SAN DIEGO — The sudden end of a season that went unexpectedly deep left the San Diego Padres with questions to answer and holes to fill, as well as a hunger to play further into October next year.
They will also begin pondering a long-term deal for 24-year-old superstar Juan Soto, their marquee trade-deadline acquisition who was heating up just as the Padres were eliminated in the NL Championship Series by Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies, three wins shy of the World Series.
“All of us were hoping we’d be playing Game 7 here tonight,” general manager A.J. Preller said during a wrap-up news conference at Petco Park.
Star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. is eligible to return from an 80-game PED suspension on April 20 and Soto is under team control for two more years. So the Padres can look forward to having Tatis, Soto and Manny Machado – who had an MVP-caliber season – in the heart of the order by early 2023.
Preller said the Padres don’t view Soto and All-Star closer Josh Hader, obtained a day before the Aug. 2 trade deadline, as rental pieces.
“They’re guys that, you know, in Juan’s case should be here for many years to come,” Preller said.
Soto turned down a 15-year, $440 million deal with Washington that precipitated his trade. He hasn’t commented on a possible long-term deal with the Padres but has said he likes how talented the team is and that he felt welcome in San Diego.
Padres owner Peter Seidler doled out a 10-year, $300 million contract to Machado in 2019 and a 14-year, $340 million deal to Tatis in 2021.
“I think we’ll have that conversation,” Preller said. “All this is pretty fresh. From Juan’s standpoint, he’s getting to know the city and getting to know the organization. When we made the deal, we made it knowing that we got him for three pennant races. He’s an incredibly talented player, he’s an impact player, and we’ll have those conversations here. This offseason is kind of taking the temperature, seeing where his head is at going forward.”
The Padres reinvigorated their fan base by eliminating the 101-win New York Mets in the wild-card round and then dispatching the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers in four Division Series games, with the clincher sparking one of the wildest nights in San Diego sports history.
But they blew home-field advantage and managed only one win against the Phillies in their first NLCS appearance since 1998.
“This was a taste of what’s to come,” Preller said.
The Padres got Hader from Milwaukee on Aug. 1 and then the next day nabbed Soto and Josh Bell from Washington, and Brandon Drury from Cincinnati. Soto struggled offensively after being acquired but started heating up in the playoffs, including homering in each of the final two games of the NLCS.
Tatis was close to returning from left wrist surgery when he was suspended by MLB for 80 games on Aug. 12 after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He had surgery on his troublesome left shoulder in September and a follow-up operation on his wrist. The team expects him to be ready by spring training. The Padres have a good dilemma to sort out because Kim Ha-seong had a stellar season at shortstop.
Asked where Tatis would have the most impact, manager Bob Melvin said: “Everywhere. He’s that talented. So, we have to see what the composition of the roster looks like. I know when he was potentially coming back, before the last issue, he said, `I’ll do whatever I need to do for the team.’ He worked out in the outfield; he worked out at shortstop. We had a plan of using him in multiple spots and he was all in.”
Melvin defended his decision to have 31-year-old rookie Robert Suarez pitch to Harper in the eighth inning rather than the left-handed Hader. Harper hit a go-ahead, two-run homer and the Phillies won 4-3 to advance to the World Series. Melvin said he wanted to get through the seventh, eighth and ninth with two relievers. “Going into the eighth we had all the confidence in the world in Suarez. We had Hader up for four outs, trying to get two out of Robert. I thought that was our best option. We use Hader there, I’m not sure we get through the ninth with him and I’m not sure that was the better option than the ones we had with our two best pitchers. It just didn’t work out.”
The Padres lacked dependable fourth and fifth starters behind Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and hometown product Joe Musgrove, who signed a five-year, $100 million deal in July. Mike Clevinger and Sean Manaea are expected to leave as free agents. Nick Martinez became a reliable reliever and can opt out. The Padres could try to keep him and make him a starter. They could also put Adrian Morejon back in the rotation.
Melvin said the Padres expected to go further than the NLCS, which will make expectations for next season “much higher. . You look at the core guys we have coming back, this is going to be as good a group as anybody.”