After a snoozefest at the 2023 Winter Meetings for more than two days, the New York Yankees decided they'd be the ones to make a big splash on Wednesday by trading for wunderkind/superstar Juan Soto. It might seem absurd to slap "wunderkind" on a six-year veteran, but did you realize Soto is younger than Adley Rutschman? Last year marked Soto's age-24 season.
The short answer to what the Yankees will do about outfield defense with Soto in the fold alongside Aaron Judge and Alex Verdugo should be a shoulder shrug accompanied by a "who cares?" Soto and Judge are that good offensively that figuring out the defense is a secondary matter. It is a matter worth discussing, though, so let's do it.
To start the season, the Yankees' everyday lineup will seemingly put Judge in center, flanked by Soto in right and Verdugo in left.
Soto played left field last season for the Padres while Verdugo played right for the Red Sox, but a switch here makes sense. Soto has the most limited range of this outfield trio by a decent margin and the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium means less ground to cover out there. Verdugo has graded out well in left field in the past while Soto has more experience in right field than left anyway.
The big question for many people will be how Judge handles center.
I'm not too worried about it.
Judge played 78 games in center in 2022 compared to 73 in right. Last season, he played 18 in center and 54 in right. Both seasons, Judge rated out better in center field than right in metrics like defensive runs saved and Statcast's outs above average. He's never made an error in center field in his career (252 chances). I thought the eye test was very kind to Judge in center. He never looked like a fish out of water out there and had good instincts.
Here's an example of Judge in center with a good jump and smooth approach toward the wall:
Even if he's not a Gold Glover or anything, he certainly doesn't look out of place. His strong arm plays well in a spacious center field in Yankee Stadium, too.
Some might bring up injury history with Judge in center, but, again, I'm not worried about any increase. His big injury last season was a broken big toe that he suffered banging into the wall in Dodger Stadium. Not only is that a freak injury, but it happened with him playing right field. That is to say, freak injuries happen anywhere and there's no increase in likelihood with a move to center. He played 157 games in 2022 with a good portion coming in center. He played 148 games in 2021. He's had rib (2020) and oblique (2016, 2019) injuries before, but swings are more risky there than running in the outfield. Then there was the fractured wrist in 2018.
There's definitely injury history with Judge, but nothing to suggest that he should be avoiding center field.
Let's also keep in mind there will be others in the mix, including center fielder Trent Grisham, who comes over in the trade with Soto. He's bound to see his share of starts in center and can also serve as a late-inning defensive replacement. Rookie Jasson Domínguez will have a shot at the center field job late in the season once he returns from Tommy John surgery, which could shuffle the defense and move someone (Soto?) to designated hitter at times, especially if Giancarlo Stanton is on the injured list. Injuries to others are also possible and that's where the buffer with Grisham comes in.
In the most simple terms possible, the Yankees outfield defense for 2024 isn't nearly as scary as it might sound, even if it's below average.