Soto debuts at camp, with Yankees tenure beyond 2024 all but clear

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Monday, February 19, 2024

TAMPA, Fla. -- On his first official day in camp, Juan Soto walked into George M. Steinbrenner Field, the sun barely up over the horizon, flashed a big smile and told the New York Yankees' social media account, "I have a great feeling."

Based on the comments on Instagram, Yankees fans agree.

They're also making demands: Make Soto a Yankee for life and give him an extension before he reaches free agency at the end of the season.

That remains an unlikely scenario, however, as for now Soto says he's focusing on 2024 -- and decidedly noncommittal about his long-term future.

"We have to get to know the Yankees organization and the city and how it is playing in New York and then make a decision," he said while addressing the media wearing a T-shirt reading "The Generational Juan Soto" and picturing himself in full follow-through swing.

He's just here to play baseball, in other words. He'll let agent Scott Boras worry about his free agency and doesn't believe there will be any additional pressure because of his contract situation or playing for the Yankees. He faced a similar scenario in San Diego.

"About that free agent stuff and everything, I just let Scott do his thing," he said. "I have a lot of trust in him. That's one of the biggest things I have, that I just trust him so much I forget about all that and just go play baseball. When I came here, I was just thinking, 'I have another chance to compete and go try to win another championship.'"

Last week, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman admitted, "The odds are this is a one-year situation. I don't see too many things stopping him from reaching free agency."

Indeed, Soto will play this season at age 25 and enter free agency at 26, still young enough to secure one of the biggest deals in the sport's history. Shohei Ohtani's $700 million contract features almost all deferred payments, so it is calculated at $460.8 million for competitive balance tax payroll purposes. Mike Trout's 12-year, $426.5 million deal with the Angels is the second largest. Soto could exceed either of those figures thanks to his career .421 on-base percentage, the best in the majors since he debuted as a teenager in 2018.

In the meantime, he'll pair with Aaron Judge to form one of the most lethal one-two punches in the majors.

"It's going to be fun," he said. "We both know the strike zone really well. It's going to be two walks or two gappers. If I'm hitting in front of him, I'll try to be on base as much as I can so he can do his job and he can drop the hammer."

For manager Aaron Boone, figuring out where to hit Soto and Judge will be a good kind of dilemma. Judge has most often hit second in his Yankees career, with 102 of his 104 starts in 2023 coming in the 2-hole and 112 of 153 starts there in 2022 (when he also hit leadoff 34 times).With Soto, however, Boone has the option of batting one of the game's best on-base hitters ahead of the power-hitting Judge.

Judge has lobbied to hit third in the past, including recently on Sean Casey's podcast.

"That's been going on about six years now," Boone said with a laugh last week. "He might get his wish, finally."

The Yankees traded a package of five players for Soto and center fielder Trent Grisham in December -- pitchers Michael King, Jhony Brito, Randy Vasquez and Drew Thorpe, plus catcher Kyle Higashioka. The Yankees gave up pitching depth, but it was a deal the team believed it had to make after missing the postseason in 2023 for the first time since 2016 and, at 82-80, nearly finishing with its first losing season since 1992.

The biggest culprit was a lackluster offense that finished 11th in the American League in runs, the second time in three seasons the Yankees didn't even rank in the top 10. Noticeably absent was the lack of left-handed production: The Yankees were 28th in the majors with just 55 home runs from left-handed hitters, and 27th in OPS from the left side.

Soto will obviously improve those rankings and could be primed for a big season in Yankee Stadium. He hit .275/.410/.519 with 35 home runs for the Padres in 2023 -- but .307/.422/.604 with 23 home runs away from Petco Park, a difficult stadium for hitters.

He's not a dead-pull hitter, however, and is already telling himself not to change anything about his hitting approach.

"Don't go crazy with the short porch in right field," he said.