Newsflash: The Padres Don't Have to Trade Juan Soto

San Diego Padres v Chicago White Sox
San Diego Padres v Chicago White Sox / Quinn Harris/GettyImages

One of the biggest stories of MLB's offseason so far has been the San Diego Padres potentially trading superstar outfielder Juan Soto. The national narrative has been that San Diego must trade Soto because of the franchise's financial issues and that the team has zero leverage in deal discussions. We've been told they'll have to give the generational slugger away for peanuts just to clear payroll. I'm here to tell you that is absolute garbage. The Padres don't have to move Soto if they don't want to and won't just give him away.

A few weeks ago breathless reports emerged of the Padres taking a $50 million loan to help cover some expenses. That led to talking points that the Padres were essentially broke and needed to slash payroll from their team's record $250 million number from the 2023 season. The most obvious way to do so would be moving Soto, who is projected to make $30-plus million in arbitration this offseason. Media members have run with that story ever since and have claimed the Padres have to move him and have little leverage in trade talks as a result. But here's the thing, San Diego doesn't have to do anything.

Buried in The Athletic's article about that $50 million the Padres needed was the fact that loans like that are standard operating procedure for MLB franchises:

MLB teams commonly tap into lines of credit to pay their bills, prompting some officials in the sport to suggest any concern should be tempered because the Padres were ultimately creditworthy enough to draw the loan.

The article conveniently left out the fact that the Padres' TV partner, Diamond Sports Group, declared bankruptcy in March and stopped payments to the franchise. According to team sources, a new TV deal is currently being worked on and could have multiple components.

That's a short way of saying that while the Padres do have some financial issues that need to be worked out, things are not as concerning as the national narrative has suggested. The tragic death of owner Peter Seidler does slightly complicate things but not from a team vision standpoint. The team isn't broke, or anything close to it.

The Padres do intend to lower payroll in the coming years. In a meeting with MLB about the team's finances and its position relative to the league's Debt Service Rule a few months ago, the Padres presented a plan to get the 2024 payroll down in the $200 million range. But team sources claim that wasn't a hard and fast goal, it was a guideline. In talks with those inside the franchise it seems a payroll in the $220 million range is far more likely. San Diego's payroll will continue to decrease over the next few years as the pieces from a top-tier farm system begin to populate the MLB roster. Those young, cheap players will gradually replace more expensive regulars.

The Padres have always planned to decrease the big league payroll moving forward. That was the case in December of 2022 when they signed Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280 million deal. It was also the case when they inked Manny Machado to a 10-year, $350 million deal. The payroll will continue to drop considerably over the next few years despite the big contracts on the roster. Franchises simply don't make deals like that without considering the long-term impacts. Seidler was a brilliant businessman worth billions, he wasn't spending hundreds of millions without considering the consequences five and 10 years out.

Would the Padres trade Soto? Yes, if they got an offer that made sense and basically bowled them over. They'd be giving up a 25-year-old generational hitter who just won his fourth Silver Slugger while posting a .930 OPS, a 5.6 WAR and who led MLB with 132 walks. He also played in all 162 games. After a slow start to the season, it could be argued that, other than Shohei Ohtani, Soto was the best hitter in baseball over the final five months of the season. San Diego isn't going to give a guy who hit 35 home runs and drove in 109 runs away for spare parts.

Soto is entering his final season of team control, meaning he'll be a free agent after the 2024 season. Teams would be trading for a rental. But he's arguably the greatest available rental of all-time. Using past trades for a gauge on what he'd cost is foolish. It'll take a lot to get him out of San Diego.

Then there's this: San Diego's preference is to keep Soto and, eventually, extend him. The franchise's stance since the day it traded for the young superstar is that it wanted him with the team long term. That'll be difficult to pull off but not impossible.

But in the present, the Padres don't have to do anything. The offers on the table from other teams have been far below what the they want in return for Soto. If that's the case, San Diego could simply go to MLB and claim it couldn't get fair market value for its superstar and have decided to keep him. As a result, the team's 2024 payroll will be higher than the league would like. There's really nothing MLB could do in that case. Rob Manfred & Co. can't force the Padres to make a trade that isn't appealing. And MLB can't really do anything to enforce the Padres lowering their payroll, especially if they are showing a downward trend long-term. Unless the franchise is headed towards bankruptcy -- which is nowhere close to happening -- the league is really stuck.

On top of all this is the fact that the MLB Players Association is keeping a close eye on how the league treats the Padres. The players love that San Diego is a smaller market that has been willing to splash big contracts on players. Not only has it driven up league-average salaries, it has blown up the narrative that owners in similar markets can't afford to spend money. If the league went after the Padres or enforced a hard payroll limit, the players would likely be up-in-arms.

Yes, I know, New York Yankees fans and beat writers have convinced themselves the Padres are backed into a corner and will have to accept trading Soto for a fifth starter and a group of prospects New York doesn't want. That's simply not the case. The Padres have plenty of leverage in these talks because, again, they don't have to move Soto if they don't get what they want.

Will Juan Soto be a member of the San Diego Padres on Opening Day? There's no way to know right now. But the idea that the franchise has to make a deal as soon as possible is a silly, simplistic narrative that has no basis in reality.