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Juan Soto trade should improve the Yankees’ lineup dramatically, but they still need pitching

Juan Soto
Credit: David Frerker-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest news from the final day of MLB’s winter meetings is that the New York Yankees received superstar outfielder Juan Soto and veteran outfielder Trent Grisham from the San Diego Padres for a package of players: versatile right-hander Michael King, pitching prospect Drew Thorpe, right-hander Jhony Brito, right-hander Randy Vasquez and catcher Kyle Higashioka.

From a Yankees-only perspective, this deal can be perceived two ways:  

One, adding Soto will dramatically transform a sluggish Yankees offense. Two, it doesn’t really matter whom the Yankees add offensively if the club doesn’t improve its pitching soon.

Besides two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, the 25-year-old Soto is unquestionably the best talent available this winter, and the Yankees need outfield help. They now have starters Soto, Aaron Judge and Alex Verdugo, acquired Tuesday in a trade with Boston, as well as Grisham as a potential fourth outfielder and Giancarlo Stanton as a designated hitter.

That is a high-quality group if each player stays healthy and plays to his capability, which would make the Yankees offense — 25th in runs scored last year — much more formidable.

Soto rebounded from a down 2022 and a slow start in 2023 with the Padres to post a 5.6 WAR with 35 homers, 109 RBIs and a .930 OPS last season. He led the majors in walks with 132, won a Silver Slugger Award and finished sixth in NL MVP voting.

This is probably the best the Yankees could do to upgrade their offense with one player – even if it ends up being for only one year; Soto is a pending free agent after 2024 and, with the Boras Corporation representing him, Soto is expected to test the open market entering his age 26 season. Still, it’s Juan Soto. You make the move if you can, especially if the return you’re giving away barely touches your Top 10 prospect list.

Here’s the other school of thought, though: Soto can’t pitch. And as much as the Yankees needed an offensive upgrade, it won’t matter if they can’t consistently get outs from the mound. Their staff ERA last year was 3.97, ninth in the majors. But if you remove AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole’s 2.63 ERA in 209 innings, the Yankees’ overall ERA rises to 4.20, the 16th-best mark in the majors. Also, remove the underrated King’s 2.75 mark in 104 2/3 innings and the Yankees’ 2023 ERA without Cole and King was an ugly 4.33, 20th in the majors.

The Yankees obviously hope to get better and healthier seasons out of Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes in 2024. Still, with King in San Diego and Cole, 33, coming off the second-best year of his career, the need for another quality arm or two in such a difficult division is paramount.

Adding Soto is an extraordinary move for New York, but it must be coupled with a significant improvement on the mound if the Yankees want to jump from fourth place in the American League East to their first World Series since 2009.

San Diego Padres never should have dealt for Juan Soto

Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

One of the beauties of baseball analysis is we can judge personnel moves with a huge heaping of hindsight. Regardless, I promise I didn’t like the San Diego Padres trade for Soto when it was made in August 2022.

I love Soto, and think he is a tremendous talent. And I admire the gumption of Padres general manager A.J. Preller and his “go for it” mentality. Too many GMs in the game are afraid to act when their teams are close to the promised land.

Still, I thought Preller was mortgaging his organization’s future in 2022 for Soto and Josh Bell, which appeared to be luxuries, not necessities.

The Padres made it to the NLCS that season, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies, and Soto did little to help. He compiled a .778 OPS in 52 regular season games and then batted .239 with two homers in 46 postseason at-bats. Bell hit .192 for the Padres and then left as a free agent.

Now, Soto is gone from San Diego as well. The Washington Nationals, however, still have five of the six players they required in the Soto swap, including impressive, 24-year-old left-hander MacKenzie Gore, who posted a 4.42 ERA in his first full season in the majors, and 23-year-old shortstop CJ Abrams, who hit 18 homers and stole 47 bases as a full-timer.

It’s also possible that Gore and Abrams don’t end up as the best players acquired by the Nationals in the Soto trade. That could be outfielder James Wood, 21, who is listed by Baseball America as the Nationals’ No. 2 prospect heading into 2024. The 6-foot-6, left-handed hitter had 26 homers and a .874 OPS between High A and Double A in 2023. Two others in the deal, outfielder Robert Hassell and right-hander Jarlin Susana, are ranked seventh and 10th, respectively, among Nationals prospects by Baseball America.

Meanwhile, the Padres missed the playoffs in 2023, have several holes to fill this offseason and traded Soto to replenish their pitching supply.

Sometimes, teams need to take risks. But I thought Preller’s was an overpay at the time. And that sure is the way it looks now.

Baltimore Orioles add closer in Craig Kimbrel

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles had the best closer in the American League last year in Félix Bautista, but the massive right-hander underwent elbow (Tommy John) surgery in October and is lost for the 2024 season. That left the 101-win club with a mountain-sized hole in its efficient bullpen, and the Orioles filled it Wednesday by signing nine-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel to a one-year, $12 million deal that includes a $13 million option for 2025 with a $1 million buyout.

The guaranteed $13 million is the most lucrative contract doled out by general manager Mike Elias in his five-year Orioles tenure, but it fits with his pattern of guaranteeing no more than one year for free agents.

On the surface, it’s a smart fit. Kimbrel, 35, is eighth on the all-time saves list with 417, and he could move into fourth with a solid 2024. Kimbrel will be the Orioles closer this year while Bautista heals. If he struggles early, he’d still be buying some time in the role while Yennier Cano, DL Hall or Tyler Wells are further groomed for the late innings.

The issue here is that the young Orioles expect to be in the playoffs next season, and Kimbrel has struggled in the postseason recently. In the 2023 NLCS for the Philadelphia Phillies, Kimbrel allowed four runs in three innings, allowing five hits and four walks. In 2021 with the Chicago White Sox, he allowed four baserunners and three runs (two earned) in two innings in the ALDS.

Even when he won the 2018 World Series as the Red Sox closer, Kimbrel was inefficient in the playoffs, walking eight batters and yielding seven earned runs in 10 2/3 innings in that postseason. Yes, that recent playoff track record is somewhat concerning.

The bottom line, however, is that the Orioles needed some experience and stability in the back of their bullpen and Kimbrel has done the job relatively well throughout his career and was willing to sign for one year.

The Orioles need to get to October before they can worry about how Kimbrel will perform in the postseason, but there must be a little concern given his recent track record when a season – and not a game – is on the line.   

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