After a Slight Technical Delay, Yankees Acquire Juan Soto

Juan Soto
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The appetizers have been cleared. The waiters have brought out new plates and utensils. There was a long wait between courses, something in the kitchen perhaps; Tom Colichio wouldn’t be pleased. But it’s time for the entree: the Yankees have acquired Juan Soto from the Padres in exchange for Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito, Randy Vásquez, and Kyle Higashioka. New York is also getting Trent Grisham in the deal. Soto and the Bombers have been linked all offseason, but it seemed like San Diego might hold off on a move until Shohei Ohtani signed with an eye toward marketing Soto to the teams who missed out. Instead, the Yankees jumped the queue and acquired perhaps the best hitter who was available this winter, whether by trade or free agency.

You already know the deal with Soto. He’s a modern-day avatar of plate discipline who won the Home Run Derby a few years ago. He’s walked more frequently than he’s struck out in each of the last four seasons while launching 104 homers. His 159 wRC+ is the fourth-best in the majors since the start of the 2020 season, behind new teammate Aaron Judge, Yordan Alvarez, and Mike Trout. His .431 on-base percentage laps the field; Freddie Freeman is second at .410. He’s durable, to boot: he started 160 games this year and pinch-hit in the other two.

Soto doesn’t project as the second-best player on the Yankees next year, but that’s only because Steamer projects him as the best player, slightly ahead of Judge, with 6.4 WAR over 666 plate appearances. That’s the second-best projection for any hitter, period; Ronald Acuña Jr. occupies the top spot, and only Alvarez projects for a better overall batting line. ZiPS is slightly lower on him, but only slightly; it had him down for 5.8 WAR in San Diego, with similar on-base skills to Steamer but slightly less power. I feel a little silly trying to sell you on how good Soto is. He’s Juan Soto! You know he’s phenomenal.

Soto’s Padres tenure didn’t go as smoothly as his time with the Nationals. He joined the team at the trade deadline in 2022, then scuffled down the stretch before a forgettable postseason run. He followed that up by coming out of the gates extremely slowly in 2023; on April 30, he was hitting .202/.373/.384 with a 25% strikeout rate. From there, the Padres imploded, going 22–31 over the next two months and never seriously threatening to make the playoffs again. But Soto didn’t fade, hitting .290/.418/.548 the rest of the way, trying and failing to carry his teammates to October singlehandedly.

You might think that Soto and Yankee Stadium are a match made in heaven — a lefty fly ball hitter and a park with a right field fence that’s merely a stone’s throw from the infield dirt. But he’s a spray hitter, not a pull type. The chart of his extra-base hits looks like a gap-to-gap doubles hitter from a bygone era, only most of the balls are going over the fence:

The Yankees need this kind of firepower badly. Non-Judge Yankees hit an unbelievable .224/.296/.381 last season, good for an 87 wRC+. Subtracting their best player skews the comparison a bit, but that’s the same wRC+ as the Royals in 2023. It’s worse than the Tigers, A’s, Guardians, and Pirates. Between Soto and Alex Verdugo, the Yankees could replace as much as 25% of that desultory line. For a team that’s desperate to return to the postseason, you can’t do much better than turning a replacement-level outfield spot into an MVP candidate.

Soto didn’t come for free, obviously; the Yankees traded a handsome spread of prospects to San Diego for him. Eric Longenhagen will dive deeper into the specifics of each player in a separate post, but I’ll ballpark it for you here: the Yankees’ rotation is going to feel a pinch while San Diego gets a boost. We projected King as their third starter before this deal, and Thorpe lit the minors aflame in 2023; his trajectory could easily have landed him in the big league rotation in the coming year.

This return is exactly what the Padres needed in a Soto trade. It’s still going to hurt their chances of contending in 2024, because again, they just traded Soto. But King in particular will shore up their rotation right away; he’s an easy fit as their third starter. Thorpe, Brito, and Vásquez will likely all contribute major league innings for them as well. Higashioka is affordable and might be their best catcher right away. If you have to trade a superstar but want to keep your sights set on the playoffs, this is the exact kind of return you should go for. But let’s be reasonable: for the Padres, this trade was about reducing salary. The more interesting half of the deal from a 2024 major league perspective is New York’s side.

If this trade occurred in a closed system, the Yankees might be giving up enough on the pitching front to blunt the gains they’re making on offense. King looked impressive after joining the rotation in September. Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes each missed a ton of time, and neither was effective when they did take the mound. It doesn’t take too much doomcasting to picture a 2024 Yankees rotation that mirrors the 2023 lineup, with Gerrit Cole playing the role of Judge as a meteoric talent standing alone. If you can’t stop the other team from scoring, Soto’s offensive burst won’t be enough.

Luckily, the Yankees aren’t building a team in a closed system. They can use free agency to address their needs, and this year’s crop of players is awash in solid pitching. They’ve been linked to NPB phenom Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but even if he signs elsewhere, there’s no shortage of good arms with which to replace King and add depth in the short term. Hitting, on the other hand, is in short supply; the only player even remotely analogous to Soto is Ohtani. In essence, the Yankees can use this trade to turn the free-agent market into a place to acquire a hitter — trading away pitching for someone who you couldn’t get with money alone, then replacing that pitching on the open market. It’s the kind of move that nerdy bean-counters like me are always calling for teams to execute: front-office alchemy that transmutes pitching to hitting.

When you make this kind of move for an average hitter (cough Verdugo cough), it can feel too cute by half — transactions for the sake of transactions. But when it’s for Juan Freaking Soto, everything makes a lot more sense. With the judicious application of their considerable financial might, the Yankees can play a different ballgame than everyone else. Why pick between Cody Bellinger and Matt Chapman to improve your offense when you can get a guy who will almost certainly out-hit them both by a mile?

This is the kind of two-part transaction that the Yankees should be using their deep pockets to engage in. Most teams don’t get to look at a list of freely available hitters, ignore it, and go get a perennial MVP candidate instead. When Yankees fans complain that the team hasn’t taken advantage of its resources in recent years, they’re basically complaining about the lack of deals like this one. When other fans complain that the Yankees are ruining baseball with their money, they aren’t talking about DJ LeMahieu’s extension; they’re talking about A Rod, Sheffield, and the gang, the feeling that baseball’s glitterati inevitably end up in pinstripes.

There are a ton of caveats to add; I just skipped them at the top of the article to get to the exciting parts. Let’s run through a few of those now. First, if the team doesn’t follow this trade up by signing several rotation-worthy free agents, I like it a lot less. If you’re making this trade, the goal has to be winning big in 2024; sitting the rest of the winter out would be inconsistent with the overall strategy. There simply isn’t enough pitching on New York’s roster as it stands today to be comfortable with in a brutally competitive AL East.

Second, Soto is going to be a free agent after this year, and I like this trade less if the Yankees aren’t planning on either blowing him away with an extension offer or going all-out to get him in free agency after a year to get used to the team and develop some positive associations. Two years of a mid-rotation starter, a top pitching prospect, and two other pieces isn’t a completely prohibitive cost for one year of a transcendent hitter, particularly when you add in a versatile and controllable outfielder, but this is another case where the Yankees should be using their considerable financial resources to play a different game than most other teams. The Padres had to stretch their payroll comfort level to add Soto, and in the end they dealt him for financial reasons. If the Yankees engage in anything similar, it should leave a bad taste in their fans’ mouths.

Finally, there’s the matter of actually building a lineup with Soto in it. Judge and Verdugo are both at their best as corner outfielders. Judge can play center field, and play it well at that, but that’s a lot of physical strain to put on a guy who missed a month and a half with injury last year, particularly when he’s 6-foot-7 and about to turn 32. Verdugo has played 345 innings of center in the last four years, and nothing about his range in right field makes me think he’d be a good option in center. Grisham is miscast as a fourth outfielder; he’s a natural fit as the everyday center fielder, with rest days against lefties that would put Judge in center.

That puts a squeeze on the less-defensively-capable options. Soto is obviously a corner-only guy, and not even a good one at that. Stanton is practically DH-only, which occupies a spot you might otherwise use to hide Soto or rest Judge. They didn’t trade for Verdugo to put him on the bench, and Soto obviously needs an everyday spot; there just aren’t enough lineup spots for the roster as currently constructed.

I think that releasing Stanton should be a real consideration. He was bad last year, his peripherals are all trending the wrong way, and even though he underperformed his contact quality, he still wouldn’t have impressed if that underperformance disappeared. He once possessed average top speed and a strong throwing arm, but time and injuries have eroded both of those skills; he’s a pure DH to me at this point. You shouldn’t lock up your DH spot and sacrifice roster flexibility for a hitter with a 114 wRC+, which is Steamer’s 2024 projection. He’s still under contract for four years, which complicates things, but again, they’re the Yankees. Sometimes you just have to eat the money and move on.

Another option would be to turn around and trade Verdugo, but I think that’s the wrong tack here. He’s just a better player than Stanton these days, and more flexible to boot. With Stanton out of the mix, things just line up so well. The outfield can go Verdugo/Grisham/Judge, with Soto rotating into the field to keep everyone’s legs fresh. Trying to do the same with Stanton instead of Verdugo makes the starting defense worse, makes rotations worse, and might not even improve the offense all that much. Trying to play all five outfielders would crimp Grisham’s and Verdugo’s playing time, but that could still work with judicious platooning, so that’s another consideration, though the fit would be tight in terms of roster spots.

That decision surely won’t be made today, and regardless of how it goes down, there’s some outfield shuffling remaining to be done. But who cares? It’s easily worth it when you’re getting Soto in the bargain; I’d contort my roster far more than these permutations to replace plate appearances from Franchy Cordero and Isiah Kiner-Falefa with a generational talent. It’s nothing more than a minor footnote in the deal; I’d consider replacing the lost pitching to be far more important.

In the end, that’s true of pretty much everything in this trade that isn’t “the Yankees now have Juan Soto.” Sure, it cost them some prospects. Sure, they have to shore up their rotation. Sure, they have too many corner outfielders. But their biggest failing in recent years has been a lack of superstar talent. It’s been Judge and a bunch of supporting actors, and none of them are exactly up for Oscars for their recent performance. Look at the dominant offenses in the game: they all have multiple stud hitters.

Think of it this way: to get an offense that’s 15% better than average in aggregate, you could try to find nine hitters who are each 15% better than average. That’s really hard, though. Even finding four hitters who are 30% better than average, one 15% better, and four who are average is tough. They aren’t just handing out hitters 30% better than average at the corner bodega; only 17 qualifying hitters hit that mark last year. Even if you have one superstar who’s 60% better than average, you’d need several other excellent hitters to make the whole thing tick, particularly after accounting for catcher and up-the-middle defenders. The real best plan is to get two guys who are 60% better than average instead of just one. It just makes everyone else’s job easier. That’s the power of multiple stars.

If you take nothing else away from this article, let it be this: this is the way the Yankees used to act. Back when they were THE YANKEES in all caps — when they were calling themselves a fully operational Death Star, when the Imperial March played and felt sincere rather than ironic — they were a magnet for guys like Soto. In recent years, they’ve turned into a pitching development factory and scrimped and saved with fringy multi-positional hitters. Only trading for Stanton and signing Cole have broken up the Yankees’ recent string of financial prudence. No offense to Kiner-Falefa, Jake Bauers, and Oswaldo Cabrera, but these weren’t your father’s Yankees, or even your older sister’s.

Now, they might be again. Maybe this won’t all work out. Maybe they won’t follow up with more signings. Maybe Steve Cohen’s Mets are the new biggest game in town. But 15 years ago, trades like this felt inevitable. An invisible magnetic current pulled the biggest stars to the Bronx. That’s back on the menu, and more than anything else about this deal, that feels like a momentous occurrence to me.

Note: This story was updated immediately after publication when the trade remained on hold pending medical reviews. It remained updated for, I don’t know, five hours or so, making this author just a little bit nervous. It has now been restored to its original form, give or take a few jokes about the long delay in the opening paragraph.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 months ago

Uh? Jumping the gun here?

Not Cole Ragans
4 months ago

Since this article came out <20 minutes ago, three more reporters have shown up to say that both sides have intensified talks and the trade is inches away!

It could happen any minute now!! It’s so close we won’t even know when it happens!!

4 months ago

Really — changing the headline to “poised to”? Good grief. QFT

4 months ago

Considering the other “Soto” piece today, they want to corner the market for Soto clicks.

4 months ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Dan and Eric will write their pieces tomorrow.

Old Washington Senators Fanmember
4 months ago

Apparently, not jumping the gun, but getting the scoop…gotta take risk sometimes to be first!