Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Juan Soto not ready for a free agency decision yet, but he’s ‘really enjoyed’ being a Yankee so far

Juan Soto’s tenure with the New York Yankees has gone swimmingly thus far since they acquired him in a December seven-player blockbuster trade with the San Diego Padres. While Soto’s high level of production has of course buoyed the Yankees’ hopes for a bounceback season in 2024, it’s also increased the pressure and angst surrounding Soto’s future. That future is uncertain because Soto is slated for free agency this coming offseason, and the expectation is that he’ll exercise those rights. 

Speaking of those very much intertwined storylines, Jon Heyman of the New York Post asked Soto on Saturday whether he wants to remain a Yankee beyond the current season. To that question, Soto diplomatically replied: 

“I mean, right now I’m still learning the team. You cannot tell from one month into the season. You’ve got to see how it’s going to be all the way until the season ends.”

… 

“I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a great experience. It’s a great group of guys. We all feel comfortable playing for each other. It’s feeling great so far.”

Standard-issue reply, mild cause for Yankee-partisan optimism, or a little of both? You decide. The working assumption, though, is that Soto will test the free-agent market after the current season. He’s a Scott Boras client, and Boras’ superstar clients tend to want to reach the market as soon as possible. As well, Soto earlier in his career turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension offer from the Nationals, which strongly suggests a commitment to reaching free agency. The Padres’ efforts to sign Soto after acquiring him from the Nats also came to grief, which in part led to the trade with the Yankees. 

Of course, in the seemingly very likely event that Soto does reach the market, all is not lost in the Bronx. You’ll recall that Yankees slugger and lifer Aaron Judge reached free agency and got very serious with the Giants before ultimately inking a nine-year, $360 million pact that brought him back to the Yanks. In terms of spending prowess in MLB, only the Dodgers can compare to the Yankees, so when it comes to securing Soto’s services beyond the current season it’s in large measure a matter of will on the part of owner Hal Steinbrenner.

So far, Soto is taking full advantage of his market-setting walk year, even if his Yankee mess-mates in the lineup aren’t yet holding up their end. Going into Sunday’s slate, Soto boasts a 2024 slash line of .318/.425/.561 with eight homers and an MLB-leading 26 walks (against 21 strikeouts). The durable Soto has also played in every game so far. And while the sample size is small, he’s also shown significantly improved defensive metrics. For as long as he’s been a frontline producer at the plate, it’s easy to forget that Soto is still just 25 years of age. He’s going to be exceptionally young as free agents go, and he’ll (presumably) enter the market as one of the top “power and patience” hitters in the game today.

Now for the rest of the Yankees. Despite Soto’s sky-scraping contributions, the Yankee offense as a whole has been a bit disappointing so far. That’s because of Judge’s uncharacteristically slow start and the regression of a couple of key bats who were on a heater in the early weeks of 2024. It’s not a desperate state of affairs – the Yankees right now rank 10th in MLB in runs scored and eighth in OPS – but it’s shy of what’s expected from a lineup that features Soto, Judge, and some promising young talents. Framed another way, Yankee hitters not named Juan Soto this season have combined for a slash line of .235/.318/.373, which is far from optimal. 

All that said, the Yankees at present are in playoff position, just a game behind the first-place Orioles, and on pace for 102 wins. SportsLine, in a related matter, right now gives the Yanks an 88.5% chance of making the postseason. If all of that generally holds, then Soto will get at least a taste of playoff baseball in the Bronx, and that could be a useful foundation for the Yankees when it comes to Soto’s future beyond 2024. 

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