Has Juan Soto finally found a home with New York Yankees?

WHEN JUAN SOTO began to initiate himself with the New York Yankees, his third team in less than two years, the takeaway from those who observed it was how seamless it felt — how comfortable he looked, how easily he found his voice, how quickly it seemed as if he had been there forever.

He’s getting better at this.

“It’s definitely easier than the first time,” Soto said with a laugh earlier this month, about two weeks after his first official workout as a Yankee. “The first time, it was really tough.”

It can be jarring to consider Soto — the accomplishments he has had, the legends he has been compared to, the trades he has been at the center of — and realize he is only 25 years old, younger than Baltimore’s Adley Rutschman, Toronto’s Bo Bichette and Atlanta’s Austin Riley. Before Soto, no player had ever made three All-Star teams and been traded twice before the age of 26.

The latest brought him to his sport’s most decorated franchise, for whom he’ll debut in an Opening Day matchup against the rival Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Thursday afternoon. The Yankees will pair Soto with fellow superstar Aaron Judge in hopes of revitalizing a lineup that often looked listless amid an 82-win, playoff-less season last year. But only the 2024 season is promised. After it ends, Soto will venture into the free agent market, potentially on the move once more.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Soto thought his career would be a steady and continuous ascension, the type reserved for only a select few of the game’s greatest. Debuting at 19, winning the World Series after his age-20 season, claiming a batting title at 21 and drawing comparisons to Ted Williams by 22 will do that. He has since had to grapple with interruption, calamity, imperfection. He believes he has been hardened by it.

“The Nationals showed me the business side of the game,” Soto said, “and I’m just glad they showed me that.”

Soto spent an entire morning crying after being traded away from the Washington Nationals, the team that signed him, shaped him, watched him become a star and helped make him a champion. In the aftermath of his trade from the San Diego Padres 16 months later, in December 2023, he was unemotional, fully adept at navigating the cold realities of professional sports.

“I’ve been growing a lot,” Soto said. “On the business side, I’ve been learning a lot of things — about different organizations, different cultures. I think I’ve been learning from that. I’m happy I’m learning that way, so that whenever I get to one spot I know how to react whenever I get around a clubhouse that is going to be different.”

Barring an unexpected extension with the Yankees, Soto, a Scott Boras client, will become baseball’s most coveted free agent in a little more than seven months. Given the heavy deferrals in Shohei Ohtani’s contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers — he signed for $700 million, but the present-day value, based on how it impacts the competitive balance tax payroll, sits at $460 million — Soto still has a chance to sign the richest contract in baseball history.

But what he wants more than anything is stability.

“That’s the best thing for me,” Soto said. “Stay in one place and try to, whenever I do this deal, just finish in that one spot.”

THE DETAILS OF professional sports contracts are often public, forcing athletes to live with the pressure of how much money they make. Few, though, have to live with the pressure of how much money they turn down. Soto lived that reality in the summer of 2022, during a 17-day window that began with the revelation that he declined a 15-year, $440 million extension from the Nationals on July 16 and ended with his trade to the Padres on Aug. 2.

The noise didn’t just come from fans and media, but from friends and family, many of them miffed by how anyone, let alone a person with such humble beginnings, could turn down generational wealth.

“It was days,” Soto said, “where I’d wake up and I’d get so many text messages, calls, phone calls, everything, that it just made you not even want to go to the field.”

Roughly 17 months later, the anger over all of it becoming public still feels fresh.

“I was a guy who was loyal to the team,” Soto said. “I always tried to say, ‘Anything we do business-wise, it was just between the team and myself.’ And it was really shocking for me, it was really tough for me. It was really frustrating at the same time, because I really trusted that team. I gave all my trust to be able to negotiate and do things like that, and when you see stuff like that, you just feel so bad. It was really uncomfortable.”

The Nationals’ extension offer, which didn’t come with any deferrals, would stand as baseball’s second-largest contract even today. But its average annual value, $29.3 million, would rank Soto behind 18 other players this season. Given the combined $54 million he will make in his last two arbitration years, Soto projects to do better than that in free agency, especially with another MVP-caliber year in 2024. Any free agent deal exceeding $386 million would net him more money in the aggregate.

Just as big a deterrent as the average annual value for Soto, though, was that the Nationals were for sale at the time.

“You’re being offered a contract from a faceless owner,” Boras said in a phone conversation. “And Juan Soto didn’t want to place his career in that position, because he really wanted to know who he was going to be working with for years to come.”

“People can judge you, but at the end of the day, it’s you who has to feel comfortable,” said retired outfielder Nelson Cruz, a confidant of Soto’s with the Nationals in 2022 who briefly joined him with the Padres in 2023. “That made me really proud of him, to see him figure out, ‘It’s me who has to deal with it.’ It was great to see him grow up as a player, grow up on the business side, because he understood his value and what he’s worth. He’s very educated with that. I hope he gets what he wants.”

Once he arrived in San Diego, Soto said, “all the noise just stopped.” But the 2022 season still saw him finish with only a .242 batting average and a .452 slugging percentage, by far the lowest marks of his career. The Padres won anyway, making it all the way to the National League Championship Series. The ensuing offseason saw them sign Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280 million contract. Later, near the end of February, Manny Machado was given an 11-year, $350 million extension.

It seemed like the Padres — also tied long-term to Fernando Tatis Jr., Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish — didn’t have any more millions to give. But Soto said he maintained hope of staying, too. His conversations with owner Peter Seidler made him believe it was possible.

“He really wanted me to be part of the team,” Soto said.

Boras saved his last exchange with Seidler, a short text message from Nov. 2. In it, Seidler, who late in the season had undergone an undisclosed medical procedure, wrote that he was “improving steadily” and that though doctors had told him to stay off his phone, “I’m going to keep in touch with you anyway.” Twelve days later, Seidler died. Sources familiar with the team’s thinking believe the Padres ultimately would have had no choice but to trade Soto; it was their best — and perhaps only — route to adding starting-pitching depth and getting their payroll below $200 million, two clear goals at the start of the offseason. But many wonder if Seidler would have found a way to keep Soto regardless.

“I only know everything that Peter said to me,” Boras said. “Peter Seidler always said to me that Juan Soto will be on his team. He said it 50 times to me — ‘Juan Soto will be on my team.'”

SOTO HAS SAID all the right things about becoming a Yankee. But he hasn’t been as effusive as one might expect for what feels like such a natural fit — a magnetic, star-level player for a premier franchise. Some have rationalized it as another bargaining move, not unlike Soto’s decision to turn down the Nationals’ final offer; a way to maintain leverage in the lead-up to a free agency that will include the crosstown New York Mets, among others, as aggressive suitors.

It might be something else, though: a defense mechanism. Soto doesn’t want to get hurt again, and so he won’t allow himself to.

“That’s how things go,” Soto said. “You definitely love where you’re at, you’re definitely happy, excited with where you’re going to be and how the team’s going to be — but they show you you cannot fall in love, like I did with the Nationals. I was more than excited to be there, and they just cracked everything open and let me go.”

Boras has had precisely 52 meetings with Soto (“I keep track of them,” he said) to go over “the economics of the game and his value in it.” Soto is not just one of the best hitters of this era; at a time when players constantly sacrifice strikeouts to keep up with the high velocities and elevated spin rates of the modern game, his combination of patience and power is unmatched. Soto drew a major-league-leading 412 walks from 2021 to 2023, 136 more than the second-place Kyle Schwarber, but also accumulated 91 home runs, tied for 15th. His adjusted OPS of 157 is the fifth highest all-time through a player’s age-24 season, trailing only Ty Cobb, Mike Trout, Mickey Mantle and Jimmie Foxx, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

That he’ll be a free agent at 26 years old only adds to the possibility that his next contract will reach the $500 million threshold that had been so elusive until Ohtani. Soto, though, cares about the length of his new deal at least as much as he cares about the value attached to it. It’ll be the first long-term contract he signs, but he also wants it to be his last.

“At the end of the day, everybody wants to be where they’re going to finish their career,” Soto said. “This free agency was really tough for a lot of players, but I think if you ask any guy in the clubhouse, anywhere, they will be happy to be in a long-term deal and try to finish their career where they can be. That’s the best thing for me — to stay in one place and try to, whenever I do this deal, just finish in that one spot.”

Soto brought up his four most prominent ex-teammates — Machado, Bogaerts, Trea Turner and Bryce Harper. Machado, Bogaerts and Turner each signed 11-year deals that carry them through their age-40 season; Harper signed a 13-year contract after hitting free agency at a similar age as Soto will. All have full no-trade clauses.

“Long contracts,” Soto said, “because they know they’re going to finish their career right there. Anything can happen in the future. Maybe they get traded. But that’s going to be on them if they want to get traded, instead of going to free agency and trying the market again. They just know they’re going to be there for a long time.”

YANKEES GENERAL MANAGER Brian Cashman lowered the expectations early. On the first day of spring training, when he met with the New York media, he essentially stated that, barring something unforeseen, Soto will play out the 2024 season in the Bronx and then become a free agent. It was a reaction to a conversation Boras had with managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner shortly after the trade, during which Boras relayed Soto’s desire to “learn what it’s like to be a Yankee” before making a long-term commitment.

It was also an acknowledgment of the obvious.

“Scott Boras is his agent,” Cashman said plainly. “Scott takes his guys to free agency. That’s typically what he does. It’s just reading the landscape and recognizing that that is the most realistic avenue. It doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen. I don’t rule it out. But I just feel like underpromise, overperform is probably, in the New York market, the best thing you can do.”

The Yankees are expected to be aggressive in their efforts to bring Soto back this offseason, even if it means giving him a contract that tops the one signed by their captain, Judge, who landed a nine-year, $360 million deal as a 30-year-old in December 2022.

The results of 2024 could have a lot of sway.

The Yankees are coming off one of their most disappointing seasons in recent memory and will be without their ace, Gerrit Cole, until at least May or June while he recovers from what has been diagnosed as nerve inflammation and edema in his right elbow. Soto has never needed to be more of a difference-maker, and the early signs were promising. His first seven Grapefruit League games saw him hit four home runs, leaving his new team in awe.

“I feel like he’s going to kill the ball every time he swings,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said at the time.

“I knew I would enjoy watching him,” Cole said, “but I love watching him.”

There are no questions surrounding Soto’s ability to hit, but there are plenty surrounding his ability to defend, so much so that there are already talks — among fans, but also among scouts and executives — about him eventually transitioning to designated hitter, perhaps sooner rather than later. It’s the one aspect of his game that could prevent the massive contract he once seemed preordained for, and he knows it.

“I want to show people that I can play outfield, I can play defense,” Soto said. “I saw those comments and everything, that they say I’m not going to be [much] longer in the outfield. But I feel like I can.”

By Statcast’s Run Value metric, Soto was a minus-30 from 2018 to 2023, though the number was heavily skewed by an abysmal showing in 2022. He was worth four outs above average in 2021, but minus-16 in 2022 and minus-9 in 2023. In hopes of getting him closer to the metrics of three years ago, Yankees outfield coach Luis Rojas spent a large portion of spring training working with Soto on pre-pitch techniques in hopes of improving his first step, usually by taking live reads during batting practice. His desire to improve has been obvious.

“I noticed that from the first day we talked,” Rojas said. “You can sense it right away, when a player takes over a conversation and basically owns it. You see the sense of responsibility that he has for his career, in all areas.”

Cruz sees Soto as the prototypical Yankee, for reasons that extend far beyond a short right-field porch. Cruz, 43, spent 19 years in the big leagues and struggled to find someone more focused, more disciplined and more mature than Soto. Those traits, while coupled with a strong demeanor and a hard exterior, have at times distanced Soto from teammates, as some around the Padres can attest to. But Cruz believes they’ll be a major benefit under New York’s magnifying glass.

“The fans are going to love him,” said Cruz, now an adviser with the Dodgers. “He’s the type of player the Yankees are looking for.”

Soto made fast friends with fellow outfielder Alex Verdugo, his new throwing partner and locker mate at the Yankees’ spring training complex in Tampa, Florida. One locker over was Trent Grisham, the veteran center fielder who came over with Soto in the most recent trade. Grisham was on the same Padres team where Soto admittedly struggled to adapt and was surprised to see Soto now so comfortable, so at ease, at such an early stage with the Yankees. Grisham told him as much before the end of the first week.

“He looks happy,” Grisham said a few days later. “He looks excited.”

He’s done this before.

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