As caretaker of a special team in 1998, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman correctly gambled at the trade deadline that he could win a title without giving Seattle what it wanted for Randy Johnson. Cashman now faces similar circumstances with the Nationals and Juan Soto, only this time the call is a tougher one to make.
In 1998 Cashman knew the core Yankees could win it all without Johnson, because they had done it two years earlier. The GM has no such source of comfort this summer. His team hasn’t won the big one since 2009, and given the history and expectations that define the franchise, that championship “drought” feels about as long as the Jets’ (January 1969) and the Knicks’ (May 1973).
Cashman has seen it all in his quarter century on the job, and frankly, I don’t think we’re going to learn much about him between now and 6 pm on Aug. 2. He’s highly qualified to determine if a prospects-plus package headlined by Anthony Volpe is a price worth paying for Soto. But if the GM does come to temporary terms with his Washington counterpart, Mike Rizzo, I do think we will learn something about Hal Steinbrenner.
As in, just how badly the Yankees owner wants to win.
Yes, of course, everyone wants to win. But there is a vast difference between saying that you want to win and acting like you need to win. Steinbrenner’s decision on whether to approve a Soto acquisition and the potential half-billion dollar contract to come after 2024 — on top of a potential monster contract for Aaron Judge and existing monster deals for Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton — would identify which camp he’s in.
Up front, understand that employing the 23-year-old Soto for three postseason runs alone would be worth just about anything Rizzo could ask for. Now in Double-A ball, the 21-year-old Volpe might be a long-term Yankees shortstop out of central casting as a supremely talented Jersey Boy who idolized Derek Jeter.
But measuring his upside requires some educated guessing. There is no educated guess with Soto, who, by Volpe’s current age, had already delivered a 34-homer, 110-RBI season in the bigs and a three-homer, seven-RBI performance in a winning World Series. Soto needs to drive just four more balls over the fence to have more home runs before his 24th birthday than another slugger who made a loud entry into the sport at age 19. A kid by the name of Mickey Mantle.
Soto would be something with that right-field porch in The Bronx. He also draws more walks than anyone in baseball, giving him a better career on-base percentage (.427) than Mantle or Mike Trout. And the fact he could absorb an extended media grilling about the reported $15-year, $440 million Nationals offer he rejected, then win the Home Run Derby hours later, suggests … well … what everything else on his résumé suggests:
That the Yankees (64-28) with Soto would be a near death-and-taxes lock in the postseason to beat Houston and everyone else in their way. Oh, and that a Yankees team anchored by Judge and Soto would have a chance to win multiple titles, 1990s style.
Assuming that ownership is willing to pay them both.
Although Hal Steinbrenner is no Steve Cohen, never mind Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, when it comes to net worth, the family-run Yankees are still worth $6 billion (and closer to $7 billion when factoring in the YES Network and other properties), according to Forbes. That puts their valuation at nearly $2 billion more than the Dodgers’ and $3.35 billion more than that of the Mets, and those teams are committing more to payroll than the Yankees’ $250 million, according to Spotrac.
Steinbrenner said in the spring that it’s his responsibility every year “to make sure that we’re financially responsible.” I’ve got a lot of partners and banks and bondholders and things like that that I answer to. But at the same time, it’s always the goal to win a championship.”
If that’s the goal, landing Soto in the dawn of his prime is the ultimate slam dunk. Soto isn’t Kevin Durant, who will be 34 on opening night in the fall. But he is good enough to be a franchise player long after Judge, Stanton, and Cole start to decline.
And given the Yankees’ value, this shouldn’t be an either/or call between Judge and Soto, although the latter would represent one hell of an insurance policy in case the former bolts in free agency. Judge has earned a contract far north of the seven-year, $213.5-million extension offer he rejected in the spring, and Steinbrenner should give it to him.
The owner would then have two years to figure out how to pay Soto about $500 million on top of that, assuming the outfielder keeps playing the way he’s playing.
So if Cashman and Rizzo can agree on the All-Star’s worth, Steinbrenner should be willing to eat Patrick Corbin’s contract and sacrifice the payroll balance that Yankees prospects provide in their early years on the roster.
In the end, as unfair as it might be to forever compare Steinbrenner to his father, a flawed man and leader, there’s no doubt what George Steinbrenner would do here. He would add Soto to Judge just like he once added Alex Rodriguez to Jeter.
Hal Steinbrenner might soon get the chance to pick up a very big check, or two, and whether he does or doesn’t will tell us an awful lot about him.