“We’re back up”: Yankees land Soto, signifying the return of the evil empire

Sometimes you have to struggle to remember who you are. The 2023 season did that for the New York Yankees.

After having their worst season in 30 years, the Yankees promised big changes to the roster and how they operate. Cashman and the Yankees reset their thinking and returned to operating like the New York Yankees always have.

On Wednesday, the Yankees made its biggest blockbuster trade in two decades when they acquired Juan Soto, a 25-year-old left fielder and one of the best hitters in the game.

Soto, who is on a hall of fame trajectory, landing in the Bronx fixes the Yankees on the field but maybe more importantly, it fixes them mentally.

The trade brings a much-needed splash for the Yankees, who are coming off a season that GM Brian Cashman labeled a “disaster” and led to Hal Steinbrenner pledging changes.

The price was steep. After intense haggling that restarted late Tuesday night and carried into Wednesday morning, the Yankees agreed to send right-handers Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Randy Vásquez, Jhony Brito and catcher Kyle Higashioka to the Padres. The Yankees will also receive outfielder Trent Grisham, another left-handed hitter, and a quality defender in center field. He’s expected to be the team’s fourth outfielder.

For the Yankees, adding Soto is the first major step toward rebounding from a terrible 2023, when they finished 82-80 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016. And it came after the Yankees made a rare trade with the rival Boston Red Sox to acquire left-handed hitting corner outfielder Alex Verdugo on Tuesday night.

It’s also an opportunity to showcase the Bronx for Soto, a Scott Boras client who’s a virtual lock to test free agency after turning down a $440-million contract extension offer from the Washington Nationals in 2021. The Yankees will likely pay Soto as much as $33 million via his final year of salary arbitration in 2024.

Acquiring Soto changes the entire complexion of the Yankees’ outlook heading into 2024. The team’s offense was miserable this season. They finished 25th in runs scored and 24th in OPS. By wRC+, it was one of the five worst offenses the Yankees have had since 2000. But landing Soto should immediately catapult the Yankees into having a premier lineup.

Since starting his big-league career as a 19-year-old, Soto has been on a Hall of Fame trajectory, often called the modern-day Ted Williams. He’s one of seven players, including Williams and Mickey Mantle, to have multiple seasons of 30-plus home runs and 100-plus walks before the age of 25. His 156 career home runs and 627 walks are the most in MLB history before his age-25 season. His career .946 OPS ranks 27th in MLB history. Of the 26 players ahead of him, 20 of them are already in the Hall of Fame.

“He’s as good an offensive player as there is,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said before the trade was completed. “He is a machine offensively — on base, power, and has accomplished a ton already at a young age.”

The last left-handed (or switch) hitters with a .400 OBP across a full season for the Yankees are Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu. It’s been 16 years since any of them last did it.

And the last Yankees lefties with a 140 OPS+ across a full season are Robinson Canó, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira. It’s been a decade since any of them last did it.

Soto has never had a sub-.400 OBP or 140 OPS+ season. Not in the majors. Not in the minors. Probably not as a sweet-swingin’ kid back in Santo Domingo, either! In today’s game, Soto is in a class of his own as a hitter. Plus eye, plus contact, plus power. He has a World Series ring, a Home Run Derby trophy, a batting title, yet he looks most proud when he’s spitting on a ball an inch off the plate. His expertise meshes beautifully with the Yanks’ greatest need. Soto will spend 2024 spraying baseballs around Yankee Stadium and parking them on the short porch, joining forces with Judge to form a supreme one-two punch of power and patience.

Soto is coming off a 2023 season in which he batted .275/.410/.519 (158 OPS+) in 162 games for San Diego. He hit 35 homers, 32 doubles, a triple and had 109 RBIs. And that is considered a “down year.”

Perhaps one of Soto’s underrated qualities is his durability. Throw out the COVID-abbreviated 2020 campaign, and Soto since 2019 has averaged 154 games played per season.

It is basically unprecedented for a player this good, this young to play for so many teams. Soto will become just the sixth position player to have accrued at least 20 career WAR through his age-25 season and played for at least three teams, and the other five all played before 1900. In other words, a player like this being traded twice before completing his age-25 season had never happened in modern baseball.

The knock on Soto is he’s one of the worst defenders in the sport. He possesses limited range in left field and a below-average arm. Given Yankee Stadium’s bigger dimensions in left, it may make sense for Soto to play right field, with newly acquired outfielder Alex Verdugo, a 2023 Gold Glove finalist, in left field, and Aaron Judge in center field. Yankees manager Aaron Boone said on Wednesday that he’d be more than comfortable having Judge, who turns 32 in April, patrol the middle of the outfield.

But it’s a problem the Yankees will live with to have Soto’s “transformational” bat in the lineup.

Projected lineup

3B DJ LeMahieu (R)
CF Aaron Judge (R)
RF Juan Soto (L)
DH Giancarlo Stanton (R)
1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
2B Gleyber Torres (R)
LF Alex Verdugo (L)
C Jose Trevino (R)
SS Anthony Volpe (R)

Soto slots in as the lefty balance between two of the most powerful right-handed hitters in the game. The move gives the Yankees a trio of lefties in the middle of their lineup, and Boone has shown a preference to go righty-lefty in a batting order as often as he can. Early Wednesday, Boone said that he expected LeMahieu to be the team’s starting third baseman, though he also will be expected to fill in as the backup first baseman. It’s unclear who the Yankees will pair with Trevino behind the plate this season, though the favorite seems to be Austin Wells.

Landing Soto, the top star on the market, represents what the Yankees used to be, an evil empire loading up on stars just because they can.

The Yankees are getting back to being the evil empire.

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