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Aaron Judge May Make the Yankees Pay—Both Now and at the End of the Season

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From the start of his first full season in the Majors, Aaron Judge was no ordinary. He is the best positional player in the history of baseball, one of the most selective and hard hitters ever, and a good defensive outfielder despite being 6’7″ tall and weighing 280+ pounds. He’s spent the last six years making the baseball world rethink how to fit this tree-sized peg into a man-sized hole. How do you pitch someone like Judge? How do you protect a player who could probably accurately hit a hanging, curved ball through a third baseman? How to keep him in line?

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And, more recently, how much should he be paid?

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On Friday, Judge and the Yankees—or rather, the Yankees—will meet at last arbitration case of the season, determining whether Judge’s 2022 salary will be $17 million or $21 million. Normally, this case would have been settled in the winter, but since all transactions were frozen during the lockout, the Yankees and Judge are only getting started now.

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The case itself is of little importance. Whether Judge wins or loses, he will make a ton of money this year and will pave the way for making a lot more when he becomes a free agent in the fall. The Yankees, already $30 million over the balance sheet tax threshold, will be budgeting for the season with Judge in mind. They don’t have a lot of money for $4 million to make a big difference, and even if they did, Judge is worth what he makes.

But more than anything, this case is a pointer to one of the more interesting recurring storylines of the 2022 season: the referee’s long-term contract situation.

Until this spring, it seemed unlikely, even out of place, that Judge would ever leave the Yankees. Not only does his inscrutable Jeterian affability make him the perfect star player for America’s most notable franchise, he’s also a walking homage to the raw maximalism that has characterized the Yankee offense ever since Harry Frazee needed quick cash in the fall of 1919.

But after a lockout-shortened offseason, Judge and the Yankees could not agree on a long-term extension. In early April, general manager Brian Cashman announced to the press that the Yankees had offered Judge $17 million to avoid arbitration, as well as a seven-year, $213.5 million contract starting in 2023 (more on that offer later). Judge, who set a deadline of 7 April refused any contract extension negotiations, although on opening day he reaffirmed his desire to “be a Yankee for life and bring the championship back to New York”.

For the first two and a half months of the season, Judge did everything he could to prove he was worth more than the $30.5 million a year the Yankees were offering him. He’s hitting .300/.378/.644 in 66 games, leading MLB in home runs and tied for the lead in runs scored on Tuesday’s schedule. His stats haven’t been this close since his record-breaking rookie in 2017, when he hit 52 home runs and finished second in MVP voting amid proto-Otan hype. And after adjusting for a lower mileage estimate in 2022 compared to 2017, Judge is actually a little off. better this season (184 wRC+ compared to 174 in 2017; he hasn’t topped 150 points in any of the past four years).

Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

These numbers don’t make Judge a clearly better baseball player, or even a better hitter. For example, players like Jordan Alvarez and José Ramirez show similar power with fewer strikeouts. Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt were just as good on offense, and Manny Machado (at least before he sprained his ankle) was not far behind at bat and light years ahead with a glove. But look at these names. To say that Judge was as good as Trout this season is to reverse the idiom, to praise with weak judgment. These perennial MVP nominees and future Hall of Famers are a company that Judge can keep up. While the Yankees’ latest offer would have made Judge one of the richest athletes who ever lived, judging by his performances this year, he was right to think he could do better.

But with contract negotiations on hold, the next step for Judge and the Yankees is this belated arbitration case. Many teams and players’ agents prefer to avoid actual arbitration hearings due to their adversarial nature; a team trying to win an arbitration case must, by definition, prove that the player is worth less than they think and therefore potentially hurt their relationship. It’s embarrassing, to say the least, when a player hears his team criticize his strikeout percentage in arbitrage on Friday and then has to throw his body into the far wall for said team in the evening.

The danger of this changing Judge a lot is probably small: he doesn’t have a particularly choleric nature, and even if the Yankee case offends him, he’ll have months to recover before he truly becomes a free agent. What’s more, Cashman’s decision to release the team’s final offer in April set the tone for the negotiations more than this hearing, in which a judge’s performance in 2022 is unacceptable, will ever set the tone.

When contract negotiations break down, it’s fairly common for either the CEO or agent to call a friendly reporter and reveal the terms of the final offer, letting the public know just how far apart the two sides were when they hit the dead end. It’s unusual for a GM to come out and say what the conditions are on the score sheet.

Whatever Cashman’s motives, after nearly 25 years running the biggest franchise in baseball, it’s fair to assume he didn’t forget where he was or blurt out details by accident. And while it was seen as a bit of a clumsiness, there was a positive side to revealing those numbers that was worth risking a bit of a backlash.

Under the terms of the Yankees’ final offer, Judge would make about the same amount of money as Mookie Betts. He would have made more money than Machado and Bryce Harper, who became free agents after a 25-year rather than a 30-year season. And as great as Judge was in 2017, at the time of the offer, he hasn’t reached such heights since, battling a series of injuries that didn’t quite fit the picture of a player who would take the field 150 times a day. years in the mid to late 1930s.

It’s also important to remember that when Cashman revealed the details of the Yankees’ offer, we were days away from the end of the lockout, with MLB owners taking billions of dollars from players by portraying them as greedy. No one has ever gone broke criticizing athletes for wanting more money.

But Cashman either didn’t foresee or didn’t appreciate two factors that have become abundantly clear over the past months. First, how extremely popular Judge is among Yankees fans and the general public watching baseball. Compared to other recent high-profile free agents – Harper, Machado, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole – it’s hard to find anyone who could say a bad word about a decidedly harmless referee. Not only is he the most recognizable man in baseball, the best aspects of his game are blindingly obvious; anyone who has ever seen a baseball game can immediately understand that it is good to hit the ball harder than anyone else.

The second factor is that this season Judge has gone completely mad. And that’s why this story was so sticky. If Judge had come out and posted an unremarkable 0,900 OPS, perhaps the speculation about his future would have stopped (although the fact that he is able to post an “undistinguished 0,900 OPS” is an argument that he should be paid more). Instead, Judge heard his boss’s boss hint that he wasn’t good enough to handle the salary he wanted and responded, causing Cashman to swallow his words. It’s the baseball equivalent of being dumped and then your ex begging you to get him back when you run into him three months later.

It’s not like the Yankees and Judge broke up. It’s never a good sign when a player says he wants to be a one club player and then goes out and plays better than ever for a year. But players like Judge have had plenty of precedent when they’ve terminated their contracts, dipped their toes to free agency, and stayed put. Stephen Strasburg did. JT Realmuto did it. Clayton Kershaw did. And Adam Wainwright did it four years in a row.

After all, contract negotiations are signals and posturing. Even the deadline set by the judge himself was a signal, and of course Cashman could have offered a number to convince him to sign the contract right now. There’s really nothing stopping Judge and the Yankees from spending these last couple of days negotiating his 2022 salary or even a long-term extension. But the best argument Judge can make is his bat, and if the Yankees are willing to accept his offer to stay there for the rest of his career, it will now be a more expensive offer.


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