While Padres near managerial hire, a Juan Soto offseason saga might just be starting

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Some 48 hours after Craig Counsell’s defection within the National League Central jolted the entire sport, the San Diego Padres remained in a state of relative inertia. That did not stop a crowd of reporters from forming around Padres president of baseball operations A.J. Preller on Wednesday at the Omni Resort and Spa at Montelucia.

Preller was closing in on making his fourth full-time managerial hire. He offered no indication he was anywhere near a resolution on the future of Juan Soto, perhaps the most-coveted hitter in baseball not named Shohei Ohtani. While one front-facing role will soon be filled, what could become the saga of the winter is just beginning.

“The first order of business as we get into the offseason, we’re looking at the pitching front,” Preller said. “You know, we’ll have conversation with (agent Scott Boras) and his group and continuous conversations on where Juan’s at long-term, then evaluate kind of where it leaves us for the rest of this offseason into next year.”

This offseason could include more conversation than ever, even for an executive as tireless as Preller. There is so much to sift through for an ambitious franchise coming off its most disappointing season since inception. The health of owner Peter Seidler and documented plans to cut payroll have left the Padres in an uncertain position. The recent departures of four veteran rotation options have underscored the roster’s greatest need. The Padres cannot yet tell those pitchers or any other free agents who San Diego’s next manager will be, although Preller said Wednesday he anticipated having an answer within days.

Meanwhile, as Soto enters his final season before what is expected to be a high-profile free agency, the entire industry knows Preller would be loath to trade the star hitter for whom he surrendered so much only 15 months ago.

“(I) met with the Padres. They laid out their plan for next year, which obviously included a lineup that definitely includes Juan Soto,” Boras, the sport’s preeminent agent, said Wednesday morning in his first wide-ranging press conference of the offseason. “He’s their one .900-OPS player. They’re obviously looking for more left-handed bats rather than less.”

At least to the public, how the Padres propose to accomplish such a plan is unclear. How realistic their private suggestions are is already up for debate among both club officials and rival executives.

Team and league sources have said for weeks that the financial framework for 2024 involves reducing payroll from more than last season’s $250 million range to the $200 million neighborhood. San Diego’s current estimate, according to FanGraphs, already is at $198 million.

That does not include the three or four starting-pitching roles and multiple bullpen openings the Padres have to fill. It does include projected arbitration salaries. The estimate for Soto is $33 million, which would eclipse the one-year record for an arbitration-eligible player. That $30 million mark was set just this year by Ohtani.

Picturing a balanced, roughly $200 million roster with Soto included requires significant imagination.

The Padres could non-tender center fielder Trent Grisham and catcher Austin Nola, but that would save them only several million dollars. They could seek more of a reduction by moving Jake Cronenworth, but the infielder’s value cratered this summer after he signed a seven-year, $80 million extension. They could look to sell high on fellow infielder Ha-Seong Kim, but the highly popular and increasingly productive Kim is owed just $8 million in his final year under club control. They could pursue what might be the unlikeliest scenario — a deal involving shortstop Xander Bogaerts or outfielder Fernando Tatis Jr. — but both players have full no-trade protection as part of their mega-contracts.

The Padres could seek to reduce payroll by trading Jake Cronenworth but it could be difficult because his value cratered during the summer. (Denis Poroy / Getty Images)

Another possibility — delaying a potential Soto trade until the 2024 trade deadline — may not be feasible for several reasons. The Padres, by then, could be in a playoff chase. Even if they aren’t, the return would be less than it would be before the club’s season opener in South Korea — and San Diego, which took out a $50 million loan to help cover payroll in September, has presented a plan to the league to significantly reduce costs by that March date.

A roughly $200 million payroll, it should be noted, would still outweigh anything the Padres fielded before 2023. And under Seidler, some past plans and budgets have been subject to change.

“I saw the report from a few days ago, but we’ve got a really good team, and we’re gonna have an aggressive payroll,” Preller said. “I think we’ve all understood — Peter, myself, the group — every single year you have different price points that you end up lining up on. And that’s based on the market, based on your team, based on what you have coming up from the farm system. But we’re gonna put a product on the field, talent-wise and payroll-wise, that’s aggressive and honestly that every year we feel like has a chance to win a championship.”

The Padres, it also should be noted, could still be considered an aggressive would-be contender without their best hitter. In theory, a trade of Soto could net them multiple big-league-ready players while freeing up money to further augment the roster. And there still are no indications of any traction regarding a potential long-term extension; Boras has a history of taking star clients to the open market, and at one point during his nearly hourlong media session Wednesday, the agent referenced Soto’s eligibility for the 2024-25 free-agent class. Soto and Boras are widely believed to be seeking more guaranteed money than the $440 million offer they turned down from the Washington Nationals in 2022.

“Every situation, you’re constantly looking at what that means for our current team,” Preller said. “Obviously, with Juan, it means a lot. He’s a true middle-of-the-order, three-hole bat … he’s one of the most dynamic offensive forces in the game. But you always weigh out kind of like the here-and-now versus the long-term plan and where that sets us. So I think we’ll keep having those conversations. He’s very important to us. We’ll kind of get a sense of what’s important to Juan, then obviously make decisions accordingly as we get through the offseason.”

At least a couple of smaller decisions already have been made, ones that might hint at the Padres’ inclinations in certain other areas. The team last weekend declined its two-year, $32 million club options on Michael Wacha and Nick Martinez, and the two veteran pitchers are now free agents alongside Blake Snell, Josh Hader and Seth Lugo.

“To make that the first move of the offseason, we just weren’t comfortable at those price points,” Preller said.

On Wednesday, it was suggested to Preller that he would simply have to replicate what he accomplished last offseason and then last season — successfully hitting on three affordable contracts with Wacha, Martinez and Lugo.

“Maybe four of them,” Preller said, perhaps only half-jokingly.

Preller also confirmed that the Padres did not so much as put out a feeler for Counsell, who until this week was one of the most coveted free agents of the young offseason. Why not at least explore what might be possible with one of the top managers in the game?

“Milwaukee being (Counsell’s) home and then obviously the reports about New York, it kind of felt like that probably was more in line, and the biggest thing for us is, like, focusing on our situation,” Preller said. “We feel like we had some really good candidates internally. We felt like we had some good candidates that we talked to, that we had lined up from outside the organization. And just kind of realistically looking at it, it felt like it ultimately probably wasn’t that realistic for us.”

Preller did not mention Counsell’s record-setting five-year, $40 million pact with the Chicago Cubs. The Padres have formally interviewed at least three external candidates — including Los Angeles Angels infield coach Benji Gil and newly named New York Mets manager Carlos Mendoza — and they have expressed interest in having an informal conversation with now-former Cubs manager David Ross, league sources said. But the expectation Wednesday night from multiple team officials was that the Padres still would end up choosing between internal candidates Ryan Flaherty and Mike Shildt. Neither man would require a salary close to Counsell’s — or, for that matter, the $4 million the Padres owed Bob Melvin before he was hired away by the San Francisco Giants.

(Top photo of Soto: Jeff Chiu / AP Photo)

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