Aaron Judge’s free agency saga came to its inevitable conclusion Wednesday, with the Yankees ultimately re-signing their superstar slugger to a nine-year, $360 million contract. The deal makes Judge the highest-paid player on the Yankees roster by AAV at $40 million, $4 million per year more than Gerrit Cole.
It also makes Judge the third-highest-paid player in baseball next year, trailing only Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander of the Mets (both at $43.33 million). The three highest-paid players in the sport will be in New York next season, but only one of them is a Yankee.
Judge’s deal came shortly after speculation about him going to the Giants reached a fever pitch at MLB’s winter meetings. Reports began to swirl he was closing in on a deal with San Francisco, but the Yankees ultimately landed their top offseason priority.
Judge is coming off a historic season at the plate, in which he was chasing a Triple Crown in September and he set the Yankees’ all-time home run record at 62, one more than Roger Maris. He also became the first player since Barry Bonds to hit 60 home runs in a season.
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All of this came after a tumultuous 2021-22 offseason of negotiations, which ended bizarrely with the Yankees disclosing they made him an offer of $230 million on Opening Day this year.
Given how ugly things could have gotten, Judge’s return to the Yankees is interesting. The Padres, per Bob Nightengale, made the same offer to Judge with an extra year on top, bringing the total to 10 years, $400 million. But the Yankees recouped their prized player.
Why did Aaron Judge sign with the Yankees?
He wants to be there
Judge has not hidden his desire to stay a Yankee. He’s talked multiple times about wanting to stay past last season.
Indeed, after last year’s ALCS sweep, Judge was clearly still in a New York state of mind.
“It’s never, but I think it will definitely make, when we finally get there and secure this thing, I think it’ll make it a lot sweeter going through the tough times like this, that’s for sure,” he told reporters after the Yankees were eliminated last year.
However, that quote can easily be brushed aside. In the heat of a moment, after a long season, athletes are always trying to say the right thing. In November 2021, however, Judge made it clear where he wanted to be.
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“To be honest, there’s no better place to play,” he said, per Yahoo. “No other place I would really ever want to play, just based on how the fans have embraced me, how they brought me in and treated me as one of their own. It’s incredible, getting a chance to play at Yankee Stadium … That would be a wish of mine, a goal of mine, to finish my career as a Yankee, but you never know what the cards hold. But, if it was up to me, I would be a Yankee for the next 10 years, for sure.”
Poetically, Judge is going to get his wish. With 2022 in the books and a nine-year deal with a no-trade clause, it will be 10 years from that quote when he hits free agency again.
The Yankees couldn’t let him go
The Yankees are the Evil Empire, and they wear that as a badge of honor. And the Yankees letting Judge walk in free agency this year would have been Palpatine letting Darth Vader leave at the peak of his stranglehold on the galaxy.
Judge’s stats last year were, in a word, absurd. .311 batting average, 131 RBIs, and of course 62 home runs. On top of that, he played a solid center field when he was asked to. The Yankees made a bet when they let negotiations go into last year, and Judge did, too. The ante was on the table when they said they wouldn’t negotiate in season. And Judge won.
If the Yankees had let Judge walk, they would have been conceding that they’re no longer baseball’s superpower. And they may not spend like the Mets or Dodgers in today’s game, but the Steinbrenners clearly aren’t ready to admit that out loud yet. The reality is Judge walking would have been intensely embarrassing for the Yankees, particularly if he had signed with the Padres. Judge forced the Yankees’ hand with the season he had.
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There will be those who view this deal with raised eyebrows and wonder if the Yankees had to make it, or if it makes them better. That’s the wrong lens to look at it through. The question becomes how much worse they get if Judge goes.
Money is always a factor in free agency, and Judge just got himself set up.
If the Padres reports are true and Judge was offered the same AAV with only a year’s difference, Judge going to the incumbent makes sense. Without numbers, who’s to say how far along Judge truly was with the Giants, but he had expressed interest in playing in the Bay Area previously.
Jon Heyman reported the Giants were also at $360 million on Tuesday, which could have been any number of smokescreens. But at the end of the day, that being the deal he signed with the Yankees is significant.
Judge’s decision likely means the rest of free agency can start to play out, although he was always in his own tier. The Padres and Giants clearly had the realest interest in the superstar slugger. But ultimately, Judge seemingly couldn’t resist the call of home.