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Yankees acquire Alex Verdugo, plan remains unclear

The Yankees have struck their first major deal of the winter, leaving us with more questions than answers.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have struck at the Winter Meetings, bringing in a young veteran outfielder one year from free agency to bolster the team’s biggest weakness. No, it’s not Juan Soto on the way, but instead Alex Verdugo, acquired from the rival Red Sox in exchange for three right-handed pitchers.

Sometimes, a big offseason move like this provides clarity, laying bare a team’s intentions for their winter and how they plan to shape their roster. This is not one of those moves. With rumors swirling for days now about Soto talks between New York and San Diego, we’re left trying to figure how the Verdugo piece fits into the puzzle Brian Cashman is building, and what the finished puzzle is even supposed to look like.

The simplest theory of the case: The Yankees liked Verdugo as a player, and think he provides solid production at an area of desperate need. It’s easier (and at times just as important) to go from replacement level to fine than it is to go from fine to excellent, and with Verdugo, the Yankees can expunge hundreds of at-bats handed to Jake Bauers and Franchy Cordero, and hand them to a competent, if unspectacular, player.

While I imagine many Yankee fans won’t be too sympathetic to this case, given Verdugo’s status as, well, a particularly annoying Red Sox, and also as maybe not the best guy off the field, it is at least coherent. The Yankees ranked dead last in fWAR from their left fielders, who hit a ghastly .214/.287/.338 for a 75 wRC+. Verdugo has metronomically produced within a decimal point of 2.0 fWAR most years of his career, and projects to do the same in 2023. One of the simplest ways for the Yankees to make a huge improvement in 2024 was to just get someone who can play a cogent corner outfield, and that’s what they did.

Of course, throwing a wrench into the whole situation is the matter of Soto. YES Network’s Jack Curry, as plugged in as they come when it comes to Yankees media, said tonight that he expects the Soto deal to get to the finish line, if not tonight then soon. Which brings us to the more complicated cases: the Yankees want to add Soto to an outfield that now includes Verdugo and Aaron Judge, or, they may even want to spin Verdugo along, as a part of a package to San Diego for Soto.

There’s been some buzz that the Yankees are going for the latter, though we’ve certainly not seen anything close to conclusive:

Trading for Verdugo just to flip him a Soto deal is a bit of 4D chess, but it does make some sense. As Kuty notes, Verdugo isn’t a perfect fit, and he slots nicely into any Soto deal, largely because the Padres want to contend even if they move Soto. Getting back an average-ish outfielder to take his place, potentially along with the raft of pitching reinforcements the Yankees are rumored to be offering, could help San Diego convince themselves that they’ve made themselves a little cheaper but still ready to contend in 2024.

Could the Yankees polish off the Soto deal while actually keeping Verdugo? It seems unlikely, as doing so would give the club two right fielders and a left fielder, perhaps pushing Aaron Judge into center for a good chunk of time yet again, a tactic the Yankees might want to consider easing up on as Judge works his way through his 30s and his nine-year contract. But we’re in the realm of pure speculation, and at this point, it’s certainly possible the Yankees see a Soto-Judge-Verdugo outfield as viable as they wait for Jasson Domínguez to heal, or for another of their top outfield prospects to step up.

For now, we really just have to wait. The Yankees have finally injected some life into what’s been a sluggish Winter Meetings, but it was not with the move most were hoping for. If anything, it was with a move a good chunk of the fanbase was actively rooting against. Is it a prelude to something bigger? The picture is murky, leaving us to keep guessing at the Yankees’ true intentions.