Updated: Aug 4
Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels from District of Columbia, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
In one of the biggest moves in all of recorded baseball history - a move that may someday match the epic sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920 - the San Diego Padres acquired Washington Nationals 23-year-old right fielder Juan Soto. It was a trade that involved numerous high-level prospects, a couple current MLB-players, and some big ole cajones. A lot of superlatives get thrown around when discussing Soto. You hear terms like “generational talent” and “Hall of Fame track.” You hear comparisons to legends like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. The thing is, Soto deserves those accolades.
The third-youngest player ever to bat in the clean-up spot in a World Series, behind only Miguel Cabrera in 2003 and Ty Cobb in 1907, Soto is everything you’d want in a franchise ballplayer, and so much more. He won a world series at age 20. The next season, at age 21, he led the National League in batting average (BA), on-base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG). The following year, at age 22, he would lead the majors in walks, intentional walks, and OBP. And this year, at age 23, Soto again leads the majors in walks and sports a nifty .408 OBP - and this is a down year for him!
All of this is to say, Soto is legit. He really is a generational talent. He really is on a Hall of Fame track. You really can compare him to Williams, Mantle and Aaron.
That's why it was so impressive that, of all teams, the San Diego Padres, who operate in the 27th largest media market in the United States according to SportsMediaWatch.com, were the ones to pull off this deal. This is like when the Reds traded for Ken Griffey Jr. in 2000, only if Griffey were 23-years-old instead of 30 and entering his prime instead of a decline.
Seems almost impossible - but it isn’t. If the Padres could pull this off, why couldn’t the Reds? Why can’t the Reds be the 2024-version of the 2022-Padres?
It might be unlikely, but again, it’s not impossible. The Padres had to include three of their top prospects, two youngsters already on the roster and another valuable veteran to secure Soto’s services. But the “how” of this trade isn’t as interesting as the “why.”
Like the Reds, the Padres haven’t had much success over the years. Since 2010, the Padres have had one winning season: the COVID-shortened 2020 season where they were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. This year, they’ve blazed to a 60 - 46 start, this despite the loss of the injured Fernando Tatis Jr., their 23-year-old superstar and 2021 NL home run champ, who has missed all of the 2022 season while recovering from wrist surgery. Once he returns, which could be as early as a week or two from today, he’ll join a Padres lineup that will feature Soto and MVP-candidate Manny Machado to form one of the most fearsome, and youthful, batting orders in baseball.
For the Padres, the future is now. The time for player development is over. It’s winning time, baby, and there’s no stopping this train.
So, how could the Reds become the 2024-version of the Padres? Well, for starters, they need to start drafting and developing like the Padres.
Soto didn’t come cheap. The Nationals aren’t foolish enough to give away a precocious talent like Soto, who still has three years of team control remaining, for nothing. Included in the massive price the Padres paid for Soto’s services were highly regarded talents like MacKenzie Gore, C.J. Abrams, Robert Hassell III and James Wood.
Gore, in particular, reached the majors this year, and while he’s been up-and-down through 13 starts, he’s been one of the most anticipated pitching prospects in years. The 23-year-old lefthander was the Padres #3 pick in the 2017 MLB Draft and was named by MLB Pipeline to be the best pitching prospect in all the minor leagues in 2020. To get a player like Soto, you have to start with someone like Gore.
But, of course, that’s not all it took. The Padres also had to include Abrams (drafted #6 overall in 2019 by the Padres), Hassell (drafted #8 overall in 2020 by the Padres), Wood (drafted #62 overall in 2021 by the Padres), Luke Voit (former AL home run champ in 2020) and Jarlin Susana (a raw, but talented righthander who stands an imposing 6-6, 235 lbs. at 18-years-old). That’s a lot of capital, but that’s what it takes to go for a once-in-a-lifetime sort of player.
As a small market team like the Padres, the Reds should be following a similar model: draft and develop. This is important for two reasons - one, it keeps salaries low and ensures a continual talent-pipeline, and two, it allows you to make a deal like the one the Padres just made with the Nationals. That’s the only way to compete with teams like the Yankees and the Dodgers while having a payroll just a fraction of theirs.
In a flurry of moves before the trade deadline, the Reds shipped off starting pitchers Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle, outfielders Tommy Pham and Tyler Naquin, and infielder Brandon Drury to contenders. In return, the Reds got a boatload of prospects to add to an already deep farm system. This is a good thing!
As much as it hurts to see a fan-favorite like Castillo leave town, the fact is these players weren’t contributing to a winning team. The Reds stink right now. Okay, they’ve been decent since their abysmal 3 - 22 start, but they started that way for a reason. Just because they're playing average ball in August doesn’t absolve them of their sins in April.
Now armed with a treasure chest of prospects, the Reds are now facing the most critical juncture - they have to develop these players. That’s been the big bugaboo for the Reds over the last 20 years or so. They just haven’t done a consistent job of developing their top prospects. And given how often they're selecting at the top of the draft every year, the front office really doesn’t have an excuse.
That’s where the Padres have separated themselves. They’ve done such a good job of drafting and developing over the years that they felt comfortable parting with an elite pitching prospect and their two top position-player prospects. They’re confident that reinforcements are on the way. Can the Reds’ front office be that confident someday?
The answer, hopefully, is yes, especially after all the work they’ve done over the past week or so. Maybe one of the players they acquired in the Castillo trade will turn into a Tatis-level player. The Padres did just that in 2016 when they traded aging veteran pitcher James Shields to the Chicago White Sox for the 17-year-old Tatis. Shields was out of the MLB by 2019, and Tatis…well, Tatis is coming off a season where he led the NL in home runs with 42, so you tell me how that worked out.
Is it likely that a player of Soto’s caliber becomes available to the Reds in the next few years? Probably not. Players like Soto don’t become available through trade often, if at all. But with that said, the Reds don’t have to acquire a player like Soto to become the 2024-version of the 2022-Padres. They just need to continue to develop their own players like Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft, Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson. They need to continue to unload declining veterans for useful prospects. They need to develop those prospects into viable major-leaguers. And, when the opportunity presents itself, they need to have the confidence to take a swing on a talented player at the trade deadline, using their wealth of prospects to facilitate the deal.
You may have to squint to see it, but there’s a lot of potential in this Reds team. They have seriously good pitching talent. They have some young position players who are already establishing themselves as everyday guys. They have a farm system that’s getting deeper and deeper.
The Padres haven’t been a consistent winner in a long time, but that didn’t stop them from acting like the biggest bullies on the block when they pushed their way to the front of the Soto-sweepstakes. They aren’t a big market team, but they’re still acting like one. In a lot of ways, having a deep farm system can be just as valuable as having an extra $100 million to play around with in free agency. The Padres are showing the MLB how to play big as a small-market team - now it’s up to the Reds to copy that strategy.