SAN DIEGO — Juan Soto sat in a rolling chair with a San Diego Padres logo on it and held up his leg, high enough that Fernando Tatis Jr. could see his red-and-white cleats from his chair a few lockers away.
“I never thought they would do it. I was thinking they would try to keep me and try to rebuild the team with me in it. It caught me by surprise,” Soto said in the Padres’ clubhouse as he laced up the other cleat. The New York Mets were beating up on the Nationals on a television hanging a few yards away. “Deep in my heart, I was thinking they wouldn’t do it.”
That Soto found himself there, joking with friend and fellow young superstar Tatis, introducing himself to infielder Ha-Seong Kim with a “good to meet you” and talking Max Scherzer’s repertoire with catcher Austin Nola, is a transformative development for the team he left and the team he joined. It may prove transformative for Soto and Josh Bell, too.
Not 24 hours after they boarded a San Diego-bound private plane paid for by the Padres, Soto and Bell found themselves sandwiching superstar Manny Machado in a contending team’s lineup under the California sun.
“Go from a team that has no chance to come all the way here, it’s a great feeling,” Soto said. “It’s a new start for me. This year, it’s just a new start, a new feeling to go out there and give more that I have.”
Before either could worry about going out there at all, both were shuttled through Petco Park for social media shoots and introductory interviews, sitting alongside General Manager A.J. Preller and owner Peter Seidler.
Preller introduced Soto with a story about the time a Padres assistant general manager learned the young star was hitting in Point Loma, not far away. He had flown there after his successful rookie season to work with a hitting coach, “working on his craft,” Preller said. Preller remembered the team’s pursuit of Soto when he was a teenager in the Dominican Republic — a pursuit that ended, he joked, with Preller rating someone else ahead of him. But Preller pointed to that January hitting session as a moment when he decided his team would do its best to get him if it could.
The GM also joked that Bell — the slugging switch hitter with an .877 on-base-plus-slugging percentage entering Wednesday — was “not bad for a throw-in” before clarifying that Bell was far more than that. From then on, Soto’s smile stole the afternoon. He flashed it when asked about the Padres’ lineup, which is still waiting for Tatis to come back from injury and still waiting for Machado to get hot again.
“I wish good luck to the other pitchers,” Soto said with a chuckle.
He flashed it again when he explained that pitcher Nick Martinez, who wore No. 22 with the Padres until a few hours ago, asked him for a fishing boat in exchange for the number.
“He really surprised me. I had never seen something like that. I’d seen a couple guys trying to get numbers and what they had given away. But when he asked me for a boat, I was really shocked and surprised,” Soto said. “I thought that was kind of too much, but I tried to explain to him I will try to get him a really 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 could extend much further than a few more smiles. His new manager, Bob Melvin, said he isn’t positive what order he will hit Soto, Machado and Bell — but he did expect Soto and Bell to feel a difference immediately, not simply because of the bats around them but also because of the energy of Petco Park.
“I am going to keep taking my walks. I won’t try to be a superhero,” Soto said. “But definitely it’s going to be more exciting. It’s going to be more opportunities to bring guys home. I’ll have more chances to win games.”
A person close to Soto said he was growing demoralized at times with the Nationals, worried that a frustrating first half (he was hitting .246 at the time of the trade — nearly 50 points shy of his career average) would only get more frustrating if Washington traded away everyone else but kept him. After the trade, he expressed his excitement about the chance to play “real baseball” again, that person said.
Soto’s swagger never exactly wavered. But here, with talent and energy around him again, it just might soar.
“We talked about it when I was talking to these guys: They’re going to feel the excitement in this ballpark,” Melvin said. “It’s always exciting, but it’s probably going to be taken to another level today. We’ll all feel that.”
Soto has never played for a major league manager not named Dave Martinez, and he will notice that, too. He admitted that saying goodbye to Martinez just before he left Nationals Park on Tuesday was one of the hardest parts of a long day that began with him waking up to a call from agent Scott Boras telling him a trade was likely to happen this time. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo called him, too, telling him nothing was official but something was in the works. He said he was still surprised when it happened, even though Boras had explained to him the rationale for a deal, even though he had come to understand over the past few months that no one is immune to the business of baseball.
“I have no hard feelings to those guys. I still feel good about what they did for me. That’s the first team, my first team, the team that make me a professional player,” Soto said. “They gave me the chance to come to the big leagues. They made me a big leaguer. I’m always going to be thankful for that. No hard feelings for all this.”
Soto hopes some brown-and-gold cleats will arrive soon. In the meantime, he pounded around the clubhouse in those red-and-white ones, shaking hands with new teammates. At one point he paused and look to his right, noticing Bell’s new locker across the clubhouse.
“JB!” he said as he walked by, taking a slightly more circuitous route back to his own locker than he probably will a week from now.
When he ran onto the Petco Park field for the first time, he pointed to the fans in the stands as he used to at Nationals Park. He looked a little hesitant. So did they. But four pitches into his Padres career, he was safely on first base. Five batters into his Padres career, he had scored a run. After all, for Soto, home is a major league batter’s box, whatever color his cleats are as they shuffle through the dirt.