On San Diego’s Juan Soto Trade Return and Next Steps

Michael King
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Shouldered with the needle-threading task of simultaneously cutting payroll and rebuilding a pitching staff thinned out by the departure of several key free agents, the Padres traded superstar Juan Soto and Gold Glove-caliber center fielder Trent Grisham to the Yankees on Wednesday in exchange for three big league arms — righties Michael King, Randy Vásquez, and Jhony Brito — as well as a fourth who is nearly ready for primetime in prospect Drew Thorpe and backup catcher Kyle Higashioka. Ben Clemens did a full analysis on the impact that the 25-year-old Soto, one of baseball’s best hitters, will have on the Yankees. I’m going to dive deeper into the arms headed to the Gaslamp District and talk about how the Padres might go about finishing their offseason to-do list.

Most readers are probably aware that a mandate to shed payroll was a driving factor for this trade from San Diego’s perspective. The club’s sudden shift in financial direction occurred in the wake of the death of owner Peter Seidler. The trade also addresses a large portion of the Padres on-field baseball needs, though it also creates massive new holes in their lineup and defensive alignment where Soto and Grisham used to be. The Friars will need to fill or upgrade at least two or three spots of their currently-projected lineup if they want to compete with the defending NL champion Diamondbacks and reigning division-winning Dodgers in 2024, and they probably also need another starting pitcher or two to round out their rotation. Shedding Soto’s salary likely created some space to do so, but given the Padres’ financial constraints, perhaps not enough to solve all of these problems via free agency. There may be internal candidates, especially on the position player side, who can contribute at the league minimum salary in 2024; I’ll get to those prospects later.

Let’s start with who came back to San Diego and how they fit into an overhauled pitching staff. Prior to the trade, our Padres rotation projection looked rough. Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish were fortified by 27-year-old knuckleballer Matt Waldron, and walk-prone MLB virgin Jay Groome. The free-agent departures of Nick Martinez, Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha, and reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell, who pitched a combined 570 innings in 2023, left the Padres in dire need of impact and depth to have a functional and competitive pitching staff in 2024. Even if one believes (as I do) that prospect Jairo Iriarte is talented enough to make a meaningful near-term impact, the Padres still badly needed to add several pitchers to their big league staff. This trade gets them most of the way there, as all four of the pitchers acquired for Soto could reasonably be expected to pitch in the big leagues next season.

The headliner in the return is King, who spent most of his four years of MLB service time as a multi-inning reliever before sliding into the Yankees’ rotation late last August. He looked fantastic after the move — 38.1 innings, 33 hits, nine walks, 48 strikeouts, a 1.88 ERA — and while he hasn’t had the opportunity to prove that he can sustain this kind of performance over a full season of starter’s innings (his 104 innings in 2023 was easily a career-high), he’s talented enough to soften the blow of losing Snell and others. Our Esteban Rivera wrote a definitive and thorough breakdown of King’s arsenal and progression toward the end of the season. In short, so long as he has the stamina for it, he is going to be an impact guy. He’s an All-Star–caliber talent who elevates San Diego’s rotation back into a respectable place and might be the Padres’ best starter next year.

Is the Padres’ rotation, in this moment, as nasty or deep as either Arizona’s or Los Angeles’ projected rotations? Not quite, but if things click quickly for both Iriarte and the newly-acquired Thorpe, by midseason it will be very close. King has accumulated four years of service and will likely have very affordable arb year salaries because so much of his career to this point was spent in a non-closing relief capacity. He’ll be a free agent after the 2025 season.

Before I talk about Thorpe and Vásquez, who are both still rookie-eligible and therefore technically prospects, let’s talk about Brito, who graduated from rookie status in 2023. He is a fair one-for-one replacement for Martinez, who is now a Red, as a changeup-heavy swingman who pitched 90 innings in 2023, with half of his appearances starts and half in relief. While Brito’s 96-mph heater doesn’t miss as many bats as you might hope, in a short-start or long-relief role, he can deploy his changeup a ton to keep hitters at bay. He has four pitches, throws a ton of strikes, gets an above-average rate of ground balls, and is a great fit in a long relief and swingman role much like Martinez has been.

Vásquez pitched in the big leagues last year but not enough to graduate from rookie status. He was a spin-rate sleeper near the bottom of the Yankees’ prospect list for several years, then broke out in 2021 when he had a two-tick velocity bump, climbed three levels of the minors, and put himself on the doorstep of the big leagues. Like Brito, he worked about 120 total innings combined between his minor league and major league outings in 2023, pitching as a starter at Triple-A Scranton but in a variable role for the Yankees. The high-effort nature of his delivery, his lack of size, and his below-average command all put him in the long-term relief bucket a little more definitively than Brito.

Vásquez sits 94–95 mph and has a four-pitch mix headlined by his trademark breaking ball, which has wowed scouts for the past half decade or so. In a sense, he is the replacement for Lugo, another curveball-heavy righty who spent his entire career on the starter/reliever line before the Padres correctly predicted he’d be able to start. Vásquez is just so tightly wound and mechanically violent that I’ m not comfortable projecting him as a long-term starter. Because of San Diego’s needs and the flexibility that his two remaining option years provide, I’d expect him to be sixth or seventh on the Padres’ Opening Day rotation depth chart and be up and down as needed throughout the year. Once his options run dry, he’s likely to shift into a more permanent relief role. Both he and Brito are 25 years old and under team control for the next half decade.

For a long while I’ve been higher on Thorpe than anyone who isn’t his family or agent — maybe even too high. I had him ranked a full 40 spots ahead of where he was picked on 2022 draft night, and I left that grade on him when I wrote up the Yankees system during the last list cycle. Pitchers with changeups as good as Thorpe’s and who throw as many strikes as he does tend to be high-floor propositions who pitch forever. His low-80s changeup has a ton of tail, he embodies mechanical repeatability which helps him command it, and his ultra-short arm stroke helps trick hitters into seeing fastball out of his hand. The effectiveness of Thorpe’s slider (more average in terms of raw stuff) and fastball (below-average at just 90–92 mph) are enabled by his precise feel for location.

The Yankees coaxed a little more heat out of Thorpe (who sat 88–91 in college) during his time there, but not enough to give him impact velocity. He will throw the occasional cutter or curveball in an obvious fastball count to keep hitters guessing, but those pitches don’t currently have any more utility than that, though I think the cutter eventually will. This is a very polished 23-year-old who, given San Diego’s tendency to push prospects quickly, is likely to grab hold of an MLB rotation spot in the upcoming season. We’re talking about plus command of a plus-plus changeup here; he will be an offseason Top 100 prospect here at FanGraphs.

Lastly, Higashioka will serve as the backup catcher behind Luis Campusano. The Yankees had six catchers on their 40-man roster prior to the trade. With Gary Sánchez and Austin Nola both free agents, San Diego was left thin at catcher. A lot of teams are thin at catcher, but the free-agent market isn’t exactly teeming with great options, and clubs who want to play at the top of that market are probably going to have to cough up dollars that the Padres can’t afford to spend on a backup. Acquiring the 33-year-old southern California native allows them to patch that hole in their roster without using free agency.

So what do the Padres do next? They badly need a center fielder now that Grisham is gone. There are rumors they’re targeting Korean outfielder Jung-hoo Lee in free agency; you can read my scouting report on him here. He will likely need time to adjust to MLB pitching much in the same way that Ha-Seong Kim did, but over time, he projects as an above-average defender in center with plus feel for contact, though it would take a swing change, increased physicality, or both for him to hit for power over here. I wonder if whatever foreign marketing windfall the Padres might enjoy as a result of having maybe the two best and most famous Korean players in baseball on their team at the same time would allow them to hit the gas on paying Lee more than other teams.

There are really only three or four good-gloved center field free agents who I’d consider anywhere near San Diego’s price range. The Padres drafted Cody Bellinger’s brother Cole out of high school, and I’m sure Logan White is close with the family, but I can’t imagine they find a way to pay him. I’d bet if they asked Fernando Tatis Jr. to play center field that he’d find a way to do it well; he seems athletically capable of just about anything if given enough time to adjust.

A center field addition or Tatis move would allow the Padres to focus on finding corner bats. Our current roster projection for them has substandard options at most corner positions. Jake Cronenworth’s defensive versatility means that the Padres can be open to hitters from virtually any corner spot either via trade or free agency. Internal options not reflected in our current roster projection include top-15 prospect Jackson Merrill, who began to see time at non-shortstop positions last year; outfield prospect Jakob Marsee, who crushed Fall League; and utilityman Graham Pauley, a scaled-down Corey Seager swing clone who has no position.

There’s still work to be done here if the Padres are going to compete in 2024, and they won’t be able to recreate Soto’s production with any one player. But they also haven’t painted themselves into a corner; you can clearly see some avenues that they can traverse to get there, and it’s still rather early in the offseason.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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4 months ago

Stunned the Yanks gave King in the trade. If he hits 150IP in each of the next two seasons of team control, he alone could provide the value that Soto provides in one. Not likely, but possible.

I really like Thorpe, not entirely surprised the Yanks sold high on him. I expect they didn’t think they could get any more MPH out of his fastball so better to trade him while his numbers look amazing.

Brito and Vazquez were pure depth pieces for NYY whose shoes are immediately filled by Luis Gil, Will Warren, and Yoendrys Gomez.

I think the Padres (maybe not the fans) should be very happy with this haul.

4 months ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

The Drew Thorpe write up made me think of Brad Radke. That would be a high end outcome, obviously.

4 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

I think there’s a possibility he’s one of those Brad Radke / Miles Mikolas / Hyun Jin Ryu types who get by with guile more than big stuff. All of those would be very good outcomes. But another guy who kind of fits in that category who has had less success is Ross Stripling.

4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Acquiring all the cost controlled years of any of those guys is pretty valuable. I feel like the Padres did pretty well here.

It wouldn’t be that surprising if they get as much WAR out of King and Thorpe this year as Soto produces, especially since they’re replacing zeros in the rotation.

Last edited 4 months ago by cowdisciple
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Even Stripling had a few years of being decent. If not for health, he’d be an above-average 4th starter with further upside. 3 WAR in 2022 in just 130-ish innings, for example. He has talent, just not health or consistency. If you assume Thorpe can become 180-ish innings per year of the good version of Stripling, that’s not bad. Certainly not an ace, but 3+ WAR per season isn’t a terrible outcome for a pitcher without much natural stuff.

Last edited 4 months ago by EonADS
4 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

Wow I had not thought about Brad Radke in a very long time.

Looking at his advanced stats, he could have broken the 60 WAR (often) HOF barrier if he hadn’t gotten hurt. With traditional stats that would have looked very very out of place.

Last edited 4 months ago by synco
Cool Lester Smoothmember
4 months ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

Gotta give something to get something…but giving up King definitely hurts.

Hope he smashes it in SD.