Yankees secure the ultimate Plan B with trade for Soto
While the baseball world and a few MLB suitors anxiously awaited Shohei Ohtani's decision, the New York Yankees aggressively moved in another direction.
Baseball's highest-revenue club never appeared to be a destination for the most highly sought free agent in history - ostensibly because he didn't want to play in that media market. But one can make a convincing argument that acquiring 25-year-old outfielder Juan Soto offers more value than signing Ohtani.
Soto represented one of the most talented No. 2 options available during a hot-stove season in recent memory. The Yankees sent a pitching-heavy package to San Diego, headlined by right-hander Michael King (who was excellent down the stretch last season), prospects Drew Thorpe (a fringe top-100 player) and Randy Vásquez, in addition to pitcher Jhony Brito and veteran backup catcher Kyle Higashioka.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman told reporters Thursday the club wasn't willing to surrender promising young position players like Anthony Volpe and Jasson Domínguez.
Cashman said the trade was "another manifestation of the (George) Steinbrenner legacy." But the Yankees are becoming further removed from their glory days under the late Steinbrenner. They haven't won a World Series since 2009, the year before Steinbrenner died. Their .506 winning percentage last season was their lowest since 1992. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
The pressure to return to their once-lofty status is one reason the Yankees were motivated to be a major player this offseason. The Soto addition is a great start in retooling the roster.
While not every club would be willing to surrender pitching depth, prospects, plus pay a hefty salary in arbitration, a player like Soto is rarely available, and the Yankees have the resources to extend him before he hits free agency after next season.
Cashman said Thursday he wants to make the Yankees "the Mecca of baseball," to entice the best players to sign in New York.
Through the first six years of his career, Soto owns a .284/.421/.524 slash line and a 154 OPS+. He owns the 11th-best on-base mark and 25th-best wRC+ among all hitters through their first six seasons since 1900. Those rankings include several Hall of Famers.
Among players who accrued at least six partial seasons before age 25, he ranks 10th in OBP and 16th in OPS+, sandwiched between Rogers Hornsby and Willie Mays.
In other words: there's no doubt Soto's already on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
If the Yankees are able to re-sign him, there are parallels to the Tigers' acquisition of Miguel Cabrera prior to the 2008 season. He was also 25 and had five seasons under his belt with the Marlins. For the next nine seasons, he was an elite, middle-of-the lineup fixture for Detroit.
At the very least, Soto will provide the Yankees with one of their best one-two lineup combinations in team history, assuming Aaron Judge is healthy. Soto-Judge may not be Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig, but it's an elite lineup pairing that arguably no other team in the majors can match.
Soto will be expensive to sign but likely nowhere near as costly as Ohtani, who agreed to a $700-million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday, and who carries added risk as a two-way player. He's already had one Tommy John surgery and isn't expected to pitch until 2025 after another elbow procedure following his August injury.
Moving to Yankee Stadium won't be a slam dunk for Soto, either. Contrary to popular belief, he won't necessarily be helped by the short porch in right field in his new park.
According to Statcast data, Soto would have hit 141 home runs in his career instead of his actual 167 had he called Yankee Stadium home throughout.
While Yankee Stadium does have one of the shortest right-field fences in the game, left-center is one of the game's largest expanses. Balls in the air are more evenly distributed to all fields than balls hit on the ground, which are usually pulled.
Soto's swing isn't built to perfectly take advantage of his new home. Last season, he ranked 234th out of 289 qualifying hitters by pull rate on fly balls (19%). The league average is 25%.
Of course, Soto doesn't need to change anything to be great. But if he becomes more adept at pulling the ball in the air, he could be a threat to blast 50-plus homers in New York.
In fact, Soto's yet to reach a baseball player's traditional peak years.
Adding Soto is a great start to the Yankees' offseason, and if they can add a high-profile pitcher, one can argue they'll enjoy more on-field value than the team that lands Ohtani.
FanGraphs projects Soto to produce 6.8 WAR in 2024. If the Yankees also signed, say, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who projects at 3.7 WAR from the mound, that's 10.5 combined WAR.
Ohtani produced 10 fWAR last season - though he took up only one roster spot, not two.
While no other player possesses Ohtani's international appeal and entertainment value, the Yankees can have a great offseason without him. There's always more than one way to build a contender.
As for the Padres, they surrendered more to acquire Soto from Washington at the 2022 trade deadline - including James Wood, now a top-10 prospect - than they received from the Yankees.
But the Padres also didn't want to lose Soto next offseason for only a compensatory draft pick. They needed pitching and King and Vásquez should fit right in the rotation; part of San Diego's issues last year was that it entered the season with just three legitimate starters.
The Padres could perhaps have benefited by waiting until after Ohtani made his decision, in the hopes a team got desperate after missing out. But San Diego evidently got the return it wanted.
The Yankees, meanwhile, secured one of the best Plan Bs available in recent memory. Those that lose out on Ohtani will be forced to scramble, while the Yankees will build on an excellent start to their winter.
Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.