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Mudville: July 22, 2024 10:34 pm PDT

Soto Show

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Let the Juan Soto Show begin in the Bronx.

Both the Padres and Yankees were desperate, and that’s how monster trades get done these days.

The Padres, in a financial crunch, a way of life in San Diego, needed to dump salary and add pitching. The Yankees, perhaps having learned from the error of their analytical ways that were strangling the franchise, needed star power and left-handed hitting. The imposters the Yankee Nerds found last year in their dumpster diving were so bad the Yankees could not even make the watered down playoffs in 2023.

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Can’t have that again, Hal Steinbrenner, so Soto, who has the talent and hit 35 home runs last year and produced a .930 OPS, is a Yankee.

This is a blockbuster baseball move, something the Yankees desperately needed. They had to give up pitching in Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito, Randy Vazquez, and catcher Kyle Higashioka, but so be it. The Yankees also acquired outfielder Trent Grisham in the deal, another lefty bat and a late-inning centerfielder. Grisham also could be the centerfielder on a day one of the other outfielders is a designated hitter or gets a load management day.

In the ultimate small sample size Soto owns a 1.219 OPS in seven career games at Yankee Stadium with four home runs in 23 at-bats. The ballpark is made for his swing. And here is a bonus. Over his career Soto is a .291 hitter on the road, so he is safe at home and on the road.

Batting Soto ahead of Aaron Judge in the Yankee lineup gives the Bronx Bombers a mighty left-right combination, something they have been missing – and Soto is only 25 years old.

This was a no-brainer and you could see it coming from miles away, because Soto is expected to be paid $33 million in 2024 and the Padres are slashing salary.

Just a reminder: The Yankees batted .227 in 2023, and the only team that was worse was the A’s at .223 and they are not even a major league team.

Batting average matters, no matter what the Nerds tell you in their xWOBA World.

Soto batted .275.

Another key statistic is doubles. If you read BallNine you know the Yankees were dead last in doubles last season, tying the Mets; the two New York baseball teams managed only 221 doubles apiece. Even the A’s had more at 225.

Soto hit 32 doubles last season, which would have led the Yankees. Throw in those 35 home runs, the 132 walks, the 109 RBIs, and the .410 on-base percentage and you can see what it means to have Soto in the Yankees lineup for his one-year rental before he becomes a free agent.

Say goodbye to the baseball ghosts of Jake Bauers .202, Willie Calhoun .239, Aaron Hicks .188, Billy McKinney .227, and Josh Donaldson .142.

The Yankees have a new star in Juan Soto as Brian Cashman has come around again to the value of star power, not Nerd Power.

The Yankees have a new star in Juan Soto as Brian Cashman has come around again to the value of star power, not Nerd Power.

Just be aware there are some clubhouse questions about Juan Soto. He was not the most popular guy in the Padres clubhouse, I am told, but he will be on his best behavior going into his free agent year; he should feel at home in New York and now has the calm hand of Judge to help guide him so that should not be a problem. Bad behavior will cost him a lot of free agent money so I expect Soto, who is guided by Scott Bora$, to be a model citizen in the Bronx.

Again, no brainer for the Yankees who could wind up with Soto for years to come if he enjoys his time in the Bronx and the Yankees open the vault for him and he signs long term in Pinstripes.

I found it interesting that the Yankees allowed one of their top scouts, Tim Naehring, a VP of Baseball Operations, to go on YES Network during these Winter Meetings to actually talk baseball; check out his performance compared to the word salad spouted on the same network by Chief Analytic Man Michael Fishman, VP, assistant GM. You can see the wide gap between real baseball thoughts and analytical code.

It’s my hope that the Yankees and Cashman are going back to relying on baseball people like in the days of Gene Michael.

That would be nice.

Make the Nerds complementary to the organization, not commanders of the organization.

A top talent evaluator weighed in on the situation after watching both interviews and told BallNine: “Tim Naehring did his interview. Michael Fishman did his interview. Which interview made sense from a baseball standpoint? There were no coded words from Naehring. There was no staggering. One guy made sense and everybody who understands baseball knew what he was talking about. The other guy just kept talking without saying anything.’’

Here are two snippets from those interviews.

“We’re early in the process,’’ Fishman began when asked about what has been specifically found in the analytics deep dive the Yankees are undergoing. “It’s an extensive process over time, so far we’ve started digging in on some of their work, it’s not something where we are going to have answers right away. We are going to compare some of their work to our work, as well as, see if there are things that they have done or if there are things that are done in a different way over a number of several months … We have a lot of smart people in the department. Over time we’ve created a lot of really interesting tools … You are going to make a lot of right decisions. You are going to make a lot of wrong decisions, the goal is to have many more right decisions than wrong decisions.’’

Mark 2023 down as a Year of Wrong Decisions.

Naehring was asked about scouting free agent Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto in Japan, who would be a dream acquisition for the Yankees.

“He’s a pro’s pro,’’ Naehring began, breaking it all down from a scouting perspective. “Obviously very successful. You love the competitiveness. The fastball, the command, the split. Whenever you’re looking at an international pitcher for example, there’s risk involved. It’s a different baseball. It’s essentially using the starter in a five-man rotation rather than pitching every sixth or seventh day. There is always risk involved but obviously he comes with a track record. Being a free agent, at his age, it’s going to be interesting to see where he lands.

“So number one, obviously we do a lot of work with the analytics and the background and have an idea there,’’ Naehring said. “Research and development, which I think is scouting, I’m actually seeing how he goes about his business. He’s actually had two different deliveries over the last few seasons. I like how his arm works. I like how he does it. I think he is very efficient. I want to see deception with my eyes. I think that’s there. The how they do it, pieced together with all the numbers, come up and hopefully you can give a definition of whether or not you are willing to take the risk.’’

Yamamoto, 25, will soon make his decision where he will play. If he lands with the Yankees, they will have a tremendous 1-2 punch of starters in Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole and Yamamoto. The Mets are big in the YY hunt, too, as well as other teams; but a YamaSoto sweep would change the Yankees dramatically.

The Yankees also traded for outfielder Alex Verdugo, a lefty bat like Soto; imagine that, finally landing some lefty bats in Yankee Stadium with the short porch, something I’ve been begging the Yankees to do for years. Verdugo’s fly-outs to right in Fenway could land in the seats at Yankee Stadium.

“I’m sure that somebody in the Yankees analytic department found 15 popups that he hit last year that would have been home runs at Yankee Stadium,’’ the evaluator said.

The bottom line here is that the Yankees were humiliated this past season and had to make changes in personnel and spend money. Verdugo had some baggage with the Red Sox but he is another player who needs to be on his best behavior in the Bronx. Again, much better than what the Yankees rolled out there last season.

The Yankees outfield will consist of Verdugo in left, Soto in right and Judge in center. Center will not be a major issue for Judge. As for added stress on the body, any outfielder can get hurt anywhere. Judge got hurt last year playing right field at curb crusted Dodger Stadium. Considering the circumstances, I endorse the idea of Judge playing center because he will have to be more agile, less bulky to play in center, something that Giancarlo Stanton is finally coming around to late in his career. It’s also easier to judge the ball in center than in the corner spots.

The outfield defense will not be the best but it is functional and having the offense from these outfielders is the name of the game.

If Shohei Ohtani goes to the Dodgers, the Yankees will dodge the bullet of the MVP winding up in Toronto and the AL East. Also, the talented Orioles are not spending tons of money and are turning to struggling Craig Kimbrel (one year, $13 million) to close when there are better but more expensive options available.

At this point in the offseason, the Yankees are stronger and the AL East is weaker.

The Yankees also lost pitching in the Rule 5 draft so one way or another they will have to add arms.

“I love Thorpe, he’s a fourth or fifth starter,’’ one scout said. “He has that same feel and mix of pitches that Shane Bieber had so he might be even better than a fourth starter. He was one of the best feel to pitch pitchers I saw last year, very, very impressive. I’m surprised they gave up King too.’’

A desperate need makes those things happen and if you have the chance to grab a generational talent like Soto, you take it no matter the cost.

The Ohtani Factor slowed down the action at the Winter Meetings. Until that golden shoe drops a lot is on hold, including where Cody Bellinger will wind up. If the Blue Jays don’t get Ohtani do they pivot to Bellinger? The Blue Jays’ front office is under the gun this season as well so they are desperate, too; so I consider them a player in the Ohtani race.

The meetings were held at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, a sprawling complex, and I was there in 1989 when the Padres pulled off another monster trade. Trader Jack McKeon landed slugger Joe Carter from the Indians for Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga, and Chris James. It was a wild time. That was back in the day when McKeon’s cigar smoke filled the room as a contract extension for Carter was negotiated as well as the trade, wheeling and dealing in Nashville.

The Yankees have a much different look with Soto. They needed to do something for their fans who have been paying top dollar for an inferior product. It was not just about bad health last season, it was about having bad players. Teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, and Cubs should always be attaining top talent. They can afford to spend the money.

It’s about getting back to basics, adding star power and also adding left-handed bats to Yankee Stadium, a paradise for left-handed hitters. That the Yankees could not figure this out shows how seriously they had lost their way as an organization.

Let the scouts scout and let the money flow.

Let the Soto Show commence in the Bronx.

Give Aaron Judge the help that is needed to make the Yankees a power organization once again.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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