Juan Soto debuts with the San Diego Padres


SAN DIEGO (AP) — Juan Soto sat in a rolling chair emblazoned with the San Diego Padres logo and raised his leg high enough that Fernando Tatis Jr. could see his red and white cleats from his chair a few lockers away. away.

“Look at these!” Soto said Wednesday, and Tatis chuckled at the red and white combo with Soto’s new brown socks. Brown and gold tacos are expected soon. But the first day of the rest of Juan Soto’s career would include a reminder of all those other days spent in Washington, a baseball world away.

“I never thought they would. I was thinking that they would try to keep me and try to rebuild the team with me. He caught me off guard,” Soto said in the Padres’ locker room as he laced up his other shoe. The New York Mets were beating the Nationals on a TV hanging a few feet away. “Deep in my heart, I was thinking they wouldn’t.”

That Soto found himself there, joking with his friend and fellow young superstar Tatis, introducing himself to infielder Ha-Seong Kim with a “nice to meet you” and discussing Max Scherzer’s stuff with catcher Austin Nola, is a transformative development for him. team left. and the team he joined. It can also be transformative for Soto and Josh Bell.

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Just 24 hours after boarding a private plane to San Diego paid for by the Padres, Soto and Bell found themselves sandwiched with superstar Manny Machado in the lineup of a contending team under the California sun.

“Going from a team that has no chance of getting here, it’s a great feeling,” Soto said. “It is a new beginning for me. This year, it’s just a new beginning, a new feeling of going out there and giving more than I have.”

Before either man could worry about leaving, they were whisked through Petco Park for social media photo shoots and introductory interviews, seated next to general manager AJ Preller and owner Peter Seidler.

Preller introduced Soto with a story about the moment a Padres assistant general manager learned the young star was hitting at Point Loma not far away. He had flown there after his successful rookie season to work with a hitting coach, “working his trade,” Preller said. Preller recalled the team’s pursuit of Soto when he was a teenager in the Dominican Republic, a chase that ended, he joked, with Preller qualifying someone else ahead of him. But Preller pointed to that January hitting session as a moment when he decided his team would do everything in its power to catch him if he could.

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The GM also joked that Bell, the switch hitter with an .877 on-base plus slugging percentage entering Wednesday, “wasn’t bad for a throw-in” before clarifying that Bell was much more than that. From then on, Soto’s smile stole the afternoon. He showed it when asked about the Padres’ lineup, that he’s still waiting for Tatis to come back from injury and still waiting for Machado to fire up again.

“I wish the other pitchers good luck,” Soto said with a smile.

He showed it again when he explained that pitcher Nick Martinez, who until a few hours ago wore number 22 with the Padres, asked him for a fishing boat in exchange for the number.

“It really surprised me. I had never seen anything like it. She had seen a couple of 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,” said Soto. “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 implications of Soto finding himself in this lineup after a calendar year of being the main focus of every opponent’s game plan could extend far beyond a few more smiles. His new manager, Bob Melvin, said he’s not sure what order he’ll hit Soto, Machado and Bell, but he hoped Soto and Bell would feel a difference right away, not only because of the bats around them, but also because of the energy. of Petco Park.

“I’m going to keep taking my walks. I will not try to be a superhero,” Soto said. “But it’s definitely going to be more exciting. There will be more opportunities to bring guys home. I will have more opportunities to win matches.”

A person close to Soto said he was becoming 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 below his career average) would only become more frustrating if Washington changed everyone else, but kept him. After the trade, he expressed his excitement at the opportunity to play “real baseball” again, that person said.

Soto’s arrogance never exactly wavered. But here, with talent and energy around him again, he could soar.

“We talked about that when I was talking to these guys: They’re going to feel the excitement in this ballpark,” Melvin said. “It’s always exciting, but today it will probably be taken to another level. We will all feel that.”

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Soto has never played for a major league manager other than Dave Martinez, and he’ll take notice, 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 when he woke up to a call from agent Scott Boras telling him a trade was likely this time. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo also called him and told him nothing was official, but something was in the works. He said he was still shocked when it happened, even though Boras had explained the rationale for a deal, even though he had come to understand in recent months that no one is immune from the business of baseball.

“I have no hard feelings towards those guys. I still feel good about what they did for me. That is the first team, my first team, the team that makes me a professional player,” Soto said. “They gave me the opportunity to come to the Major Leagues. They made me a major league player. I will always be grateful for that. No hard feelings about all of this.”

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Soto hopes that some brown and gold tacos will arrive soon. Meanwhile, he was walking around the clubhouse with those rojiblancos, shaking hands with his new teammates. At one point he stopped and looked to his right, noticing Bell’s new locker on the other side of the clubhouse.

“JB!” he said as he walked, taking a slightly more convoluted route back to his own locker than he probably will in a week.

When he ran onto the Petco Park field for the first time, he waved at the fans in the stands like he used to at Nationals Park. He seemed a bit hesitant. They too. But four pitches into his career with the Padres, he was safe at first base. With five batters in his career with the Padres, he had scored a run. After all, for Soto, home is the major league batting cage, no matter the color of his cleats as they crawl through the dirt.

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