By Andy Singer
December 8th, 2023
After years of the Winter Meetings being a disappointingly uneventful affair for Yankee fans, the 2023 Winter Meetings were decidedly opposite from those previous. The Yankees were (and continue to be) involved in the rumor mill and came away with arguably the biggest prizes available on the trade market this week. I'll analyze these trades together in the same post, as the combination of moves have implications for the Yankees moving forward.
Trade 1: Red Sox Trade Alex Verdugo to the Yankees for Richard Fitts, Greg Weissert, and Nicholas Judice
I am going to be very upfront here: I don't like watching Alex Verdugo. I think he consistently draws attention to himself in very negative ways, and while I'm sure he gets under opposing teams' skin, I have very little doubt but that he gets under his own teammates' skin as well. Verdugo wore out his welcome in Boston, and the rumor is that Red Sox Manager, Alex Cora, was fed up with Verdugo's antics. There's also the not insignificant matter of off-the-field issues that have followed Verdugo since his minor league days that could come back to bite the Yankees. The Yankees attempted to add edge with Josh Donaldson a couple of years ago...you don't need me to tell you how that worked out. Verdugo will likely never be a player I enjoy watching, and I worry that the distractions will outweigh the positives he brings on the field.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, we can discuss the deal in an objective manner. There are a variety of ways that Verdugo makes a ton of sense for the Yankees. Even in his worst offensive seasons, like this past one, Verdugo makes a ton of contact from the left-side of the plate. Verdugo posts elite zone contact numbers (contact on pitches swung at in the strike zone), peaking last season at 91.7% (league average is 82%). Even more critically, Verdugo sees a ton of pitches, whiffs at a rate lower than most of the league on swings (15.5% and 15.6%, respectively in 2022 and 2023), and generally makes good swing decisions. That gives the Yankees a fundamentally different piece from the left side of the plate. These are qualities the Yankees desperately need, and Verdugo offers the Yankees a lot even as an average-ish hitter.
On the minus side, Verdugo can be a problematic personality on and off the field, as previously discussed, he's more decent than great defensively, his offensive performance has dipped since his breakout 2020 season, and he is a liability against left-handed pitching, hitting .259/.315/.350 for his career in those situations. Grudgingly, even I admit that all except Verdugo's off-the field demeanor are relatively minor issues in the context of the Yankees' needs. The Yankees filled a real need, and got a bat that was similar to the type I proposed in my off-season plan for the team.
As for the return, I'm actually shocked it was this light. The only prospect of any import going to the Red Sox was Richard Fitts, who I liked a bit more than most (I even had a scouting report coming from an in-season look at him in AA). Fitts shows good fastball command and emerging command of his breaking ball. The change-up/splitter Fitts was using at the end of the year was playable as a third pitch. Fitts sat 92-96 MPH through the first 4 innings in my look, and looked like he had the potential to be a solid backend starter. Unfortunately, after 65 pitches, his stuff backed up a full grade across the board, and his fastball command suffered. This has been Fitts' issue since he pitched in the Cape Cod Baseball League. For that reason, I think Fitts is more likely to end up in the bullpen than the rotation.
Greg Weissert has not impressed in big league action. He is a one-trick pony, with a "sweeper" slider that fools very few hitters, because he is rarely ahead in the count far enough to use it effectively. He is totally replaceable.
Judice is a recent draft pick lottery ticket; mid-round picks rarely pan out, and Judice is not highly regarded.
This is a good deal for the Yankees to acquire a player that fits their needs almost perfectly.
Trade 2: Padres Trade Juan Soto and Trent Grisham to the Yankees for Mike King, Drew Thorpe, Randy Vasquez, Jhony Brito, and Kyle Higashioka
Wow! The Yankees went out and got the best left-handed hitter in baseball to pair with Aaron Judge at the top of the order. This doesn't make up for ignoring Bryce Harper years ago, but it does partially right a wrong. I was totally in favor of giving up significant pieces for the combination of Soto and Grisham, and Cashman pushed his chips into the center of the table.
If I was surprised by one thing, it's that the Yankees were willing to part with so much pitching depth. Likewise, I was surprised that the Padres really wanted a quantity over quality package. I had proposed giving the Padres 2 of the Yankees' top-3 outfield prospects in this deal to go along with 2 big league starting pitchers. In fact, if we take Baseball Trade Values' Trade Simulator at face value (which is poor use of the tool, but it is instructive in situations like this), my trade offer was actually considered slightly more valuable on the day of the trade ($62.2 MTV vs. $57.00 MTV). In any case, I was on the money in total trade value, just needed to adjust the pieces slightly.
More importantly, the Yankees are in a win-now position with both Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole likely approaching the end of their primes. This was an opportunity the Yankees couldn't ignore, and to their credit, they made it happen. Soto is obviously the prize, and there's very little to say. He almost never strikes out, he gets on-base at a prodigious clip, he has power, and he hits to all fields. He's nearly the perfect hitter from the left-side.
The downside is Soto's defense, where he's awful. The acquisition of both Soto and Verdugo will necessarily push Judge to CF regularly. Judge is actually slightly above-average defensively in CF, with Statcast's OAA mirroring other metrics pegging him as a +2 OAA over approximately a full season's worth of reps out there, but I worry about wear-and-tear on Judge's body, particularly coming off of a serious toe injury.
That's where Grisham comes in. Grisham can be a late-inning replacement as an elite defender in CF, and maybe even a bit more. Remember what I said about Verdugo's struggles against lefties? Grisham has a fascinating reverse platoon split for his career, posting a .748 OPS against lefties, including a .792 mark in 2023. The Yankees can shift things around against lefties and in the late innings to limit Judge's time out in CF. Grisham also adds real depth in the outfield. We all saw what happened last season as injuries ravaged the Yankee outfield. It will be nice to have a near-starting caliber outfielder on the bench.
The Yankees gave up a significant haul, but the reality is that all are replaceable. None of us know whether Mike King will hold up as a starter (and his injury history says he won't), and though he was very valuable, he's not Juan Soto. Drew Thorpe is a prospect I liked a lot, but the additional velocity he needs to be a top-of-the-rotation starter hasn't come, so while his change-up is truly impressive, I'm not sure it will play in the Majors if Thorpe sits at 91 MPH. I think he's a good starter, but I'm not sure he's a great one. Vasquez and Brito were good to have around for depth, but again, they are replaceable. Kyle Higashioka was the Yankees' longest tenured organizational player. That said, everyone knew he'd be on the move, and the Yankees get to send him home to Southern California.
In every way, the Yankees won the Winter Meetings, even with some of my concerns. Now, I want Hal to put his money where his mouth is and spend beyond the luxury tax limit and get some pitching.