Is Yankees-Juan Soto trade really ‘make or break’ for Hal Steinbrenner?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 19: Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals looks on during the 92nd MLB All-Star Game presented by Mastercard at Dodger Stadium on July 19, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 19: Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals looks on during the 92nd MLB All-Star Game presented by Mastercard at Dodger Stadium on July 19, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

The New York Yankees, replete with the best roster they’ve sported since their last title in 2009, now must also contend with the potential of the largest blockbuster trade in MLB history ahead of them, as a potential Juan Soto acquisition now blocks their path. But other than that, the 2022 season has been pretty standard.

There’s almost no reasonable framework for a potential Soto deal with the Nationals. He’s among the best players in the modern game, but also among the best hitters baseball has ever seen through his age-23 season. He’s evoked Ted Williams comparisons for his power and patience; Williams has often been called the greatest hitter who’s ever lived.

Dealing for Soto will be irrationally painful, and will involve gutting both a farm system and a young core. There’s nearly no precedent for this type of mega-trade, and there’s certainly no precedent for a first-place, historically-paced team pivoting midseason towards acquiring a Hall of Fame talent, swapping out the disappointing Joey Gallo for the largest possible prize.

All that being said … a Soto deal will be so massive, with so many ripples, that as many times as the baseball universe wants to scream that it’s happening before Aug. 2, it’s still difficult to believe it could possible happen. That’s why using an unprecedented situation as a referendum on Hal Steinbrenner’s ability to care about his father’s Yankees feels impossible … and unfair.

Fans have taken Hal to task plenty over the past few years, and his repeated refusal to splurge for top free agents (from Manny Machado to Carlos Correa to, uh, Patrick Corbin) has drawn ire from both the measured and the reactionary. For better or worse, he and Brian Cashman clearly plan to build a team in their shared vision. They splurge when they’re in complete agreement (Gerrit Cole), and they shift, twist and fit various pieces together to create stars in the aggregate in all other circumstances.

So, if fans already know what this regime entails, how is it fair to use an unprecedented and chaotic event like a Soto trade as a measuring stick, when it’s very possible that something as small as a David Peralta trade will also get the Yankees to the 2022 finish line?

Yankees’ ability to trade for Juan Soto could change Hal Steinbrenner’s legacy

Ian O’Connor’s New York Post examination of Steinbrenner’s forthcoming legacy through the prism of a Soto deal begins with a 1998 comparison:

"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."

That comparison was already unfair from its origin, but to bring up a potential Johnson trade as a Soto comp — even just to shoot it down — already rings hollow. Johnson, an aging ace and a free agent after the 1998 season, was dealt for a pair of top prospects who both panned out in Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen.

Without the benefit of hindsight here to guarantee the Nationals receive only winners in a potential Soto deal, it’s still fair to say the lack of a recent championship isn’t the only reason a Soto decision would be a “tougher” call. If Cashman could swap only Anthony Volpe and Jasson Dominguez for 2.5 years of Soto, he’d do it in a millisecond.

Instead, it’ll take four or five additional prospects, plus a few remarkably bold additions like Jordan Montgomery and Gleyber Torres.

Add Johnson to the ’98 Yankees, and you get a firebreathing ace who doesn’t break the bank. Add Soto to the 2022 group, and he’ll be joining a very different Yankees roster, both present and future.

The argument isn’t, “A lefty-hitting complementary piece could help the 2022 Yankees just as much as Soto could.” The argument is, “How can something that may never happen and will break/shatter/decimate/dissolve the bank if it ever does happen be anyone’s breaking point with Yankees ownership?”

Soto would be a tremendous, overwhelming benefit, and the inherent randomness of postseason play isn’t reason enough not to pursue him. The Yankees — and the rest of baseball — will likely be uncomfortable with the price, though, considering it will almost definitely be peerless.