How Aaron Judge’s MVP-worthy season changes his impending free agency

By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer

The price has most certainly gone up. That much is without question.

On Opening Day of the 2022 season, Aaron Judge gambled on himself. Hours before first pitch against the Red Sox, Yankees GM Brian Cashman revealed that the gargantuan outfielder had declined the team’s seven year, $213.5 million extension offer. Judge wouldn’t negotiate during the season, preferring to focus on the “job on the field.”

Because of what the likely American League MVP has accomplished since — 60 homers and counting, a trail of despondent big-league hurlers in his wake — that offer looks woefully insufficient in hindsight. But at the time, New York’s’ proposal was regarded as fair, if not a slight overpay in Judge’s favor. 

The first weeks of the season were chock-full of the will-he-stay-or-will-he-go mania of his impending free agency. Judge’s on-field excellence has since shifted the attention toward his exhilarating chase for the AL home run record. And while Yankees brass, pinstripe faithful and Judge himself are understandably more focused right now on the upcoming postseason, the home run chase, or both, the future lurks and lingers like a monster under the bed.

Aaron Judge hits No. 60

In an epic comeback against the Pirates on Tuesday, Aaron Judge hit his 60th home run of the season.

Even if he hits another 20 homers this year, Judge probably won’t surpass the record contracts set by the likes of Fernando Tatis, Francisco Lindor and Bryce Harper. While Judge has destroyed every pitcher from Boston to Los Angeles, age is a powerful force against which he has zero control. All those aforementioned players signed their hefty contracts in their early to mid 20s. Next year will be Judge’s age-31 season.

His historically phenomenal year has obviously changed the calculus — he’s definitely getting a lot more than $213.5 million — but has it made it more or less likely that he re-ups with the Yankees long-term? 

The prevailing sentiment around baseball, as it was at the beginning of the season, is that the Yankees will shell out whatever it takes to keep Judge in pinstripes. He is, the thinking goes, worth more to the Yankees than to any other team. Between Judge, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and a host of others, New York has around $75 million coming off the payroll this winter, dropping the team’s estimated total to around $175 million, far below the luxury tax threshold.

The Yankees will have the money, the will and, if their mediocre 2022 lineup is any indication, the need as well. Every Judge MVP argument involves some version of “imagine the Yankees without Judge.” They don’t want to live that nightmare and are probably willing to overpay to avoid it.

Judge’s higher price tag might actually help the Yanks in a roundabout way. A $220 million deal and a $300 million deal are very different (mathematicians know it’s exactly $80 million). Not every team is willing to dish out 220, but even fewer are willing to dish out 300. It should be reiterated that all MLB teams can afford to pay a contract of this magnitude, but the reality is that baseball’s middle class might “leave the chat” at that price range.

Clubs that have spent big money in recent years — teams such as the Phillies, Rangers, Blue Jays and Padres — would be wary to commit more long-term dough, while ambitious up-and-comers like the Orioles, D-Backs and Marlins haven’t shown any willingness to flash that level of cash.

That leaves baseball’s heaviest hitters to vie for baseball’s heaviest hitter: the good team in Los Angeles, the bad team in Chicago, the other team in New York, the Giants and the Red Sox, too. Only those with the deepest pocketbooks will be allowed to sit at the adult table.

The Mets and their new owner, Steve Cohen, are the biggest X-factor. Cohen, the 96th-richest human currently sucking in air, has run the Mets like a video game where all rules are off and all cheat codes are on. It’s purely speculation at this point, but one would assume the Bigwig in Queens would love nothing more than to poach the game’s most mammoth dinger-knocker from a crosstown rival. Money is no object to the most fortunate. Or in other words: The second-richest owner in American professional sports couldn’t care less if Judge tails off at the end of a long deal.

Now let’s say the Yankees suffer yet another early October exit. Maybe Seattle pulls off a 1995 redux, maybe Toronto’s lineup overpowers New York’s bullpen, maybe the Astros are just too damn good. If something like that happens, Aaron Boone remains public enemy number one in uptown Manhattan, and Ron Marinaccio is on a beach in Tortola by Nov. 1. 

Were Judge to leave town in that scenario, nobody could blame him. Hell, I’d go too, and my NYC lease doesn’t expire until next August. There’s no easier way to exit a party than after you’ve danced for five straight hours, made all the drinks and bought 1,000 pizzas for everyone. 

But at the end of the day, it’s all about money, like it always is. We can debate and overthink soft-factors all we want, but nothing yells louder than blue hundreds. And next year, Judge will play for the team that decides to give him the most of ‘em. That’s the world we live in. 

Aaron Judge knows that. He’s one hell of a gambler. 

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ, is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.

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