Yankees' desire to be 'mecca of baseball' fuels Juan Soto trade

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After months of pursuing Juan Soto, the New York Yankees finally traded for the star outfielder Wednesday night. And now, general manager Brian Cashman said he hopes Soto will stay long term and help make the organization "the mecca of baseball."

In the wake of the deal that sent Soto from the San Diego Padres to the Yankees in exchange for five players, Cashman, the longest tenured GM in baseball, said the Yankees were not done maneuvering after failing to make the postseason and finishing 82-80, their worst record in three decades.

After trading for left-handed-hitting outfielders Soto, Trent Grisham and Alex Verdugo in a 24-hour period as the winter meetings ended, the Yankees' focus now, Cashman said, will be pitching.

The excitement over the acquisition of 25-year-old Soto, a three-time All-Star regarded as one of the five best hitters in baseball, continued to reverberate Thursday. While acknowledging "it's a possible short-term situation" with Soto's impending free agency following the 2024 season, Cashman said the Yankees' desire to return to World Series contention -- even amid a gauntlet of an American League East division -- is the primary priority.

"The culture we have with the Yankees that we project constantly is our intent to win," Cashman said. "We're here. We're in it to win it. So that's messaging that's constantly being reinforced. ... We're not going to trick anybody. We're not going to be something we're not. We've got good people here, whether it's manager, coaches, his new teammates as well as our fans and the tri-state area. There's a lot to offer.

"So I think that's a recruiting beacon for anybody. I know the question is specifically about Juan Soto, but I think we certainly want to try to always under the Steinbrenner leadership make this the mecca of baseball."

The possibility to pair Soto with another top-tier hitter, Yankees star Aaron Judge, "significantly upgrades us without a doubt," Cashman said. "And the great thing about the crazy 8s" -- in scouting parlance, an 8 is a top-of-the-scale, Hall of Fame-caliber player -- "is that it creates a tougher lineup to navigate for the opposing pitchers."

New York's offense finished 25th in MLB in runs scored this year, and adding an impact bat was among the team's top priorities in the winter. The fit between New York and San Diego was obvious, and with the Padres needing to cut payroll and fill out their rotation, the Yankees' pitching depth and payroll flexibility made them ideal partners.

The deal didn't exactly come together overnight.

Cashman said he discussed trading for Soto with Padres general manager A.J. Preller in July. The Padres were in the same position as the Yankees -- underachieving and taking stock of their future -- and no deal came together. Talks resumed at the GM meetings, and within the last week, the Padres had asked for a seven-player package the Yankees outright refused.

A few days later, the conversations picked back up, and Tuesday night, they had the parameters of a deal in place: Soto and Grisham for right-handed pitchers Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez along with catcher Kyle Higashioka.

The Padres' return for a year of Soto, evaluators said, was excellent -- and they were simultaneously bullish on the Yankees landing a player of Soto's caliber and giving themselves a year of runway to convince him that he wants to remain in pinstripes for the remainder of his career.

It won't be cheap.

Two years ago, before being traded from Washington to San Diego, Soto turned down a 15-year, $440 million contract extension that would have made him the highest-paid player in baseball history but would not have been among the 25 best contracts in terms of average annual value. With Shohei Ohtani expected to sign a contract that could approach $600 million, Soto -- who will hit the market at 26, three years younger than Ohtani -- is primed to sign a deal well above the current record -- Mike Trout's $426.5 million contract.

Soto and Verdugo playing corner spots will push Judge, who missed nearly one-third of the season last year with a toe injury, to center field, a far more demanding position.

Judge has plenty of experience in center -- he spent about half his games there in his AL MVP-winning 2022 season -- but at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, he is an unlikely option at the position. The Yankees' presumed center fielder, 20-year-old Jasson Dominguez, underwent Tommy John surgery and is expected to miss a significant chunk of next season.

Judge's toe injury, Cashman said, is "resolved; we think that issue's behind him." And while Judge might move to a corner-outfield spot in the later innings as Grisham comes off the bench to take over in center, Cashman is confident trotting out Judge to center.

"If Opening Day was today, he would certainly be running out there in center, which I know he loves," Cashman said. "I think if you put truth serum in him, that's what he would want to do regardless."

Next up for the Yankees: addressing their pitching needs, perhaps with the second-best free agent on the market -- Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The Yankees are expected to connect with him in the coming days as he takes in-person meetings with teams leading up to his decision, which is expected in mid-December.