When scouts refer to “toolsy” ballplayers, Aaron Judge surely fits that description to perfection. He is tall and athletic, fast and with legendary raw power. He has a great eye an impressive ability to take walks, and he hits the ball almost unfairly hard, repeatedly appearing among the league leaders in Statcast data.
He moves his feet surprisingly well, with his well-above average sprint speed ranking in the 79th percentile among major leaguers. His glove is elite, pacing the major leagues in DRS among right fielders, not to mention his 94th percentile rank in Statcast’s outs above average metric.
He hit 52 home runs in 2017. He knocked 27 dingers each in 2018 and 2019, even though he played 112 and 102 games, respectively. Judge is capable of surpassing 5.0 fWAR in 112 games, as he did in 2018 with 5.1.
Judge only has two things working against him: his swing-and-miss tendencies (career 31.5 K% and 13.9 SwStrk%) and his injury-prone label, which may be unfair and undeserved.
Despite those minor drawbacks, Aaron Judge is a prime candidate for a contract extension. He is among the premier talents in the league, mentioned in the same breath as Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, Cody Bellinger, Ronald Acuña, Christian Yelich and Francisco Lindor. Only Mike Trout, a force of nature that has no peers, is clearly better than all of them.
Arenado ($260 million), Manny Machado ($300 million) Bryce Harper ($330 million) and Rendon ($245 million) all signed free agent deals (with the exception of the Colorado Rockies’ star, who put pen to paper on a contract extension) in the last two winters. What would it take for the Yankees to take Judge out of a potential free agent market after the 2022 season? His camp will surely ask for a commitment in the neighborhood of $300 million. The number of years is an important factor to consider, too.
The team essentially prints money, but it may not be easy to sell ownership into taking another $30+ million player with Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole under contract and with several players earning $10 million salaries.
Including the cost of arbitration and “pre-arb” players, the Yankees have to pay approximately $246.5 million on guaranteed contracts in 2020. Because of contracts expiring after this season and next, the number goes down to $183.8 million in 2021 and $167.4 million in 2022, assuming that no options are exercised.
Masahiro Tanaka ($23 million salary), DJ LeMahieu ($12 million), James Paxton ($12.5 million) and J.A. Happ ($17 million, with vesting option for 2021) will be off the books after the 2020 season. The team will likely consider re-signing one or some of them, however.
In total, the Yankees have eleven contracts worth at least $10 million per season, and three of them surpass the $20 million threshold. Signing Judge will most likely result in him joining Gerrit Cole as the only players making more than $30 million per year.
Yankees with a $10M+ salary in 2020
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|Player||Base Salary||Luxury Tax|
Getting Judge’s signature in a long-term pact would require some clever roster maneuvering. It will likely mean spending less on other free agents in the future and failing to re-sign a productive player down the road here or there. It could also implicate a heavier reliance on the farm system to play the cost-control game and try to save bucks and avoid the consequences of the competitive balance tax. Ownership has shown an unwillingness to exceed the highest luxury tax figures, in the face of record revenues. In that context, locking up Judge likely won’t come without some sacrifices.
However, it could all be worth it. Judge is a fantastic talent, and having him for several years will ensure that the club is competitive and that the core is together for the longest possible time.
Pros of signing Judge to a contract extension
Judge inking an extension has the potential to save the Yankees several million dollars while providing the player and his family with financial security for the rest of his life.
We saw what Mookie Betts earned on his last arbitration year ($27 million), and god knows what he will command in free agency. If the Yankees lock up Judge, they will save themselves the headache of negotiations and pay him a set amount of money instead of going year-to-year in arbitration. Judge is already making $8.5 million in his first arbitration season, and that number will go up in a hurry the second and third time around.
An extension would cover Judge’s remaining arbitration years and several free agency seasons. These things usually go like this: the team saves money in the arbitration period and the player gets financial security in the later stages of his career.
We know that the Yankees would be Judge’s priority if he were to hit the open market, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will give them a hometown discount. Letting an elite talent with notable offensive and defensive contributions hit free agency would be a mistake. The Bombers, if they sign him to a long-term deal, would eliminate the risk of other clubs talking to him and mortgaging their entire towns to offer him a huge deal.
Cons of signing Judge to a contract extension
It is impossible to know how Judge will age. He is very athletic, which is helpful, but he is also massive. It is not common to see players with his height and body type playing at all, much less into their late-30’s.
Additionally, while Judge has only been a full-time player for three years, he will turn 28 during the 2020 season. He is already in his prime, but we don’t know exactly how many prime-level seasons he will have. It is possible that he has a few more in him, but it is also a possibility (likelihood?) that he peaked in 2017. Signing him long-term is not without risks.
Locking up Judge for the long term would mean a substantial financial commitment for many years in which he could decline. There are worse things than watching one of MLB’s best and most exciting players age, though.
Aaron Judge is a game-changing talent, and those are worth making sacrifices for. If Domingo German and Jordan Montgomery continue to develop as hoped, and if Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt or another starting pitching prospect take a step forward, the Yankees will have depth and flexibility and won’t have to rely too heavily on free agency to supplement the pitching staff.
From a roster and payroll standpoint, it can certainly be done. More importantly, it needs to be done. Aaron Judge belongs in New York, not anywhere else, and should be extended. He sells shirts, he helps put butts on the stadium’s seats, and he is competitive and talented. He may be the long-term captain. It’s time to make it happen.