“I never thought they’d do that. I was thinking they’d try to rebuild the team with me. It surprised me,” Soto said as he drew on the other cleat in the Padres’ clubhouse. The New York Mets were beating the Nationals On the television hanging a few feet away. “Deep down in my heart, I thought they wouldn’t do it.”
Soto found himself there, bantering with friend and fellow young superstar Tatis, introducing himself as “nice to meet you” to infielder Ha-Seong Kim, and talking up Max Scherzer’s talent with catcher Austin Nola, a transformative development for the team he left behind. And the team he joined. It will also be transformative for Soto and Josh Bell.
No 24 hours after they boarded a private plane to San Diego Paid by the Padres, Soto and Bell sandwiched superstar Manny Machado in a lineup that competed under the California sun.
“Going from a team that didn’t have a chance to get here, it’s a great feeling,” Soto said. “It’s a new beginning for me. This year, it’s a new beginning, it’s a new feeling to go out there and give what I have.
Before anyone could worry about going out, the two stopped by Petco Park for social media shoots and introductory interviews. General Manager A. J. Preller and owner Peter Seidler.
Preller introduced Soto with a story about the time the Padres assistant general manager learned of the young star’s hit in far-flung Point Loma. He flew there after his successful rookie season to work with a hitting coach, “working on his craft,” Preller said. Breller recalled the team’s pursuit of Soto when he was a teenager in the Dominican Republic — a pursuit that ended, he joked, with Breller valuing someone else over him. But Breller pointed to that January hitting session when he decided his team would do its best to get him if he could.
Bell — a slugging switch hitter entering Wednesday with an .877 on-base-plus-slugging percentage — previously joked the GM was “not bad for the opposition.” Bell clarified that it was more than that. From then on, Soto’s smile stole the afternoon. He flashed it when asked about the Padres’ lineup still waiting for Tattis to recover from injury and wait for Machado to get hot again.
“I wish the other pitchers the best of luck,” Soto said with a laugh.
He flashed it again when he explained that pitcher Nick Martinez, who wore No. 22 with the Padres until a few hours ago, asked for a fishing boat in exchange for the number.
“He really surprised me. I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve seen a couple of guys try to get numbers and they gave them away. But when he asked me for a boat, I was really shocked and surprised,” Soto said. “I thought that was too much, But I tried to explain to him that I would try to get him a nice watch and he accepted.”
The implications of Soto finding himself in this lineup after a calendar year of being the primary focus of every opponent’s game plan may extend beyond a few smiles. His new manager, Bob MelvinHe said he doesn’t favor which order he will hit against Soto, Machado and Bell — but he expects Soto and Bell to feel a difference right away, not just with the bats around them, but also the energy at Petco Park.
“I’m going to continue my walk. I’m not going to try to be a superhero,” Soto said. “But of course it’s going to be very exciting. There will be more opportunities to bring home mates. I get more chances to win games.
Someone close to Soto said he was frustrated at times with the Nationals, worried that a disappointing first half (he was hitting .246 at the time of the trade — nearly 50 points shy of his career average) would become even more frustrating. Washington traded everyone else but kept him. After the trade, he expressed his excitement about the prospect of playing “real baseball,” the person said.
Soto’s swagger didn’t exactly budge. But here, with talent and energy around him again, it might soar.
“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 it could be taken to another level today. We’ll all feel it.”
Soto has never played for a major league manager not named Dave Martinez, and he’ll notice that, too. He admitted that saying goodbye to Martinez was one of the hardest parts of a long day just before leaving Nationals Park on Tuesday, which was sparked by a call from agent Scott Boras that this time a trade was likely. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo called him as well, saying nothing was official but something was in the works. Despite understanding over the past few months that no one is immune to the business of baseball, Boras said he was still surprised when it happened, even though he explained to him the rationale for a deal.
“I don’t have any hard feelings toward those guys. I still feel good about what they did for me. That was the first team, my first team, the team that would make me a professional player,” Soto said. “They gave me a chance to get to the big leagues. They made me the big league. I will always be grateful for that. No hard feelings for all of this.
Soto hopes some brown and gold cleats will arrive soon. Meanwhile, he strutted around the clubhouse in that red and white, shaking hands with new teammates. At one point he paused and looked to his right, noticing Bell’s new locker across the clubhouse.
“JP!” As he walked, he returned to orbit a week later with little more than his own locker.
When he ran onto the field at Petco Park for the first time, he pointed to the fans in the stands as usual at Nationals Park. He looked a little hesitant. So are they. But four pitches into his Padres career, he was safely at first base. Five at-bats into his Padres career, he had scored one run. After all, for Soto, no matter what color his cleats blend with the dirt, home is a major league batter’s box.