Yankees rightfielder Juan Soto (22) reacts after striking out during...

Yankees rightfielder Juan Soto (22) reacts after striking out during the first inning against the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Credit: Brad Penner

Hal Steinbrenner knew that Juan Soto would be, well, the same incredible Juan Soto when he put on pinstripes. The more challenging part? Figuring out what Steinbrenner needs to pay to keep him in the Bronx, and determining just how far the Yankees’ owner will go to make that a reality in the months ahead.

The bet here is that Steinbrenner ultimately ponies up the cash to insure this “generational player” spends the rest of his generation trying to fill up the dusty open shelf in the Yankees’ trophy case. Hal is usually a fairly straight-laced interview subject — nothing like his bombastic dad — but his tone changed when Soto’s name was brought up during Wednesday’s chat outside the MLB owners’ meetings in midtown Manhattan.

Soto doesn’t come off as some one-year mercenary in Steinbrenner’s eyes. And as much as GM Brian Cashman has objectively categorized Soto as a rental for this season — based on the negotiating proclivities of his agent, Scott Boras — it’s hard to imagine the Yankees willfully going back to a life without Soto energizing the Bronx on a nightly basis.

Maybe trading for Soto in his walk year was designed to be sort of a trial run for both sides, a feeling-out period to see how he liked the pinstriped fit. But Soto has meshed so perfectly, so quickly, that there’s no real need for an extended audition phase. Steinbrenner sounds like he’d gladly sign the big check right now, if only Boras operated that way.

“I had no doubt Juan Soto would perform in New York,” Steinbrenner said. “The market, the pressure — none of that was going to be a problem. How would he interact with our fans? How would he interact with you guys [media]? How would he interact with the teammates? Those were the three questions I had and it’s been great, great, great on those three.”

That’s about as gushing an endorsement as you’ll get from Hal, the type of glowing reviews typically reserved for Steinbrenner faves like Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole, the two players he signed to contracts worth $360 million and $324 million, respectively. Hal personally closed Judge’s record deal, through a late-night phone call from Italy, and OK’d Cole getting the biggest contract in franchise history two years earlier.

Soto is a new test case, however. He’s not a homegrown fan favorite like Judge, who also was the natural heir to Derek Jeter in the captain’s role. With Cole, the Yankees made him a priority the minute his free agency began, identifying the bona-fide ace (and childhood Yankees fan) as the last remaining piece to their championship puzzle.

Soto, like Judge and Cole, is a unique game-changing player, an on-base machine almost without peer when it comes to all-fields power and plate discipline. He’s also looking for a record-breaking contract, and since Soto is only 25 — a rare age to reach free agency — we could be talking about a 12- to 15-year deal that should easily surpass $500 million. (Soto reportedly turned down a 15-year, $440 million offer from the Nationals before he was traded to the Padres during the 2022 season.)

Understanding the astronomical market, and taking into account Soto’s MVP-caliber start (.309 BA, .947 OPS, 11 HRs entering Wednesday), I asked Steinbrenner about the growing pressure he’s already facing to re-sign Soto. Given his skyrocketing popularity in pinstripes, how could he afford not to keep him here?

“I knew that going into this,” Steinbrenner said. “So that’s not something I’m focused on right now. I’m focused on winning games — and continuing to win games.”

OK, let’s try another way then. Since the Yankees have the third-highest payroll in baseball — at $312 million, for luxury-tax purposes — and currently employ a trio of $300 million players (Giancarlo Stanton being the third), would Steinbrenner be willing to pay such an exorbitant price for Soto?

“We’ve got a good amount of money coming off the payroll in the offseason,” Steinbrenner said. “But look, I’m going to be honest. Payrolls at levels we’re at right now are simply not sustainable for us financially. It wouldn’t be sustainable for the vast majority of owners, given the luxury tax we have to pay. But we’ve got a considerable amount of money coming off. We didn’t have a whole lot of money come off last offseason, which is why we’re at where we’re at.”

By some back-of-the-napkin accounting, helped by FanGraphs’ Roster Resource, the Yankees will shed roughly $66 million after this season, the biggest chunks from Gleyber Torres ($14M), Alex Verdugo ($8.7M), presumably buying out Anthony Rizzo’s $17 million option and finally being freed of payments to Aaron Hicks ($9.7M) and Josh Donaldson ($6M). As such, the Yankees are projected to start this winter with approximately $181 million on the books for 2025, before any added roster creativity, and that should leave sizable wiggle room for Soto.

Steinbrenner reiterated Wednesday that he doesn’t believe a $300 million payroll is necessary to win a championship. But he once said that about $200 million, too. And Soto is a player worthy of recalibrating those expenses. Hal wouldn’t expand on the comments he made to the YES Network’s Jack Curry about reaching out to Boras during the season about an extension, out of concern for the team’s on-field play.

“I’m not going to allow this to be a weekly story,” Steinbrenner said. “Because I don’t want the distraction and the team doesn’t want the distraction.”

What Steinbrenner clearly wants is Soto finishing his career with the Yankees. And whether it’s Soto’s MVP performance between the lines, or Hal’s financial calculations behind the scenes, it’s not a stretch to suggest both could be working toward a very lucrative partnership together.


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