NEW YORK — So after a quite productive week in which he hit two homers in a game to beat the Blue Jays and a day later drove in the game-winning walk-off run in the series opener against the hated Astros, Aaron Judge’s ongoing contract drama with the Yankees has cleared the first hurdle with an (apparently) amicable arbitration settlement at the midway point of $19 million.
So now what?
The way this thing has played out so far — with Judge betting on himself after rejecting the Yankees’ seven-year, $213.5 million extension offer back in April and now embarking on his best season ever as he heads into free agency — I am reminded of something Joe DiMaggio said years ago when somebody asked him what he thought he’d be worth in today’s baseball market. “All I can say,” the Clipper responded, “is that I’d probably have to sit down with (’50s Yankee owner) Mr. (Dan) Topping and suggest to him, ‘let’s be partners.’ ”
I wouldn’t say that will be Judge’s proposal to Hal Steinbrenner when they begin free-agent talks this fall, but if he continues on with this monster season of his — in which he’s presently leading the majors in homers, runs and total bases and hitting .300 where’s he’s never been before — he’ll be in line for a sizeable chunk of the Yankee owner’s money above the $213.5M he turned down. Right now, he also has to be considered the front runner (even over Shohei Ohtani) for the AL MVP award which would net him an additional $250,000 per the arbitration settlement. But just how much above the $213.5M is the question.
Throughout his contract negotiations with the Yankees last winter, Judge made it clear he wanted to be paid commensurate to Mike Trout and the record 12-year, $430 million deal the Angels star signed in 2019, and already the usual media “agents” are touting Judge as the next $300 million man in baseball. But for that to happen, the Yankees would have to tack on at least two more years to their offer, bringing the 30-year-old Judge to age 39 at the end of his contract. When Trout signed his deal he was only 27, meaning the Angels could reasonably expect getting their money’s worth at least for the first 9-10 years of the contract, to his mid-’30s (although he already missed almost all of last season with a calf injury).
As it was, the offer from Steinbrenner, which Judge rejected, would have given him an AAV of $30.5M, second only in baseball to Trout’s $35.5M. I don’t think, at this point, Steinbrenner would have any problem paying Judge, the face of his franchise, $36M a year. It’s just for how many years? He could do it simply by upping his seven-year original offer by $52 million. Then it would be up to Judge to decide if he had to have over $300 million for 9-10 years. And, if so, would there be another owner out there willing to go that high for a 30-year-old player who missed large chunks of three of his first four seasons due to injuries?
Again, the media “agents” are saying absolutely. After all, isn’t there always the One Dumb Owner? But who? The Mets? No way is Steve Cohen going to try and poach the Yankees’ franchise player, especially with Jacob deGrom to deal with. The Dodgers? They already have the second-highest payroll in baseball (although they’ll be shedding David Price and Trevor Bauer next year), but they’re pretty much set in the outfield and they’re going to have to shell out a ton of money to retain shortstop Trea Turner, and also have other more pressing needs like a closer. Red Sox? In case you haven’t noticed, Red Sox owner John Henry is now heavy into analytics and payroll downsizing, which is why he lowballed Xander Bogaerts this winter and was reportedly far away from what Rafael Devers wants to stay out of free agency after next year.
Word is the Cubs are preparing to start spending next year, but does Judge, who yearns to win, really want to spend the rest of his career at Wrigley Field where there’s been one World Series in the last 77 years? If Judge, a northern California native, were to leave the Yankees perhaps the one team that would make sense for him is the Giants. But they are an aging team, in decline and an organization steeped in analytics where one of the principal tenets is no long-term contracts for players over 30.
Maybe there really will be One Dumb Owner out there this winter, willing to invest 9-10 years and $300 million on Judge. But revenues — local TV contracts, national TV money and attendance — are down all over baseball. Judge also has to know no team in baseball can come close to matching the residual marketing/commercial benefits of being the face (and presumably) the captain of the Yankees in New York. If he doesn’t, he should just ask Robinson Cano.