NASHVILLE - That’s one way to change the narrative.
A 2023 Yankees season that was nothing short of, to use the words of general manager Brian Cashman, “a disaster” and had the fan base as angry at team hierarchy as it has been in years, will end on a high note for all involved parties.
The Yankees, in need of a lefty-hitting outfielder going into the winter, late Wednesday night landed arguably the best one available in that category: Padres All-Star Juan Soto.
A wipe-the-slate-clean move if there ever was one — and there could be another coming as the Yankees have emerged as a favorite to land Japanese star righthander Yoshinobu Yamamoto (club hierarchy is scheduled to meet with the 25-year-old and his representation early next week, though there will be stiff competition from the Dodgers and Mets).
Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Soto, a three-time All-Star who helped lead the Nationals to a World Series title in 2019 as a 20-year-old, has one year to go before hitting free agency. The Yankees, without a true centerfielder, will also receive the lefthanded-hitting Trent Grisham, primarily a centerfielder and a good defender, in the trade, further diversifying what had been a righty-heavy roster.
San Diego, which is looking to dump salary and did so by unloading Soto, who is due to make $33 million in 2024, received righthanders Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito, Randy Vasquez and catcher Kyle Higashioka.
King, when healthy, has thrived in recent seasons with the Yankees, first as a multiple-innings reliever and then, toward the end of this season as a starter. Thorpe, the club’s second-round pick in 2022, went a combined 14-2 with a 2.81 ERA in 23 starts between High-A Hudson Valley and Double-A Somerset. Brito and Vasquez had solid seasons with the big-league club when called upon in various roles in 2023.
Juan Soto's career stats
Plate appearances: 3,375
Home runs: 160
Stolen bases: 50
On-base percentage: .421
Slugging percentage: .524
The Yankees were initially reluctant to include King and Thorpe but, ultimately, the reality of their situation — an irate fan base on the verge of mutiny after an 82-80 playoff-less season, a feeling intensified by the perception of organizational indifference to those fans’ anger — settled in.
The deal appeared earlier Wednesday as if it would be done by late afternoon but various reports said the Padres were holding up the trade as they closely examined the medical reports on all involved, not unheard of in a deal involving so many players.
That process was delayed a bit as Padres GM A.J. Preller was on the dais Wednesday night at the annual scouts’ awards dinner, an event that can run two to three hours. Within two hours of Wednesday’s dinner ending, the teams had agreed to terms.
There are few criticisms to be found of Soto’s offense, other than maybe the propensity to look for a walk rather than taking advantage of a good pitch to hit earlier in the count. Soto, who appeared in all 162 games last season while hitting .275 with 35 homers and a .930 OPS, worked an MLB-best 132 walks. He has also hit well at Yankee Stadium, batting .261 but with four homers and a 1.219 OPS in seven career games there.
Defense is another matter.
Soto, who can play both corners, is not viewed by talent evaluators as particularly adept at either position, nor is Alex Verdugo, a lefthanded-hitting outfielder acquired from the Red Sox late Tuesday night. Without Grisham coming aboard, that would have left Aaron Judge as the primary centerfielder for at least the first two months of the season as the Yankees wait for the return of Jasson Dominguez.
Though Aaron Boone said Wednesday morning the Yankees had no issue playing Judge every day in center, organizationally the preference is not doing so because of the perceived wear-and-tear of the position compared with the corners.
Dominguez, one of the more hyped Yankees prospects of the last 20 years, had an electric eight-game debut last September before going down with a season-ending UCL tear in his elbow that required Tommy John surgery that will keep him from returning until June at the earliest.
Grisham is likely to receive the bulk of playing time in center before Dominguez’s return, but Judge would remain an occasional option. There are no defensive worries with Judge in center, his preferred spot and his primary position collegiately at Fresno State. Judge has played center at times the last few seasons and is considered by more than a few scouts as Gold Glove-caliber there, though overall he is considered better in right.
Defensive concerns about the corner spots aside, Verdugo and Soto especially were brought in for their abilities at the plate. Verdugo has been a solid hitter in his seven big-league seasons, batting .281 with a .745 OPS in that time.
But Soto, who has hit .284 with a .946 OPS in his six years in the majors, is considered a generational talent.
“A transformational bat,” Cashman said Tuesday of Soto, who won the NL batting title with the Nationals in the COVID-shortened 2020 season with a .351 average. “He’s one of the best hitters in the game. He’s impact. Period. But currently he’s an impact for somebody else.”
Juan Soto will bring a rare mixture of power and patience to the Bronx. His resume:
Home runs: 160
SLG %: .524
Batting avg.: .284
* Led NL three times
Rookie of Year: 2nd, 2018
MVP: 4 Top 10 finishes
All-Star: 3 selections