The Yankees are back in business! They completed their first business of the winter Tuesday night, acquiring Alex Verdugo from the Red Sox for a trio of pitching prospects, but it proved to be just the amuse-bouche for the grand main course. That’s because, after days of speculation and building tension, the team finally completed the blockbuster trade for Juan Soto and Trent Grisham late Wednesday night, reinvigorating an anemic offense in one fell swoop.
In Soto and Verdugo, the Yankees fill the two holes in their outfield that Brian Cashman identified as the most pressing needs this offseason. Soto is the type of generational hitter the team has been dying to pair alongside Aaron Judge. His blend of power and elite plate discipline makes him the ideal hitter to bat directly in front of the Yankees captain — he can blast it out of the park if pitchers attack him yet is more than happy to draw the walk should pitchers pitch around him, giving Judge a free baserunner basically half the time he steps to the plate.
He immediately slots in to one of the corner outfield spots on Opening Day, with Verdugo expected to occupy the other. Speaking of Verdugo, there is certainly value in a bang-average player in the lineup and on the outfield grass, especially when you consider the converted infielders and Triple-A bats the Yankees have trotted out over the last season-plus. Grisham likely becomes the team’s fourth outfielder, to be used as a late-game defensive substitution in center. He’s a damn fine option to have in that role as he’s graded out as the best defensive outfielder in baseball according to Statcast across the past four seasons.
As for subtractions, the Yankees starting pitching depth took a hit from the trade with San Diego. Michael King positioned himself as potentially the team’s number two starter with an impressive eight-start stretch at the end of last season that saw him pitch to a 1.88 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 38.1 innings. Jhony Brito and Randy Vásquez deputized in the rotation in the first half of 2023 before transitioning into multi-inning reliever roles as the regulars got healthy, so those are innings the Yankees will have to replace as well.
Kyle Higashioka became surplus to requirements with the emergence of Austin Wells late last season, though it is bittersweet to see the longest-tenured Yankee depart. Drew Thorpe was arguably the Yankees’ top pitching prospect and even had a shot to crack the major leagues after an outstanding 2023 that saw him go 14-2 in 23 starts with a 2.52 ERA and 182 strikeouts across 139.1 innings. Turning to the Verdugo swap, Greg Weissert was the only of the three players traded who figured to play a role for the major league team in 2024. Judging by his deployment over the last two years, Weissert at best would be considered a low-leverage reliever — a mop-up guy tasked with soaking up innings in an uneven contest. Across two seasons, Weissert pitched to a 4.60 ERA in 29 relief appearances.
Soto is projected to earn $33 million in his fourth and final year of arbitration eligibility, Grisham $4.9 million in his second of three years of arbitration eligibility, and Verdugo $9.2 million in his third and final year of arbitration eligibility.
On the other side, King is projected to earn $2.6 million in his second of three years of arbitration eligibility while Higashioka is projected to earn $2.3 million in his third and final year of arbitration eligibility. Brito, Vásquez, and Weissert are making the league minimum while Drew Thorpe, Richard Fitts, and Nicholas Judice are minor leaguers.
Per FanGraphs’ RosterResource, the addition of Soto, Grisham, and Verdugo bring the Yankees’ payroll to a hair under $290 million for 2024. This would put the team less than $10 million below the fourth and final Collective Balance Tax (CBT) threshold of $297 million — the Steve Cohen tax threshold if you will — all before adding another player. Having exceeded the CBT threshold in each of the last two seasons, the Yankees are subject to the harshest repeat offender penalties and would pay a 50 percent base tax rate for every dollar they are over this year’s $237 million base CBT threshold, plus additional escalating surcharges for each subsequent threshold exceeded. As things stand, that would equate to a 50 percent tax on the first $20 million, 62 percent on the next $20 million, and 95 percent on the next $20 million. In addition, the Yankees’ first pick in the 2025 MLB Draft would get moved back ten places should they pick outside the top-six.
We saw reports emerge that owner Hal Steinbrenner would be willing to raise payroll beyond $300 million for the first time in franchise history in order to accommodate impact additions this winter. This coming on the heels of his assertion that teams “shouldn’t have to have a $300 million payroll to win a world championship,” so we are finally seeing the richest team in baseball leverage its greatest strength over the field to not only avoid a repeat of last season’s performance, but to return to championship contention. What’s more, with Soto and Verdugo hitting free agency after the season, these trades have allowed the Yankees to maximize short-term contention while still maintaining medium-to-long-term payroll flexibility.
Between the Soto and Verdugo trades and the departures via the Rule 5 Draft, the Yankees’ farm system was stripped down to the nails on the pitching side. In a 24-hour period, the organization lost King, Thorpe, Brito, Vásquez, Weissert, Fitts, Mitch Spence, Matt Sauer, and Carson Coleman. That being said, the Yankees were perhaps better suited than any other team to withstand such a clearing of house given their aptitude for stockpiling and improving pitching depth in the minors. Depending on additional pitching pickups made by the major league squad this winter, Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre lost as much as 60 percent of their starting rotation with the departures of Thrope, Brito, and Vásquez. However, with Luis Gil’s return from Tommy John rehab and the recent surges of guys like Chase Hampton and Will Warren, they should be fine.
Weissert was likely to ride the Scranton shuttle as he did in his previous two seasons. Fitts raised himself into the lower-half of many publications’ top Yankees prospects lists with an impressive campaign with Double-A Somerset, going 11-5 in 27 starts with a 3.48 ERA and 163 strikeouts across 152.2 innings en route to earning 2023 Eastern League Pitcher of the Year. He was considered to have the best control of any pitcher in the Double-A Eastern League, though certainly not the ceiling of some of the higher-caliber prospects ahead of him (Hampton, Warren, etc.) Judice was drafted just this year and is already projected as a reliever. The 6-foot-8-inch righty was used almost exclusively as a middle reliever in his four years at Louisiana-Monroe, pitching to a 4.09 ERA with 134 strikeouts across 59 appearances totaling 114.1 innings.
There was speculation following Verdugo’s acquisition that the Yankees would immediately flip the outfielder as part of the package for Soto, however that did not come to pass.
There has been a question of whether the Yankees got Alex Verdugo with the idea of flipping him to the Padres as part of the Soto deal. In fact, sources say the Yankees' intention is to keep Verdugo. He'll be part of their outfield mix in 2024.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 6, 2023
Instead, it seems that Verdugo will factor squarely into the Yankees’ outfield plans in 2024, which aligns with the reports that the team was seeking two left-handed bats to roam the outfield. This raises the question of how said players will be deployed, and we got a hint of the Yankees’ thinking as the Soto rumors reached a critical mass:
Aaron Boone says the yankees are OK with Aaron Judge everyday in CF— Brendan Kuty ♂️ (@BrendanKutyNJ) December 6, 2023
Aaron Judge has said that he views himself as a center fielder, a role the Yankees were reluctant to have him fill full-time due to the added physical demands that come with the job. He’s manned the position admirably when it was asked of him, but the team generally searched for alternative solutions before putting their captain in center.
What’s more, sending Verdugo to San Diego wouldn’t have made a ton of sense from a financial standpoint. The driving force behind the Padres’ push to trade Soto was to cut payroll — according to some reports by as much as $50 million — from what was a franchise-record $280 million (for CBT calculations). Given that they also included Trent Grisham and his projected $4.9 million salary for 2024 — further evidence that they are looking to slash payroll at every corner — it’s hard to see why the Padres would’ve wanted to take on Verdugo and his $9.2 million.
Acquiring Soto, Grisham, and Verdugo amounts to the biggest coup for the Yankees front office since the signing of Gerrit Cole, and even then the Yankees’ business this winter might not be finished. As I mentioned, King’s departure creates a hole in the major league rotation. They continue to be one of the teams most strongly linked to Yoshinobu Yamamoto, so there’s a growing sense that ownership was serious when expressing their extreme disappointment with the outcome of the 2023 season — now it’s just a matter of continuing to put their money (and prospects) where their mouth is.