The MLB Hot Stove did not just warm up today. It blazed with the power of a raging furnace. The New York Yankees secured the first blockbuster deal of the 2023 offseason, acquiring three-time All-Star Juan Soto and Trent Grisham from the San Diego Padres.
In exchange, the Padres are believed to have received pitchers Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Randy Vasquez, Jhony Brito, and catcher Kyle Higashioka. The already competitive AL East just got that much tougher.
"We can now say that the Yankees and the Padres have completed this deal."@JackCurryYES shares the details on Yankees' reported trade for Juan Soto.
Watch LIVE: https://t.co/aRu5PF6iD2 pic.twitter.com/XMbjDGqRBE
— YES Network (@YESNetwork) December 7, 2023
This MLB offseason had been quiet on all fronts aside from Shohei Ohtani rumors. When a superstar of his magnitude is on the open market, all media attention tends to steer in that direction. Under the shroud of Ohtani though, the New York Yankees were playing chess, moving pieces around in order to grab a key player before anybody knew what hit them.
However, you could say it all started with the trade for outfielder Alex Verdugo.
News at ESPN, free and unlocked: The Yankees and Red Sox make only their seventh trade in the last half-century, with Alex Verdugo going to New York and right-handed pitching prospects Richard Fitts, Greg Weissert and Nicholas Judice headed to the Red Sox. https://t.co/QhyRBjkIA3
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 6, 2023
That move had many people scratching their heads on both sides. Why would the Yankees acquire an outfielder when so many of their young players and prospects are outfielders? Why would the Red Sox flip one of the main pieces they got in the Mookie Betts deal for three mid-tier prospects? Well, at least for the Yankees, their reasoning was clear. It was all part of their play to land Soto, revamping their entire outfield, one of their weakest units in 2023.
Yankees Projected Lineup with Juan Soto:
3B DJ LeMahieu
RF Juan Soto
CF Aaron Judge
1B Anthony Rizzo
DH Giancarlo Stanton
2B Gleyber Torres
LF Alex Verdugo
SS Anthony Volpe
C Austin Wells/Jose Trevino
How does Soto's presence help the Yankees?
Soto is obviously a tremendous hitter, but his presence in the Yankees lineup will be bigger than it might originally seem. The most notable benefit is that Soto is a left-handed hitter.
The Yankees ranked 29th in MLB in plate appearances from pure left-handed hitters (1285)
Juan Soto and Trent Grisham are both pure left-handed hitters
In 2023, Soto (708) and Grisham (555) combined for 1263 plate appearances
In 2023, the Yankees also struck out in 23.9 percent of their at-bats, the 10th-highest rate in MLB. Soto's biggest strength has long been his plate discipline and unwillingness to go down on strikes.
Soto posted an 18.2 percent strikeout rate in 2023, his highest since 2019, but still much lower than the Yankees as a whole last season
The Yankees had no problem drawing walks in 2023, ranking sixth in MLB with a 9.3 percent walk rate, but Soto's 18.6 percent walk rate would've ranked second on the Yankees behind only Aaron Judge (19.2 percent).
The Yankees outfield as a whole was horrible in 2023 as well.
Yankees' outfielders slashed .220/.293/.399, good for an 85 OPS+
Soto's career low OPS+ is 142
Soto's OPS+ in 2023 was 158
Does playing in Yankee Stadium make Soto an AL MVP favorite?
Obviously, it's too early to tell. It's no secret that Yankee Stadium is a haven for power hitters, especially lefties. Yankee Stadium's right field wall is just 314 feet down the line. In fact, over the last three seasons, Yankee Stadium had the second-highest home run factor for left-handed hitters of all MLB ballparks (123). Meanwhile, Petco Park in San Diego ranked 26th (84), meaning 16 percent fewer home runs were hit by left-handed hitters at Petco Park than league average.
With that in mind, it'd be safe to assume that Soto could take advantage of Yankee Stadium's dimensions and set a new career-high in home runs next season. That may not be the case though.
Here are Juan Soto's expected home runs at Yankee Stadium by year. If you're unfamiliar with the color scheme, red means he would have exceeded his actual home run total for the year. Blue means he would have fallen short. 🤔 pic.twitter.com/NmMx9u2TQr
— Scott White (@CBSScottWhite) December 6, 2023
Per BaseballSavant, Juan Soto had just two hits in 2023 that would have been home runs in Yankee Stadium. Neither of those hits came in San Diego though, meaning theoretically, neither of those hits would have been at Yankee Stadium if he were a Yankee.
Although we can project the Yankees' lineup all we want, we are still unsure where the Yankees will place him/what kind of protection he will have in their lineup. You'd have to imagine it will be similar to the protection he had in 2023 though from guys like Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, and Fernando Tatis Jr., maybe slightly worse even. With all that in mind, it is hard to project AL MVP-type numbers from Soto at this moment.
Will the Soto deal help the Yankees on defense?
Yes, but not because of Soto.
Aaron Judge has played just 68 complete games (appeared in 120) and 932.2 innings in center field in his career. That's not even a season's worth of innings. Furthermore, moving Judge to center field could have a devastating effect on Judge's offensive output if he was forced to learn one of the hardest positions in baseball.
We've seen similar declines in production from other players in the past. In 2021, Cincinnati Reds' third baseman Eugenio Suarez was forced to play much more shortstop than he was used to. He posted a career-low 82 OPS+ that season. In 2022, he returned to a full-time third base position with Seattle and recorded a 129 OPS+.
When Manny Machado was drafted third overall in 2010, he was drafted as a shortstop. The Orioles moved him to third base when he reached the Majors though. For his career, Machado has an .814 OPS as a third baseman. He has an .894 OPS as a shortstop.
Moving players away from their natural position can harm their offensive production. While Judge has statistically been better as a center fielder than right fielder, the risk might be too great to just slot Judge into the everyday center field position. That said, I would not blame the Yankees if they did just that. In fact, as the Soto trade rumors were swirling, Yankees' manager Aaron Boone even stated he felt fine with Judge as his every day center fielder.
At the very least, the introduction of Grisham gives the Yankees a backup plan in center if they need it. Grisham has been a phenomenal defensive player for years, earning two Gold Gloves in center with the Padres. The Yankees also have prospects Jasson Dominguez and Estevan Florial waiting in the wings, both of whom can play center field.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Juan Soto trade: Yankees projected lineup after trade with Padres