by EJ Fagan
December 8, 2023
NOTE: The following comes from EJ Fagan's substack page and is shared with permission.
Please check out EJ's substack page for more great articles.
It seemed inevitable because it was.
The Yankees acquired Juan Soto and Trent Grisham in return for Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Randy Vasquez, Jhony Brito and Kyle Higashioka.
It’s a steep price to pay. Had the Yankees roster been in better shape, I think they might have tried to hold out for a better deal. Soto is an expensive, one-year rental whose elite bat isn’t matched by defense. But the Yankees roster was in terrible shape. They needed an elite left-handed hitting outfielder. The Padres knew that they could demand the haul they got.
But Soto is worth it:
It’s an incredible batting profile. He takes more walks, by a lot, than anyone in the league, while also for excellent power and good contact. He’s a bad defensive player, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he has an extra gear in his defense that we didn’t see on bad Padres and Nationals teams.
He’s also fun as anything to watch, with an animated style in the batter’s box:
Soto immediately becomes the best protection that Aaron Judge has ever had. Over the past few years, the Yankees have relied on old men Rizzo and Stanton to make sure that Judge got fastballs. Now, they can either bat Soto behind Judge or, more likely, make sure that at least half of his plate appearances will come with men on base. Judge is going to hit some home runs next year.
Maybe the Yankees sign him long term. I wonder just how crazy that contract is going to get. I suspect that both sides will feel each other out during the 2024 season and decide if they want to be married for the rest of Soto’s career. Trading for him certainly can’t hurt, but I’m skeptical that Soto will sign a big contract before hitting free agency.
The other guy is good too
Let’s quickly talk about Alex Verdugo. As I wrote a month ago, he’s fine. He wouldn’t have been worth trading for Gleyber Torres, but I’m a little shocked at how little the Yankees had to give up to get him. Nice trade.
Verdugo has matured into a budget version of Andrew Benintendi: high contact, average on base, low power while playing solid defense in a corner outfield spot. A few quick thoughts in bullet point form:
I’m curious to see if Verdugo’s swing changes as a Yankee. He’s adopted an opposite field approach to take advantage of the Green Monster in Fenway. It hasn’t worked well; Verdugo had a lot more power as a prospect than he showed in the majors, and didn’t have the opposite field approach on the 2019 Dodgers. Maybe he’ll try taking advantage of the short porch in New York.
Verdugo really needs to be platooned. Against right-handed pitchers, he’s hit a strong .290/.346/.461, but only .259/.315/.350 against left-handed pitchers. The Yankees don’t currently have much of a bench. I wonder if they bring in a right-hander to take some of Verdugo’s at bats and pinch hit.
His defense is fine. He hasn’t played much left field recently, but that’s mostly because Fenway is weird. He’s not Brett Gardner, but Verdugo will be an upgrade over the mess of the 2023 Yankees in Left Field.
In pure wins terms, the Yankees improve. A lot. The Yankees were the worst team in the majors in left field fWAR, at -1.2. Verdugo is at least a three win improvement with some upside. Center is a little more complicated because it looks like Judge and Grisham will share the load, but the Yankees were 24th in the league at +1.5 fWAR. Soto is good for an easy 6 fWAR, maybe more. With these two additions alone, the Yankees could improve from 82 wins to 91 wins. It’s hard to imagine a bigger improvement in the outfield.
Things obviously get more complicated if everyone is healthy and Jasson Dominguez returns, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
I think the Yankee lineup against right-handed pitching looks something like this:
Wow. What an improvement over the abysmal 2023 Yankee lineup. Also, their top-3 hitters in this lineup all have a little extra motivation in their contract years.
Against left-handed pitching, I’m not sure we can predict the lineup yet. Maybe Stanton plays the field, but then who DHs? The Yankees bench feels incomplete at the moment.
Finally, let’s talk a little bit about the pitching staff. Losing Mike King hurts. I think there’s a good chance that King blossoms into an elite starting pitcher in 2024. But, there’s also a good chance that he gets exposed during a full season starting. The Yankees built up a ton of value in King in late 2023, and they are selling high. Thorpe hurts almost as much; I’d bet on Thorpe having a long MLB career as a solid mid-rotation starter. The Yankees rotation is now short one starting pitcher. Cross your fingers for Yamamoto.