide relatively soon. Soto is approaching both his 25th birthday and his final year before free agency. San Diego, next year, might have to replace Cy Young favorite Blake Snell and star closer Josh Hader, among other key contributors. Given this year’s failures, the projected holes in next year’s roster look more daunting than before.
Should the Padres pay Soto roughly $30 million in 2024 when that money might be better used toward acquiring multiple starting pitchers, much-needed bullpen help and more lineup depth? (Maybe.) Despite relatively underwhelming play over the last year — even at 24, Soto appears to be trending toward more of a fit at designated hitter — would the outfielder and agent Scott Boras even consider taking less than the 15-year, $440 million offer from the Nationals they turned down in 2022? (Probably not.) If Soto won’t agree to a reasonable extension anytime soon, why not explore salvaging some value in the wake of a lost season for the entire franchise?
Some recent reports claim the Padres have made efforts to extend Soto, but there still have not been any indications of a serious attempt. People throughout the industry are in near-universal agreement: Boras, who has typically steered clients toward free agency, will not take any kind of discount to forgo the open market.
Even as people inside the Padres organization have downplayed rumors of clubhouse strife, the past several months have provided enough content to at least suggest that the team’s so-called Big Four hitters do not mesh as well as hoped on the field. If the season ended today, Machado’s .762 OPS would be his lowest since 2014. Bogaerts’ .743 OPS would be his lowest since 2014, too. Tatis, in his return from a PED suspension and multiple significant surgeries, has a .784 OPS.
Bogey brings him in 👏 pic.twitter.com/WFpZ9PnFy3
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) September 3, 2023
If the Padres move Soto this winter, of course, they would not get nearly as much back as the bounty of talent they surrendered to land him last summer. Yet, after their run to the 2022 National League Championship Series, they have squandered one of their three precious shots at a title with Soto under club control. If the Padres wait longer before eventually moving him ahead of his free agency, the expected return would only diminish.
Sunday provided at least a little reason to continue waiting. Tatis went 0-for-4 but helped manufacture the game’s first runs with his legs. Bogaerts continued a shaky stretch at shortstop by bobbling a couple of baseballs, but he made up for it by going 4-for-4 with an RBI double. Soto, with one opposite-field swing, displayed the kind of game-changing power that convinced the Padres to mortgage much of their future.
“When he’s driving the ball to left-center field, left field, that’s when he seems to be locked in,” manager Bob Melvin said.
Batting behind Soto, Machado went 3-for-4 while making his third consecutive start at DH. As he nurses a muscle strain in his throwing elbow, the third baseman and perennial Gold Glove candidate expects to spend the rest of the season exclusively as a hitter.
“I think at this point it’s about trying to stay healthy and trying to be out there on the field every single day,” Machado said. “It just depends. Probably DH, though.”
It is a reflection of where the Padres find themselves: too invested to give up on the season, too far behind in the standings to take greater risks. A long, troubling year has taken its toll — including on Machado, 31, and Bogaerts, 30 — even as the franchise’s future has dimmed.
Meanwhile, the Padres have little choice but to believe Tatis will continue to shed any lingering rust in 2024. Locking up another 24-year-old — and a potentially generational hitter at that — could go a long way toward further brightening the outlook.
If such hope does not exist, the Padres could soon face a pivotal decision. Until then, they will have at least a few more weeks to gather information.
“We just try to finish the season strong and see what happens at the end of the day,” Soto said. “That’s our mindset right now. I think it’s a little late, but we still have (24) games to go. We’re gonna play as hard as we can and see how far we can end up.”
(Photo: Denis Poroy / Getty Images)