Can the Soto-Judge pair give Yankees their elusive strategic edge?

Aaron Judge and Juan Soto of the New York Yankees

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The Yankees focus on the strategy of uniting two formidable hitters and challenging the baseball world to confront the duo without suffering offensive consequences. With Juan Soto and Aaron Judge forming a formidable partnership, they are hopeful of achieving this strategic objective fueling their quest for the championship.

Juan Soto takes center stage in the Yankees’ blueprint for a rebound from a season where they ranked 25th in runs per game. Over the past three seasons, Aaron Judge has led the majors in offensive Wins Above Replacement (20.2), and Soto is second (18.7). With the agreement with San Diego sealed, Aaron Boone will almost certainly place them in the 2-3 spots in the order, challenging opposing teams to navigate this formidable duo 10 times a game.

The elusive strategic quest of Yankees

Six years ago this month, the Yankees fell short in their pursuit of free agent Shohei Ohtani. In response, they secured the services of Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins. This combination linked Stanton with Aaron Judge. The imposing Yankees duo smashed 59 and 52 home runs, respectively, in 2017, breaking a drought where no player had reached 50 homers from 2014-2016, and no right-handed batter had achieved it since 2010.

However, in a sense, Stanton emerged as a linchpin in the gradual decline of a Yankees positional group that became excessively right-handed, prone to strikeouts, lacking in athleticism, and plagued by injuries.

With Ohtani, once again a free agent showing no interest in The Bronx, the Yankees orchestrated a deal to forge another dynamic duo, a cornerstone of their strategy to introduce more diversity. On Wednesday night, the Yankees concluded a trade to acquire Juan Soto and Trent Grisham, parting with a substantial pitching package and catcher Kyle Higashioka.

However, there’s more to consider. Grisham is part of the deal, and on Tuesday, the Yankees secured Alex Verdugo from Boston. Brian Cashman had expressed the desire to acquire two outfielders, preferably left-handed hitters. He has now landed three.

Juan Soto upgrade of Yankees offense

Last season, the Yankees ranked 29th in plate appearances by left-handed hitters and 28th in Weighted Runs Created-plus from that side. Stanton played a central role in the Yankees’ dominance of right-handed hitting. Since his arrival in the 2018 season, the Yankees have consistently ranked in the bottom nine in plate appearances by lefties, and only once—bolstered by nine anomalous weeks in 2022 from Matt Carpenter—have the Yankees finished with a positive wRC-plus from the left side.

Juan Soto is undeniably among the elite left-handed hitters in the game, Verdugo brings consistent productivity, and Grisham provides a profile reminiscent of Joey Gallo—blending power, speed, a lower batting average, and a propensity for strikeouts.

The Yankees can now restore balance with four left-handed hitters regularly featuring in the starting lineup— Juan Soto, Verdugo, Anthony Rizzo, and Austin Wells—and, when needed, Grisham. Waiting in the wings are switch-hitter Jasson Dominguez recovering from Tommy John surgery, and potentially Trey Sweeney next season and Spencer Jones in 2025.

Notably, Juan Soto and Verdugo demonstrate an ability to limit strikeouts. Among qualified hitters, Soto led the majors in walk percentage at 18.6 percent, with only Alex Bregman in the top 25 having a lower strikeout rate than walk rate (Soto’s was 18.2). Verdugo, Yandy Diaz, Jose Ramirez, and Kyle Tucker are the only players with at least 500 plate appearances and a strikeout percentage of 16 percent or lower in each of the last three seasons.

The Yankees might assemble a lineup featuring Juan Soto, Verdugo, and Gleyber Torres, all boasting below-average strikeout rates, along with Rizzo and DJ LeMahieu, who were challenging to strike out before the previous season.

Furthermore, Juan Soto and Verdugo have demonstrated durability, each surpassing 600 plate appearances in each of the last three seasons, while Grisham has exceeded 500 each year.

The changeup

While Soto falls below average defensively and Judge’s skills diminish in the center compared to right field, Grisham shines as a superb center fielder. In situations where Stanton lands on the IL (with a nod to Brian Cashman), the Yankees could align from left to right with an excellent defensive trio of Verdugo, Grisham, and Judge, and have Soto as the designated hitter.

The crucial aspect of the deal lies in acquiring an additional 650-plus plate appearances from Soto alongside Judge. Despite Soto’s historic performance through his age-24 season, with a projected $33 million salary for 2024 and just one year left until free agency, the Yankees opted to trade Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito, and Randy Vazquez, along with Higashioka.

This decision reflected the Yankees’ role as an ideal partner for San Diego. The Padres were in dire need of financial relief (with Grisham owed around $5 million) and sought pitching and catching additions. The Yankees, with their payroll flexibility and depth in these areas, were well-positioned to meet these needs. Losing King, with his potential as a No. 2 starter, is a significant blow, especially considering his injury history. The depth loss also puts pressure on the Yankees to pursue their top pitching target, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and potentially secure other pieces, such as the Cuban-born Japanese righty Yariel Hernandez.

The irresistible appeal of Juan Soto, particularly when paired with Aaron Judge, proved too compelling for the Yankees to resist. In their efforts to move beyond the unfavorable narratives of 2023, they are once again venturing into the realm of a dynamic duo. This time, opting for the classic left-right combination.

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