Yankees fill void with Alex Verdugo trade; Red Sox gain flexibility and promise

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chances are, the Yankees won’t actually let Alex Verdugo wear grillz in his next roster photo.

After three days of transaction-less statis at the 2023 MLB winter meetings, the Red Sox and Yankees flipped the stove back on. Boston is sending the 27-year-old Verdugo down the eastern seaboard in exchange for a trio of pitching prospects. The swap is just the eighth trade between the two teams since 1969.

Alternate reports immediately after the deal indicated that the addition of Verdugo does not rule the Yankees out of the Juan Soto sweepstakes. In fact, sources around the league believe the Yankees remain the favorites for the all-world slugger. But that’s the future’s problem. Let’s dig into the here and now.

Why the Yankees did it:

There’s a lot to unpack with this move. First, the facts.

Verdugo is a free agent at the end of next season. Barring an unlikely extension, he will reach the open market in a year’s time. His tenure in New York will probably last just a single season, which is why the return for a legitimate big-league starting outfielder was perhaps a tad underwhelming.

Here’s another fact: The Yankees outfield was rotten eggs in 2023. No outfield group in baseball was less valuable, which is mind-blowing when you remember that Aaron Judge, one of the best hitters on earth, had 288 plate appearances as an outfielder. The pinstripers were desperate for anything resembling an average MLB hitter, and that’s exactly what Verdugo is.

Last season, the former Dodgers prospect was a league-average bat, right on the nose with a 100 OPS+ and a .264/.324/.421 slash line. But in this world, average is good, which means that he accounted for 2.6 WAR.

And there’s a reason to believe in more. Verdugo has flashed All-Star potential at various times since debuting in 2017. He’s immensely talented and his left-handed stick will play quite well with Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch. And Verdugo’s floor — an average hitter, with an average glove in a corner outfield spot who makes occasional headlines for his goofy behavior and low motor — isn’t a disaster either.

Now, it is worth saying: Verdugo is a weird culture fit. The formerly bearded outfielder is a free spirit whose relentlessly gregarious and outgoing personality occasionally grates on people. Some find it refreshing, others juvenile. At times during his tenure in Boston, Verdugo found himself on the wrong side of his skipper, Alex Cora. The outfielder was benched multiple times over the years for a dearth of discipline. Sometimes, it was a lack of on-field effort; one day this past August, he sat after a tardy arrival at the ballpark.

That’s a volatile presence to add into the high-stress media circus that is the New York Yankees. Maybe Verdugo will grow up and thrive, maybe he’ll piss everyone off and be gone by May, or maybe — and this is the most likely outcome — he’ll remain a flawed, limited, valuable outfielder that makes the Yankees incrementally better but doesn’t tip the scales.

More importantly, the Yanks didn’t give up too much to get him. Their organization is phenomenal at developing pitchers, which means their system remains loaded with enough arms to send to San Diego in a coveted Soto trade.

Yankees grade: B

— Jake Mintz

Why the Red Sox did it:

Verdugo’s Boston tenure began as one of the key pieces acquired from Los Angeles in exchange for Mookie Betts, in one of the most important trades of the 21st century. It now ends with a deal that stuns for entirely different reasons. With infielder Jeter Downs long gone from the organization, catcher Connor Wong remains the lone piece left in Boston from the Betts deal.

But enough about the past, let’s look ahead. A Red Sox-Yankees trade is fascinating under any circumstance, but consider the context with this specific deal: Both teams are coming off massively disappointing seasons with mounting pressure to turn things around as quickly as possible. The Yankees are addressing an obvious need in acquiring a lefty outfield bat. Once you get over the whole “THE RED SOX AND YANKEES MADE A TRADE?!” shock and awe, it makes perfect sense from a roster-building perspective. 

What about the Red Sox, though? They finished behind the woefully underwhelming Yankees, after all, and I don’t sense that Red Sox fans are especially eager to stomach another last-place finish. Why would Boston — with such pressure to win — subtract an everyday starter?

For one, Verdugo’s time in Boston seems to have run its course. With just a year left on his contract and no indication of a desire to continue the relationship long term, Verdugo emerged as a valuable trade candidate more so than a likely crucial part of the 2024 lineup. By swinging this deal with the ultimate rival, Boston’s new chief baseball officer Craig Breslow is boldly indicating confidence in his front office’s ability to go backward before it goes forward. 

The projected outfield is promising but incredibly inexperienced, with Jarren Duran, Wilyer Abreu and Ceddanne Rafaela penciled in as things stand. But by clearing Verdugo’s projected $9 million salary for 2024, Boston has added some payroll wiggle room to pursue a veteran outfield bat that will potentially fit better than Verdugo in either the short or long term.

They also didn’t give away Verdugo for nothing. Three right-handed pitchers — Richard Fitts, Greg Weissert and Nicholas Judice — are headed back Boston’s way, a predictable package considering Breslow’s repeated stated intentions of bolstering the pitching depth at every level of the organization. Weissert is the likeliest arm to contribute in 2024, a reliever with a handful of big-league appearances with middling results thus far, but two different fastballs and a sweeper with a bunch of movement. Judice was selected in the eighth round of the most recent draft as a senior out of Louisiana-Monroe and has yet to throw a pro pitch, so he’s a ways off. 

Fitts is the real prize here. The big right-hander showed flashes of frontline potential at times during his amateur career at Auburn, but struggled mightily as a junior, hurting his draft stock to the degree that New York was able to scoop him up in Round 6 of the 2021 draft. New York was a great landing spot for him from a development perspective, and he’s re-established a lot of his prospect value in pro ball. His 163 strikeouts across 27 starts in Double-A this year were 10th-most among all minor-league pitchers, setting him up for a possible 2024 debut should he show well in Triple-A. 

All in all, Boston did well to flip Verdugo for some potentially useful arms. But how they address the outfield moving forward will go a long way toward solidifying their chances of being competitive in 2024. 

Red Sox grade: B-

— Jordan Shusterman

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_. 

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He played college baseball, poorly at first, then very well, very briefly. Jake lives in New York City where he coaches Little League and rides his bike, sometimes at the same time. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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