Bill Madden: From pitching depth to financial concerns, Juan Soto deal might not add up for Yankees

NEW YORK — When Gene Michael was heading up the Yankee baseball operations and in the process of building the 1996-2001 dynasty, he had one primary credo when it came to trades on which he was uncompromising: Never give up top prospects for an unsigned player.

But that’s exactly what the Yankees did back in December when they traded Michael King, the minor league pitcher of the year in Drew Thorpe, and two other pitching prospects in Jhony Brito and Randy Vazquez to the Padres for Juan Soto in his free agent walk year. Despite creating a sizable void in their starting pitching depth, the Yankees still believe it was worth it to acquire arguably the best left-handed hitter in the game. But with Gerrit Cole now out for at least two months, Carlos Rodon seemingly a fingers-crossed adventure every time he takes his turn, and the ever-fragile Nestor Cortes coming off an injury-plagued season that limited him to just 12 starts, the Yankee starting rotation is a major vulnerability until further notice.

Meanwhile, King, Thorpe and Brito have all pitched well this spring and were slated to be the 3-4-5 starters in the Padres rotation until they used Thorpe as the key prospect in the deal with the White Sox last week to land Dylan Cease. So from the Padres’ standpoint the Soto trade is already a huge success, especially because they were able to wait the Yankees out on including King and Thorpe in the deal. By contrast, the Yankees’ initial replacement for Cole in the rotation appears to be Marlins’ castoff Cody Poteet.

According to MLB sources, San Diego GM A.J. Preller was under strict orders from ownership to trade Soto and his expected $31 million salary by opening day, so the longer the standoff went with the Yankees, the less leverage he had. Despite Soto’s enormous talent, the market was also limited for him due to his agent Scott Boras already having predicted him to be the first $50 million-a-year player as a free agent. The other clubs the Padres had engaged with on Soto all viewed him as a one-year player they most likely could not afford to re-sign, and, as such, employed the “Gene Michael credo” about not surrendering top prospects for him.

For the Yankees, the ramifications of the Soto trade go far beyond shrinking their starting pitching options. For one thing, it has forced them to move Aaron Judge to center field and there hasn’t been a single baseball person I’ve talked to this spring (including even some within the Yankees) who hasn’t expressed grave concerns about that.

“They’re playing with fire there,” one AL exec said to me last week when Judge went down with an abdominal issue. “Soto is below average defensively and really should be their DH and they’re compensating for that by moving their best player into center field, with all that extra running, etc., where he’s bound to get hurt.”

But even if the Yankees are able to sign Soto after the season, they’re committed with Giancarlo Stanton as DH (for another $118 million) through 2027. And there is also the matter of the competitive balance tax where last year the Yankees went over the fourth and highest threshold of $293 million, which carries a levy of 110% tax on all contracts above that. It’s what’s handcuffed the Yankees this spring from signing any free agents to replace Cole.

The Yankees are confident they’ll be under that threshold next year, although they already have $160 million in salary commitments in six players — Judge, Cole, Stanton, Rodon, Marcus Stroman and D.J. LeMahieu — alone. Hypothetically, add another $50 million or so for Soto and they’re already over $200 million with nearly an entire roster to fill. Of course, Mets owner Steve Cohen, who figures to be their chief (and possibly only) competitor for Soto, may have an even harder task of getting under that so called “Cohen” fourth-tier tax.

For now, in light of the Cole injury, the Yankees, even with Soto, look like a third-place team in the AL East.