Yankees’ Juan Soto speaks at a news conference during spring training...

Yankees’ Juan Soto speaks at a news conference during spring training at the team facility in Tampa, FL on Monday Feb. 19, 2024. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

 TAMPA, Fla.

Juan Soto never got his official unveiling in the Bronx this winter. No news conference at Yankee Stadium, no photo op of him wearing his pinstriped No. 22 jersey, flanked by a smiling Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman.

Instead, Soto was kind enough to wear a Yankees cap on a Zoom call with reporters in the remote video chat that served as his introduction to New York. The physical detachment from his new franchise — Soto’s third team in three years — further drove home the impersonal feel of the trade. Dealing for the perennial MVP candidate, one of the game’s most electric young stars, had the emotional tug of an ATM transaction.

That changed to some degree on Monday when Soto finally took the podium at Steinbrenner Field for a media session that lasted a little more than 15 minutes. This time the slugger wore neither a Yankees cap nor jersey, donning a navy blue T-shirt with “The Generational Juan Soto” emblazoned in white script.

No matter how you view it, this whole setup between Soto and the Yankees comes off as a hastily orchestrated business relationship, with both partners entering critical stages in 2024.

Soto, a three-time All-Star, has four top-10 finishes in the MVP voting, including as high as second in 2021 — a remarkably accomplished resume at the age of 25. But he’s facing the challenge of his professional career this season, being recruited to help revive the sport’s marquee franchise with the weight of a free-agent walk year on his newly pinstriped shoulders.

It’s usually one or the other. Gerrit Cole had pressure, too, but the Yankees locked him up long-term on a nine-year, $324 million deal before he had to worry about being an ace. At least Aaron Judge, as a homegrown prospect, already knew the Bronx landscape and understood the demands of his Ruthian duties before smashing his way to a season for the ages, which resulted in his own nine-year, $360 million deal.

Soto doesn’t have to worry about bouncing any checks. He’s earning $31 million, the largest salary ever for a player in the final season of arbitration. But as the T-shirt said, he’s now on the verge of commanding “generational” wealth at a period in time when the Yankees are in World Series-or-bust mode.

That makes every swing count double. Once for the binder of his agent, Scott Boras, as well as the on-field fortunes of the Yankees.

These are mutually beneficial concepts. Odds are the better Soto performs, the more successful the Yankees will be. But that’s not automatic. So I asked Soto about that dual challenge and how unique it is compared to everything else in his career leading up to this point.

“I just trust in what I’ve been doing since Day 1,” Soto said Monday. “The free-agent stuff, I just have Scott do it. I trust him so much that I just forget about all that. When I came here, I just think I have another chance to compete, to go to the playoffs and try to win another championship. That’s what I thought since I got traded.”

Cashman’s mindset isn’t much different. Shipping a package of five major league-quality pitchers to the Padres for Soto was a tunnel-vision trade designed for a solitary purpose: to rinse away last season’s bitter taste while getting the Yankees deep into October.

Cashman didn’t even pretend to sweat an extension for Soto. This is straight-up mercenary baseball, stripping the farm system to maybe deliver title No. 28. Where Soto plays next year, and for how much, can wait until November.

For now, the Yankees are banking on Soto using that $500 million carrot for extra motivation. As Judge showed two years ago, it’s a real thing, and the expectation is the formula should work with Soto, too. Mix his elite skills with a splash of nine-figure salary. Stir. Sit back and watch an MVP-caliber season unfold.

“I don’t think there’s any way not to be aware of it [the big contract at stake] as a player,” manager Aaron Boone said. “And there’s no question that guys [respond] — maybe because there’s just that extra level of uber-focus, attention to detail, that allows them to succeed. But also that can get in their way a little bit, too. The pressure of that.

“It can play out a lot of different ways. I would like to think that hopefully it works out on the better side of things. But you never know until a guy goes through it.”

Despite his relative youth, Soto isn’t a guy who lacks confidence. Along with his prodigious talent, he’s won a World Series with the Nationals and dealt with the stress of being traded at midseason across the country to the Padres in 2021. This year, however, is like going from the frying pan to the fire.

On Monday, Boone compared Soto’s supernatural command of the strike zone to Barry Bonds — no pressure there — but also tried to make him feel right at home at Steinbrenner Field.

“It’s never easy to come on the first day,” Boone said. “As great a player as he is and as much respect as he carries, he’s still the new kid on the first day of school. I feel like it’s on all of us to try and make that a little bit easier of a transition.”

The business ahead, for both Soto and the Yankees, will only get harder from here.


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