“I never thought they would. I thought they would try to keep me and try to rebuild the team with me. It surprised me,” Soto said in the Padres clubhouse as he laced up another brace. The New York Mets defeated the Nationals. on a TV hanging a few yards away. “Deep down, I thought they wouldn’t.”
Soto’s presence there, joking with friend and fellow young superstar Tatis, introducing infielder Ha-Seong Kim as “very nice to meet you” and talking about Max Scherzer’s repertoire with catcher Austin Nola, is a game-changing event for the team he left behind. and the team he joined. It could prove transformative for Soto and Josh Bell, too.
No 24 hours after they boarded a private jet to San Diego paid by the Padres, Soto and Bell found themselves sandwiched between superstar Manny Machado in a contending lineup under the California sun.
“Coming out of a team that has no chance of getting here, it’s a great feeling,” Soto said. “This is a new beginning for me. This year it’s just a new beginning, a new feeling to go out and give more of what I have.
Before either was even worried about leaving, the two were whisked off to Petco Park for social media photos and introductory interviews, sitting next to each other. CEO AJ Preller and owner Peter Seidler.
Preller brought up Soto’s story of when the Padres’ assistant general manager learned the young star was hitting in nearby Point Loma. After a successful rookie season, he flew there to work with the hitting coach, “working on his craft,” Preler said. Preller recalled the team’s pursuit of Soto when he was a teenager in the Dominican Republic — a pursuit that ended, he joked, when Preller ranked someone else over him. But Preller pointed to that breakout session in January as the moment he decided his team would do anything to get him if they could.
The GM also joked that Bell — a slugging switch with an .877 fielding percentage as well Wednesday — used to be “not bad at pitching.” explaining that Bell was much more. From then on, Soto’s smile stole the afternoon. He flashed when asked about the Padres’ lineup, which is still waiting for Tatis to return from injury and still waiting for Machado to warm up again.
“I wish the other pitchers the best of luck,” Soto said with a laugh.
He blinked again when he explained that pitcher Nick Martinez, who only hours earlier wore No. 22 with the Padres, had asked for his fishing boat in exchange for the number.
“He really surprised me. I had never seen anything like it. I saw a couple of guys trying to get numbers and what they gave away. But when he asked me for the boat, I was really shocked and surprised,” Soto said. “I thought it was too much, but I tried to explain to him that I would try to get him a really nice watch and he agreed.
The impact of Soto being in this lineup after a calendar year of being the focal point of every opponent’s game plan could go far beyond a few more smiles. His new manager, Bob Melvinsaid he wasn’t sure in what order he would hit Soto, Machado and Bell, but he expected Soto and Bell to immediately feel the difference, not just because of the at-bats around them, but because of the energy at Petco Park.
“I’m going to keep walking. I’m not going to try to be a superhero,” Soto said. “But it will definitely be more interesting. There will be more opportunities to bring the boys home. I will have more chances to win the match.
A person close to Soto said he sometimes gets demoralized about the Nationals and worries that a struggling first half (he was hitting .246 at the time of the trade, nearly 50 points shy of his career average) will only become more frustrating if Washington trades everyone else, but kept him. After the trade, he expressed excitement about playing “real baseball” again, the person said.
Soto’s swagger never exactly wavered. But here, with talent and energy surrounding him, it might just take off.
“That’s what we talked about when I talked to these guys: They’re going to feel the excitement in this ballpark,” Melvin said. “It’s always exciting, but today will probably take it to the next level.” We will all feel it.”
Soto has never played for a major league manager named Dave Martinez, and he’ll notice as well. He admitted saying goodbye to Martinez just before he left Nationals Park on Tuesday was one of the hardest parts of a long day that began when he woke up to a call from agent Scott Boras saying a trade was likely this time around. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo also called him and said nothing was official, but something was in the works. He said he was still surprised when it happened, even though Bohr explained to him the basis of the deal, though he has learned over the past few months that no one is immune in the business of baseball.
“I don’t have any hard feelings for those guys. I still feel good about what they did for me. This is the first team, my first team, the team that makes me a professional player,” Soto said. “They gave me a chance to go to the big leagues. They made me a great matchmaker. I will always be grateful for that. No hard feelings about it all.
Soto expects brown and gold bandages to follow soon. Meanwhile, he strutted around the clubhouse in those red and whites, shaking hands with his new teammates. At one point, he paused and looked to his right, noticing Bell’s new locker in the clubhouse.
“JB!” he said as he walked past, returning to his locker by a slightly more complicated route than he would probably return in a week.
When he first ran onto the field at Petco Park, he pointed to the fans in the stands just like he did at Nationals Park. He looked a little hesitant. So they did. But he was safely at first base for four pitches in his Padres career. He had five hits in his Padres career. After all, Soto’s home is a major league batter’s box, no matter what color his bandages are as they shuffle through the dirt.