Judge recruit Verdugo ready to bring 'flair' to Yankees

February 22nd, 2024

TAMPA, Fla. -- The conversations would frequently take place at first base before took his lead, eyeing each movement by a Yankees pitcher. Anthony Rizzo, his glove outstretched, might remark something like: “Hey, bro, we’re trying to get you.”

Rizzo wasn’t offering hints about a pending pickoff play. Aaron Judge had been not so quietly touting Verdugo as a player whom the Yankees should pursue, believing that the outfielder’s left-handed bat, defensive ability and demeanor would play well in the Bronx.

“[Judge] told me that he’s been kind of pushing for the last couple of years,” Verdugo said Thursday. “Rizzo was dropping hints at me at first base during the year. I was just telling him, ‘Nah, no way, man, no way.’ As soon as I came over here, Rizz was like, ‘I told you so!’

“It’s cool to know that some guys have been pushing for me to come over here. They like the way I play and the kind of flair that I bring.”

Though it was overshadowed by a blockbuster trade for outfielder Juan Soto, the acquisition of Verdugo was general manager Brian Cashman’s first move of the Winter Meetings in December, marking a rare swap between the Yankees and Red Sox -- just the eighth in the Divisional Era (since 1969).

Verdugo said that he was initially “mad” after hearing the Red Sox had shipped him to New York for three right-handed pitchers: Greg Weissert, Richard Fitts and Nicholas Judice. But it was not a total shock, as Verdugo said he had been communicating with Judge through outfielder Willie Calhoun, who played with the Yankees last season.

“I’ve been preaching for years that we’ve got to get that guy,” Judge said. “He’s a gamer, he’s a competitor. He plays hard. I’ve seen him play through injuries; I know he was a little banged up even last year, he had a couple of things going on. But every single time we played them, he was out there hustling, doing his thing.”

Verdugo did not want to say what injuries affected him last year, when he slashed .264/.324/.421 (100 OPS+) with 13 homers and 54 RBIs in 142 games.

“I play through [stuff] every year, man,” he said. “If I have a bruised heel or my shoulder’s hanging a little bit, I play through it. We work with what we have that day. I try to put forth the best of myself in the circumstances. I push through it.”

A fresh start could benefit Verdugo. Red Sox manager Alex Cora benched Verdugo twice last season, once for a perceived lack of hustle and once for reporting late to a home game at Fenway Park.

“A.C. was hard on me, but I don’t have any hard feelings toward him,” Verdugo said. “Toward the end, I think we ran our course out a little bit. As a person and outside of baseball, I loved him. I loved his kids; his family was awesome. His kids hung out with my kids. He’s a good manager. It’s just we were clashing heads a little bit toward the end. I’m very happy being where I am right now.”

Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that he has spoken with Cora about Verdugo, and he promises to offer a clean slate.

“Even though he’s had a good start to his career, I feel like he’s one of those guys that’s kind of scratching the surface,” Boone said. “His talent as a hitter, I feel like there’s probably even more in there. He’s going to be an important cog in what we hope is a really good offense.”

So far, Verdugo has appeared to be an easy fit in his new surroundings. During Wednesday’s workout, he shared plenty of on-field laughs with Judge, Soto and Giancarlo Stanton in their hitting group.

“You see Giancarlo, you see Judge, you see all these guys that we played against,” Verdugo said. “Being on the Red Sox, obviously we wanted to beat them, but you still respect what they’ve done in their careers and who they are as people and players.

“So to come over here, to know that they wanted me here and be able to talk shop with them and pick their brains, it’s cool. We’ve got some MVPs out here, we’ve got some guys that won some batting titles. It’s a lot of useful knowledge out there, and I’m just trying to soak it all in.”