Why the Yankees still have work to do after trading for Juan Soto

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Yankees’ offseason is far from over.

Trading for Juan Soto generates legitimate excitement and boosts New York’s chances of winning the American League East, to be sure. But after general manager Brian Cashman completes his victory lap, he must return to work. The Yankees need reinforcements in the rotation, some bullpen pieces, and consistent lineup production from players not named Aaron Judge or Soto.

The Yankees are still heavily in pursuit of decorated Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, as are multiple other teams, with the crosstown rival New York Mets chief among them. 

“Our reports are that this guy is really good,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of Yamamoto this week at MLB’s annual winter meetings. “I think the industry sees it the same way, and it feels like there’s going to be a lot of suitors for him. But I feel quite confident that he is going to come over here and be a really special top-of-the-rotation type pitcher.”

Cashman went to Japan in September and attended Yamamoto’s no-hitter in person. The GM said he didn’t learn anything new about Yamamoto from that visit, but watching the special no-hitter made the trip worthwhile for him. 

Well, the Mets might have just done one better. Mets owner Steve Cohen and president of baseball operations David Stearns visited Yamamoto in Japan last week. Cohen and Stearns even met Yamamoto’s family and the two sides chatted over dinner. While Cohen wining and dining Yamamoto is a positive sign for the Mets, in the end it might just be the size of his wallet that tips the scale for the Japanese starter. 

Cashman understands Cohen’s leverage. Amid discussing the possibility of being in the thick of a bidding war for Yamamoto, Cashman said the Yankees will put their best foot forward and are ready to compete. But when asked in a follow-up if they can compete with Cohen, Cashman looked down before responding. 

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“I don’t know if anybody can compete with Steve Cohen,” Cashman said. “He’s obviously a titan of industries. He’s had a lot of success and built an empire which has allowed him to do things like the Mets. So, good for him and his family. But I think we can just concentrate on what we’re going to concentrate on. Obviously, [Yamamoto] is a player of interest, and we’ll see where that takes us. It’ll either be enough, or it won’t be enough. But I think we have a strong setup currently and we’d just like to add to it if we can.”

After Cohen bought the Mets, Hal Steinbrenner said the New York rivals being competitive is good for baseball, so it’s possible Cohen’s pursuit of Yamamoto could persuade Steinbrenner to push that much harder for the prized pitcher. The Mets need Yamamoto (plus one or two more starters) to be considered contenders in 2024. The Yankees don’t exactly need a high-caliber starter like Yamamoto to be contenders, but that sort of reinforcement in the rotation would boost their chances of being a force in the postseason — presuming, unlike last year, that they first get to October. 

Gerrit Cole finally picked that elusive Cy Young award last month following what was a “disaster” of a season for the Yankees, an apt description that came from Cashman. Cole was about the lone bright spot. In his age-32 season, the hard-throwing right-hander was able to bounce back from a disappointing 2022 in which he spiraled in high-leverage situations and gave up too many home runs. Then he cut his home-run rate in half in 2023. Last year’s dominance was a testament to Cole’s work and growth in New York, a season that suggests better years are still to come. 

Still, the Yankees need to supplement Cole’s ace production with a starting pitcher (or two) who has plenty of upside. Lefty Carlos Rodón fits that description, though he seriously struggled in his first year in the Bronx (6.85 ERA, 64.1 innings pitched), and fans let him hear it. 

“Yes and no,” said pitching coach Matt Blake when asked if he’s concerned about Rodón’s relationship with the fan base. “That’s a concern for all our guys and to weather that, because it’s a lot for everybody. But I do think that he’s committed to putting himself in the best spot possible to come out. And I think the fans will always welcome you if you come out and show up and compete on a daily basis. And, obviously, if results follow, I think they’ll welcome him back.”

When discussing potential offseason acquisitions, Cashman made it clear the Yankees are prioritizing players who can handle New York and succeed in that high-pressure atmosphere. It’s no secret the Yankees have recently been burned by acquisitions who failed to excel in the concrete jungle, with Joey Gallo, Frankie Montas and possibly now Rodón falling into that category. Rodón figures to finally be healthy next year, but how soon he can return to his All-Star form remains to be seen. The Yankees are counting on him to have a rebound season with or without Yamamoto in the mix. 

Beyond Cole and Rodón, Nestor Cortes is apparently recovered from the left rotator strain that prematurely ended his 2023 campaign. The Yankees parted ways with Domingo Germán, who is a free agent this offseason following six years in pinstripes that ended with off-the-field issues concerning domestic violence and alcohol abuse. With Michael King traded to the Padres as part of the Soto swap, it’s likely Clarke Schmidt will receive more opportunities to start. Thus, there’s plenty of room for Yamamoto to join the fray.

“I like our pitching, certainly when it’s healthy I like our pitching,” Cashman said. “Nestor’s fine now. He’s in his throwing program. So, Nestor coming back, Rodón in year two. We expect him to be Rodón like we imported. And Gerrit Cole coming off the year he just had. I think we got a lot of depth. We got young kids coming that we’re really excited about. I’m comfortable with what we have, worst-case scenario. But when there’s an opportunity to add more towards the front end of it, potentially, you gotta strive for it and play for it if you can.”

There’s no need for guesswork here. A big starting pitching acquisition is certainly next on the Yankees’ wish list. It’s probably a must-have if they’re going to win it all.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar. 

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