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The Yankees Are Back to Building With Stars. And Juan Soto Is Exactly What They Need.

In swinging a blockbuster trade for the superstar outfielder, New York addressed its biggest weakness—and did so in classic Yankees fashion

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Until Wednesday afternoon, the MLB offseason had moved at a glacial pace in the month since the Rangers secured the 2023 title. Only two of MLB Trade Rumors’ top 20 free agents have signed contracts. The best player traded was probably Eugenio Suárez in a salary dump from Seattle. The Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes have been characterized more by an imposed silence than excitement.

But the blockbuster dam broke on Wednesday, as one of the sport’s premier hitters joined one of its most prestigious teams. Juan Soto is a Yankee, as the Bronx Bombers seek major improvements following an 82-80 finish, their worst since 1992. The deal will reportedly send Soto and center fielder Trent Grisham to New York and pitcher Michael King, catcher Kyle Higashioka, and three pitching prospects to San Diego.

If the Padres had to deal Soto—who will make an estimated $33 million in arbitration for 2024, his last season before reaching free agency—for financial reasons, the Yankees were the most logical destination all along. New York is in desperate need of offensive ballast beyond Aaron Judge after finishing last season 19th in team wRC+ and 25th in runs. The non-Judge Yankees hit a collective .224/.295/.381 in 2023, which, if they were an individual, would have given them the ninth-worst OPS of any qualified player.

Soto won’t just help fix that problem; he might even usurp Judge as the best hitter in the lineup. The Steamer system projects Soto will have the second-most WAR in the majors next season, behind only Ronald Acuña Jr. Judge is third on that list; the Yankees, as is tradition, are back to building with stars.

One of the Yankees’ stated goals this offseason wasn’t just to add offense; it was specifically to add left-handed offense, as the team didn’t have a single left-handed hitter with an above-average park-adjusted OPS last season. (Switch-hitters Jasson Domínguez and Greg Allen achieved that feat in limited playing time.) As a team, the Yankees ranked 30th in lefty on-base percentage (.295) and 25th in lefty slugging (.378) despite playing in the lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium.

Thus, they acquired outfielder Alex Verdugo from Boston in a trade Tuesday night as an appetizer before diving back in for the Soto main course on Wednesday.

Lineup balance can be overrated, though. While last year’s Yankees ranked 29th in the percentage of plate appearances with the platoon advantage, the Astros ranked 30th, and they did just fine. In 2019, the Yankees’ platoon advantage rate was essentially the same as it was in 2023—except the 2019 team won 103 games and led the majors in runs. An offense can excel without many lefties as long as its righty bats are good enough.

New York’s issue wasn’t just a lack of lefties, then; it was a lack of solid hitters overall. Only four Yankees posted an above-average park-adjusted OPS last season: Judge, Gleyber Torres, Domínguez, and Allen, and the latter two combined for only 61 plate appearances. In other words, the lineup consisted of Judge, Torres, and below-average bats.

Soto is therefore a massive upgrade, not just because he’s a lefty who might beat his career high of 35 homers playing in Yankee Stadium, but also because he’s a hitting savant. Because he’s been in the majors for more than half a decade, doing essentially the same remarkable job at the plate every year, it’s possible that Soto’s production is underrated. Just last season, he got off to a slow start—only to finish as one of the majors’ top hitters once again.

But don’t let Soto’s metronomic consistency mask just how extraordinary his offense is. The 25-year-old outfielder has now led all qualified hitters in walk rate and posted more walks than strikeouts in each of the past four seasons. His on-base percentage has started with a four every year of his career. Since his promotion to the bigs at age 19, he’s never ranked lower than 12th in wRC+.

Juan Soto at the Plate

Season Soto Age Soto wRC+ MLB Rank
Season Soto Age Soto wRC+ MLB Rank
2018 19 146 9th
2019 20 143 12th
2020 21 202 1st
2021 22 164 3rd
2022 23 145 10th
2023 24 155 8th
Rank among qualified hitters for every season except 2018, in which his rank is among players with at least 490 plate appearances.

Look at that last paragraph again: Soto is still just 25 years old. This past season, 17 different players received Rookie of the Year votes—Soto is younger than seven of them and only a few months older than four more.

His production isn’t just excellent compared to his peers, but also to all of MLB history. Soto ranks 10th in career wRC+ through his age-24 season (minimum 2,500 plate appearances), and every other player in the top 20 is either still active, in the Hall of Fame, or out because of nonperformance reasons. This is a list of some of baseball’s most legendary figures:

Best Career wRC+ Through Age 24 (Minimum 2,500 Plate Appearances)

Player wRC+ Hall of Fame?
Player wRC+ Hall of Fame?
Ted Williams 183 Yes
Joe Jackson 177 No—banned
Ty Cobb 172 Yes
Mike Trout 167 Once eligible
Albert Pujols 166 Once eligible
Mickey Mantle 164 Yes
Jimmie Foxx 162 Yes
Tris Speaker 160 Yes
Rogers Hornsby 155 Yes
Juan Soto 154 ???
Arky Vaughan 153 Yes
Eddie Mathews 152 Yes
Mel Ott 149 Yes
Joe DiMaggio 148 Yes
Giancarlo Stanton 145 ???
Hank Aaron 145 Yes
Ken Griffey Jr. 144 Yes
Frank Robinson 143 Yes
Bryce Harper 141 ???
Joe Medwick 139 Yes
Miguel Cabrera 139 Once eligible

The worst long-term outcome here probably belongs to Giancarlo Stanton, with whose decline the Yankees are intimately familiar. And if you squint, there may be a couple of reasons to be concerned about Soto’s longevity. He just experienced an uptick in strikeout rate, from 14 percent in 2020-22 to 18 percent in 2023. (However, he also hit the ball harder than ever, with career highs in hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, and max EV.)

Most worrisome is Soto’s defense, because even at a young age, he’s declined to become a very poor fielder. In 2022, Soto rated as the majors’ worst defensive right fielder. So, in 2023, the Padres moved him to left field … where he rated as merely the fourth worst. A starting outfield alignment of Soto and Verdugo in the corners plus the 32-year-old Judge in center isn’t optimal.

Still, with a weak class of free agent hitters behind Ohtani, the Yankees couldn’t have improved nearly as much with any other single addition as they did with Soto on Wednesday. New York in recent years hasn’t chased stars as aggressively as it once did, most notably sitting out the Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free agent class. That restraint left the club with too few sluggers and not enough support for Judge. Soto is a panacea to that problem.

For San Diego, and for the Yankees and Soto beyond 2023, there are further wrinkles to this deal. As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello wrote last week, there isn’t much precedent for a trade of a player in the range of Soto’s age and ability, just a year away from free agency. Petriello found three similar deals in the wild-card era, none of which fetched spectacular returns because of that limited team control:

  • Francisco Lindor, traded from the Guardians to the Mets along with Carlos Carrasco, in exchange for Andrés Giménez, Amed Rosario, and two prospects
  • Mookie Betts, traded from the Red Sox to the Dodgers along with David Price, in exchange for Verdugo and two prospects
  • Jason Heyward, traded from Atlanta to the Cardinals along with Jordan Walden, in exchange for Shelby Miller and a prospect

The same is true for Soto, as the Yankees had to give up a lot less in prospect capital than the Padres surrendered for Soto in 2022 when they acquired him from the Nationals with 2.5 remaining seasons of team control. That trade gave Washington a number of elite prospects—and even if the Padres’ terrible luck in close games ruined their chance to contend with Soto in 2023, he still helped them reach the NLCS in 2022 for their longest postseason trip in a quarter century.

Wednesday’s deal is analogous to the precedents that Petriello identified. King is the young, promising big leaguer, à la Giménez and Verdugo; Drew Thorpe is a prospect with upside; and the Yankees are parting with perhaps a bit more prospect depth behind that duo than the Mets, Dodgers, or Cardinals did.

King is close to a sure thing for the Padres. He did excellent work in the Yankees bullpen for a few years before posting surprisingly strong numbers after a transition to a starting role late in 2023: a 2.23 ERA, 2.68 FIP, and 31 percent strikeout rate in nine starts. King’s strikeout rate in the rotation ranked sixth—just behind big-ticket free agents Blake Snell and Ohtani—among 199 pitchers with at least 40 innings as a starter.

But King’s value as a “young, promising” player is relative. He is already 28 years old—3.5 years older than Soto!—with an injury history, and he’s under arbitration for just two more years before he’s up for free agency.

Thorpe offers the most tantalizing upside of the bunch. The 2022 second-round pick was dominant at High-A and Double-A in 2023. He struck out 34 percent of opposing hitters, the second-best rate among any minor leaguer with at least 100 innings; his 27 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate was the best.

FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline both rank Thorpe as the Yankees’ fifth-best prospect, while Baseball Prospectus is considerably more bullish on the young right-hander. This week, BP analyst Jarrett Seidler called Thorpe a top-50 overall prospect and said his changeup is “probably the best offspeed pitch in the entire minor leagues.”

Finally, Randy Vásquez and Jhony Brito are both fine but unspectacular pitching prospects. At the MLB level last season, Vásquez posted a 4.98 FIP (versus a BABIP-aided 2.87 ERA) in 11 games, five of them starts, while Brito posted a 4.74 FIP (4.28 ERA) in 25 games, 13 of them starts. Neither righty strikes out enough batters to be a top starting pitcher prospect, and both seem more likely to end up as middle relievers or spot starters long term.

There’s an obvious theme to this group: They’re all young pitchers. (OK, Higashioka doesn’t fit the pattern as a worthy backup catcher.) That’s a logical package for San Diego to pursue because of the club’s desperate need for innings: Six of the top eight Padres in innings pitched in 2023 reached free agency, and as of Wednesday afternoon, FanGraphs’ projected Padres depth chart said San Diego’s rotation was Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish, and three pitchers—Matt Waldron, Pedro Avila, and Jay Groome—with 14 combined MLB starts. San Diego’s rotation ranked 25th in projected 2024 WAR, ahead of only five teams that will probably be picked to finish last in their divisions.

Ironically, losing all those young pitchers means the Yankees definitely need more pitching help too. For as much as last year’s lineup was Judge plus a mess, last year’s rotation was basically Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole plus a mess. With the departure of King and the loss of so much prospect depth—New York also traded young pitchers to Boston for Verdugo, which followed trades of many more young pitchers for Andrew Benintendi and Frankie Montas in 2022—the Yankees staff now looks frightfully thin.

They’ll need to count on bounce-backs from Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes, plus dip into free agency to add another good arm or two before spring training. If they were to pull off a trade for Soto and win the bidding war for Japanese sensation Yoshinobu Yamamoto in the same month, they’d take giant leaps toward postseason contention.

Grisham is also a nice addition at the margins, even though he seems like a throw-in next to Soto. The 27-year-old outfielder’s bat has gone cold the past few seasons, so he’s no longer the near All-Star he appeared to be in 2020. But Grisham’s defensive prowess makes him an excellent fit as a fourth outfielder, especially for a group that also includes Soto and Verdugo; over the past four seasons, Grisham has won two Gold Gloves and saved the most outs above average of any outfielder in the majors. (Third on that list is Harrison Bader, the center fielder whom Grisham will replace in New York.)

Moreover, this trade could pay off for the Yankees for many more seasons beyond 2023. Although Soto, a Scott Boras client, might still reach free agency, both Lindor and Betts signed extensions with the teams that traded for them. (So did Paul Goldschmidt in a similar situation with the Cardinals and Ken Griffey Jr. with the Reds, though they were excluded from Petriello’s data set because of their ages.)

That’s not remotely a given for now. But at the very least, the Yankees will enjoy a season with a future Hall of Famer in pinstripes, giving Judge a worthy bash brother—now that Stanton has declined so significantly—and the lineup a massive boost. They’ll receive a jolt of excitement and star power for a franchise that had fallen behind some of its traditional little brothers in the AL East. And they’ll have a year to try to convince Soto to stick around for longer, as long as owner Hal Steinbrenner is willing to raise his team’s payroll to accommodate another long-term, high-dollar deal.

He should, because Soto is worth it, and that’s the Yankee way. Trading for other teams’ best players is part of the Yankees’ tried-and-true formula to win titles. Yet it’s been a relatively long time since the Yankees’ last one—since 2009, a veritable eon for fans accustomed to regular championships. Soto can’t lift an 82-80 roster to that height all by himself, but his acquisition is a start. There might not be a better match of player skill set and team need all offseason.