Aaron Judge has captured our attention the way Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did in 1998.
He has baseball historians debating where his season ranks among the greatest in baseball history.
He took us back to 1961, the year Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record with 61 home runs. It was the most ever hit in American League history – until Judge sent his 62nd home run Tuesday night into the stands at Globe Life Field.
Now, we await to see whether there will be another record in his future.
We’re of course talking about his next contract.
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Judge bet on himself, gambling big, calling the New York Yankees’ bluff, when he rejected their seven-year, $213.5 million offer on opening day.
Even with the sport now openly embracing the gambling industry, it may be the most profitable bet in baseball history.
Judge has put on a show for the ages, producing perhaps the finest Yankees’ season since the days of Ruth and Lou Gehrig a century ago, eclipsing even Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, and, yes, Maris.
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So what’s a person worth who is the face of baseball, playing in the media capital of the world, for the most historic franchise in all of sports, producing the greatest season since Ruth.
We talking $300 million or $400 million? $500 million?
The imagination runs, right up until you start talking to owners, baseball executives and agents, who specialize in the cold-hearted business of the game.
Judge will naturally strike it rich, but he won’t become the highest-paid outfielder in history, surpassing Mookie Betts’ 12-year, $365 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020, or Mike Trout’s 10-year, $360 million extension with the Angels in 2019.
He won’t eclipse Francisco Lindor’s 10-year, $341 million contract or Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year, $340 million deal either.
It’s not to say Judge isn’t more valuable, or would have a greater impact to an organization, but simply his age (30) and the history of long-term deals given to players 30 or older scares too many teams, citing Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.
The executives ask the likelihood of Judge ever producing this historic season again?
They wonder how many years will he stay healthy? They know he has played in all but four games this season, but cite the fact he missed 110 games in 2018-2019 with injuries, and more than half of the 60-game COVID-shortened season in 2020.
They believe that Judge will not get that 10-year contract, but will receive at least a seven-year deal, and most likely eight years.
He should receive, they say, an average annual salary of at least $36 million, equaling Trout’s deal. Trout didn’t have the leverage of free agency, with two years still remaining on his contract, they point out – but he also has three MVP awards with nine top-five finishes.
The only player who earns more than Trout’s $36 million annual average salary is Mets starter Max Scherzer, who signed a three-year $130 million free agent contract last winter, paying him $43.3 million a season.
So, just what will Judge’s free-agent contract look like?
Executives and agents predict: Eight years, $288 million to $304 million.
And yes, he will spend the rest of his career in Yankee pinstripes.
The Yankees are expected to swallow their pride and give Judge that contract considering just what he means to the organization, along with the money he makes for them.
The Yankees will have exclusive negotiating rights with Judge until the end of the World Series but once the final out is recorded, anyone and everyone can join the bidding.
So, who can afford to be in?
Who can afford not to at least try?
There aren’t expected to be more than three potential suitors for Judge, besides the Yankees.
The San Francisco Giants certainly are expected to make an offer. They thought they had traded for Giancarlo Stanton after the 2017 season, only for Stanton to exercise his no-trade rights and instead go to the Yankees. They also offered Bryce Harper $310 million in free agency three years ago before he went to the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Giants badly need a power hitter, money is no issue, and he could be the marquee attraction that once again packs their ballpark. They rank only eighth in the National League in attendance this year, averaging 30,903 a game, their lowest – excluding last year with businesses shut down because of the pandemic – since 1999.
But this is also a team that focuses on pitching and defense, and after their struggles this season, need much more than just Judge for a magical cure-all.
Judge is from the area, growing up in Linden, Calif., 98 miles away, but does he really want to play in a pitchers’ friendly ballpark where home runs go to die?
Still, the Giants could be the Yankees’ biggest threat.
The Chicago Cubs are telling the world they’re going to spend money this winter, perhaps even lots of it, but they are focusing their attention on the shortstop and pitching markets. Besides after being in the postseason nearly every year of his career, and playing for an organization that has producing a winning record every year since 1993, does Judge really want to go to a team that is 63-85?
Everyone knows the riches of Mets owner Steve Cohen, whose team has the highest payroll in baseball for the first time since 1989, but he has shown no signs of wanting to jump into the Judge sweepstakes. Besides, they have free agents such as Jacob deGrom, Edwin Diaz, Brandon Nimmo and Taijuan Walker they want to retain.
The Philadelphia Phillies will keep spending but are focusing on a shortstop and pitching, with free-agent shortstop Trea Turner on top of their wish list.
The St. Louis Cardinals are a cash cow but they never swim in the rich free-agent waters. The last they bid on a marquee free agent was back in 2015 when they tried to sign starter David Price. He rejected their offer and instead signed a seven-year, $217 million deal with the Boston Red Sox.
The San Diego Padres have spent wildly in recent years, but with two $300 million players in Manny Machado and Tatis, and perhaps a future $500 million outfielder in Juan Soto they want to sign, Judge probably isn’t a fit.
The Boston Red Sox could use a whole lot of help if they ever want to catch the Yankees, and would love to take the big guy away from New York. Yet, if they didn’t bother to keep Mookie Betts, and are showing little attempt to keep Xander Bogaerts, what makes you think they’d spend $300 million on Judge?
The Los Angeles Dodgers love their stars and already have a former MVP in right field with Mookie Betts. But they could trade or non-tender center fielder Cody Bellinger – and they don’t have a regular left fielder. The Dodgers, the first team to win at 106 or more games in three consecutive full seasons, certainly don’t need Judge, but if they don’t re-sign free agent shortstop Trea Turner, should have money to burn and could offer a lucrative short-term deal.
Judge, hitting his way into immortality, is perfect for one team.
The New York Yankees.
The biggest and brightest star in baseball should be in New York. He should be playing for the Yankees. And he should be paid every single penny that he’s worth.
The Yankees are about to find out just what that happens to be.