Aaron Judge is the most famous player on the most famous team in baseball. So far this year, he’s that team’s best player, too. And after he turned down a nine-figure extension offer from the New York Yankees on the eve of the season, he’s set to become a free agent this winter.
The Yankees (via GM Brian Cashman) made a point last month to make public their final offer to Judge: An extension of seven years and $213.5 million. The Yankees haven’t handed out a nine-figure deal since giving Gerrit Cole $324 million in late 2019. In all of baseball over the past two offseasons, only Corey Seager has been guaranteed more than that $213.5 million offer as a free agent (he got $325 million for 10 years).
But Judge, a year before he hits free agency, turned it down. So now the biggest question is: How much could he get in the winter? It’s worth a look, given his blistering hot start to 2022: third-best WAR in baseball, hitting .307, leading the league in homers with 14 — and he’s actually been unlucky this year with ball-in-play luck per Baseball Savant’s xwOBA statistic. That stat predicts outcomes based on exit velo, launch angle and other advanced data that’s a more reliable measure of talent in small samples. Judge is tied with Mike Trout for best in the league, way ahead of everyone else.
Even if you want to adjust expectations below his on-pace numbers — after all, we’re only a quarter of way into the season — various projection systems (which consider both his performance and health history) are predicting Judge to essentially match his career-best WAR (8.0, according to Baseball Reference) from 2017. Judge isn’t just off to a hot start, he looks headed for a career year, one that couldn’t come at a better time.
Finding a comparable
Given the situation in April, I think both Judge — in turning down the deal — and the Yankees — in offering it — acted rationally. The Yankees’ offer was higher than many (including myself) thought they would go. But expecting Cashman to give an offer Judge couldn’t refuse on his aged-30-plus seasons wasn’t likely — and for Judge, the year before he becomes a free agent, taking anything less than that wouldn’t make sense. Why not bet on yourself and let things play out?
The problem I have in projecting a deal for Judge is also why he and the Yankees couldn’t come to an agreement: There aren’t many to compare for him, both as a function of what teams are looking for and also how good he is.
He’s huge (obviously). He has massive power. He is one of the better players in the league. The main issue in any negotiation will be around the length of a contract because he’ll be entering his age-31 season and has a history of durability issues: he’s only played more than 112 games twice in his career, though last year was one of those seasons. If you look at a $213 million contract as the floor for his pending free agency, there are very few comps:
Alex Rodriguez in 2007 signed for 10 years, $275 million before his age-32 season
Albert Pujols in 2011 signed for 10/240 before his age-32 season
Miguel Cabrera in 2014 extended for 8/248 before his age-31 season
Robinson Cano in 2014 signed for 10/240 before his age-31 season
Stephen Strasburg in 2020 signed for 7/245 before age-31 season
Two deals that just missed this criteria seem like the best recent data points:
Nolan Arenado in 2019 extended for 7/234 — kicking in for his age-29 season, on top of an existing one-year deal
Anthony Rendon in 2020 signed for 7/245 before his age-30 season
You’ll notice how many of these deals are from almost a decade ago (or more): The industry has been subtly moving away from megadeals for corner players over the age of 30 with the Yankees and Red Sox among teams sharing that point of view. Last winter, Kris Bryant got $182 million going into his age-30 season (which was more than anyone expected) and Freddie Freeman got $162 million going into his age-32 season. The winter before, Marcell Ozuna set the pace for corner players — at $65 million (going into his age-30 season).
I point all of this out to show that there really isn’t a great comp off which to work. (And not just because Judge is uniquely huge.) So while Rendon and Arenado, good defensive third basemen, aren’t the same kind of hitting-reliant corner masher, they might be our best models: They are similarly elite and they easily cleared $200 million at similar ages.
The chance to hit the market as a clear top-tier free agent only happens once in a career, even for the most elite players, if it happens at all. And when you get that chance, there’s an intangible value: You get to see if a billionaire or two will act emotionally.
Last winter, the deals signed by Seager, Marcus Semien, Bryant and Javier Baez beat most expectations and those deals all had one thing in common: They were handed out by noncontending clubs looking to break through, or said another way, motivated bidders. This group of players all had a number of recent playoff appearances and they all signed with teams that had not. Judge isn’t just subject to the cost-controlling whims of a handful of teams, as mid-market clubs and noncontenders seem willing to spend, too.
Sometimes rich, competitive clubs are willing to win a bidding war — for free agents like Cole or Freeman and the trade-and-extend market with Mookie Betts stick out — but they usually aren’t the teams setting the top of the market. The best-run teams in baseball tend to be that way because they show restraint (to varying degrees): Even the richest perennial contenders can’t (or won’t) afford to just re-sign every player — that occasional show of restraint is what makes the best-run teams in baseball so great.
But if Judge stays healthy and hits 60 home runs this year, is a $300 million deal really irrational for an owner of a wannabe contender? The free-agent contract market doesn’t always go up, but the top of it usually does have steady inflation given the lack of supply and always present demand, and precedent is there, after this winter.
Other candidates for the top of this winter’s free-agent class are Trea Turner and a gaggle of players who might or might not join him: Jacob deGrom, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Carlos Rodon (all expected to opt out of their deals) and Arenado (who probably won’t but could). The Yankees have over $70 million in expiring deals coming off the books after the season and they’re just into the first tier of the CBT, so affording Judge isn’t an issue.
It’s simply a question of opportunity cost — and how nervous any GM or owner is about the back-end of the deal. Every exec is scared of handing out the next Pujols contract, or watching Judge play out a half-dozen years like Cabrera has on his 2014 megadeal.
If not the Yankees, who else could sign Judge?
It’s hard to know if Judge is inclined to stay in New York or leave. When the Yankees let the public know their final offer, it was so they wouldn’t be accused of low-balling. But does leaking it anger the Judge camp? Does he come back to the Bronx if 29 other teams all offer the same thing? Does he just need the Yankees to beat the best offer by $1? All of that is unclear, but anything close to a normal season for Judge in 2022 means that the Yankees offer or something like it is probably still sitting there — and likely to be matched by at least one team if not many of them.
That mix of potential suitors will almost certainly include some of those non-playoff clubs who have acted more boldly in recent years, but there is one more variable: Mets owner Steve Cohen. He came up in every conversation I had with execs about Judge — partly because the Mets could stand to upgrade their outfield, but mostly because he becomes the Kool-Aid Man when a cost control is put in front of him. There’s also undeniable star power and King of New York vibes in play — a winter in which the Mets re-sign deGrom and land the Yankees’ best player would surely make him happier than a string of buzzy art purchases.
Other options: The Rangers, Tigers, White Sox and Marlins (aka Yankees South, who could use a splashy big-money deal on a number of fronts) all make sense as potential motivated bidders in the right scenario. There’s another half-dozen clubs (to my eye: Blue Jays, Astros, Padres, Giants, Nationals, Twins) that could find themselves kicking the tires if things fall the right way.
I think Judge would’ve needed about $250 million in April to justify signing that early and even then I could see him turning it down and betting on himself. If he has a career year in 2022, I think he’ll beat $250 million with his sights set on $300 million — and I’d guess Cashman’s stomach is turning just thinking about that specific situation.
The length of the Yankees’ offer was the part that surprised me, and it suggests that with open market bidding and Judge’s potential career year in 2022, an eight-year offer could be in play. A $35 million AAV (the Yankees’ offer was a $30.5 million AAV) on an eight-year term gets you to $280 million total. If a couple teams have interest at that level, a nice round $300 million feels like the potential winning bid. Yes, that landing comes at the end of a string of ifs, but it isn’t that far-fetched of a scenario given where we stand right now.
Even if Judge cools off this season — or ends up missing time with an injury– I don’t think he would have any trouble clearing the Freeman/Bryant precedent from this past winter, and could still come in around the Yankees’ preseason offer. In his worst-case outcome, Judge gets offers in the $150 million range and opts to start a bidding war for a shorter-term deal with a one-year opt out, like Correa signed with the Twins. At his best, he becomes one of the highest-paid players in baseball for years to come. No wrong answers here.