Brian Cashman has responded to a pivotal offseason — one that’s included a not-insignificant number of questions about his job security and a ton of angst on New York talk radio — with his biggest move in years. After weeks of speculation, the Yankees finally landed their man on Wednesday, reportedly reaching an agreement with the San Diego Padres for superstar outfielder Juan Soto. Per multiple reports, center fielder Trent Grisham will also be headed to New York, with the Yankees sending a five-player package — pitchers Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez, plus catcher Kyle Higashioka — to San Diego in return.
Juan Soto trade agreement is being finalized now, source confirms.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 6, 2023
The deal, as @JackCurryYES and @Joelsherman1 reported, sends Soto and Trent Grisham to New York for Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito, Randy Vásquez, and Kyle Higashioka. @MLB @MLBNetwork
From pretty much the moment the offseason began, Soto was the top name on New York’s wish list — one of the best hitters in baseball just entering his prime at age 25, and exactly the lefty-hitting outfielder the team needed to help fix an offense that ranked just 25th in the league in runs scored in 2023. The Yankees were among the first teams rumored to be in negotiations with Padres GM A.J. Preller, and Cashman showed an unusual aggression in closing the deal.
It’s not hard to see why. Pick an offensive category, and Soto is at or near the top: Since he broke in with the Nationals as a 19-year-old back in 2018, his .942 OPS is the fourth-highest in the league, behind only Mike Trout, Yordan Alvarez and his new teammate, Aaron Judge. He’s also led the league in walks three times over that span, and he’s walked more than he’s struck out in each of the last four seasons — a breath of fresh air for a Yankees offense that, among many other problems last year, simply did not make enough contact. He’s got three All-Star nods and four top-10 finishes in MVP voting to his name, and his heroics during the Nationals’ World Series run back in 2019 proved that he’s more than capable of delivering in the clutch. It was Soto whose eighth-inning single lifted the Nats past the Brewers in a do-or-die Wild Card game:
It was Soto who took Clayton Kershaw deep for a game-tying homer late in a winner-take-all NLDS Game 5 at Dodger Stadium:
And it was Soto who took Justin Verlander deep to put the Nats ahead for good in a must-win Game 6 of the World Series against the Astros:
He’s one of — if not the — best pure hitters, and toughest outs, in the game, he’s coming off a season in which he slashed .275/.410/.519 with 35 homers, and he’s still got room to grow at age 25. Soto is, put simply, exactly the kind of player every contending team should try to build around, and it just so happens that he also fits in neatly for a Yankees team that had to resort to guys like Jake Bauers, Billy McKinney and Franchy Cordero in their corner outfield spots in 2023. He’ll slot right into left field, with the newly-acquired Alex Verdugo in right and Judge shifting out to center — with Grisham, a very good defender who’s hit below .200 in each of the past two seasons, serving as a late-inning defensive replacement and fourth outfielder.
Of course, any trade like this isn’t without some risk. For starters, there’s the matter of Soto’s contract: He’s entering his final year of team control, and given that he’s represented by Scott Boras, he seems virtually guaranteed to test free agency for the first time next winter. There’s also the question of positional fit; Soto’s best defensive fit is in right field, bumping Aaron Judge to center, and it remains to be seen whether the 32-year-old Judge will be able to hold up less than a year removed from major toe surgery.
But Soto’s offensive impact is simply too great for the Yankees to pass up, especially considering the urgency in New York after falling short of the playoffs in 2023. This is a down free-agent market, especially for outfielders, and Soto is significantly younger and better than the next-best option, Cody Bellinger. Given his talent and fit, Soto was the single biggest step Cashman could’ve taken to get his team back to October, and he’ll have to hope that a season of selling Soto on the franchise will give him a leg up as he tries to sign him to a long-term deal next offseason.
For the Padres, meanwhile, Preller appears to have made about the best he could from a bad situation. He likely would’ve loved to hold on to Soto and run things back, relying on what is still a very talented — if uneven — roster and some better luck to improve on the team’s 82-80 record. (San Diego went just 9-23 in one-run games, among the worst marks in the league, and their run differential was closer to a 92-win squad.) But the implosion of the team’s TV deal put it in serious financial straits, with reports suggesting that ownership asked Preller to cut some $25-30 million from the payroll entering 2024. Dealing Soto, who was all but certain to bolt in free agency next winter anyway, was the cleanest way of hitting that number, as well as the best way to recoup some value in the process that will hopefully help keep the Padres competitive.
And despite a limited market — given San Diego’s lack of leverage, plus Soto’s lack of team control and hefty 2024 salary — Preller appears to have done just that. With Blake Snell, Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha all hitting the market, the Padres’ biggest need was starting pitching, and King and Thorpe address that need both now and for years to come. Already a very good late-inning option, King was a revelation after injuries forced him into the Yankees rotation down the stretch last year, posting a 2.27 ERA with 40 Ks in 31.2 innings over six September starts. Thorpe is a consensus top-100 prospect after dominating High-A and Double-A to the tune of a 2.52 ERA and 11.8 K/9; he could be ready for the Majors as soon as September, and figures to be a mid-rotation stalwart for years to come.
Vasquez and Brito, meanwhile, both got their feet wet in the Majors in 2023, and while each of them had their share of ups and downs, they’ll provide meaningful depth for a pitching staff that desperately needs it. New York’s No. 13 prospect per MLB Pipeline, the 25-year-old Vasquez actually made his big-league debut against the Padres back in late May, allowing two runs on four hits and three walks over 4.2 innings of work. He posted a 2.87 ERA over 11 appearances (five starts) with the Yankees, and how far his command comes will determine whether he can compete for a fifth-starter spot or wind up as a relief weapon — where his wicked slider could play way up. Brito, a 25-year-old sinkerballer, posted a 4.28 ERA over 25 appearances (13 starts) with New York in 2023, while Higashioka will replace the departing Gary Sanchez to give the Padres a veteran backup to the promising Luis Campusano.
This is hardly the offseason Padres fans envisioned, and make no mistake, dealing Soto is a significant step back. But Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts and Ha-Seong Kim are still around, and with Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and King in the rotation, it’s not out of the question that this team can still compete for a Wild Card spot in the NL — while acquiring some real value for the future. It’s not anywhere near what the team gave up to get Soto at the 2022 trae deadline, but given the hand that Preller was dealt, it could’ve been much worse.