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Aaron Judge and the Yankees might not be a long-term match

It seems impossible to imagine now, but letting the big man might end up being a tough pill to swallow.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After earning just over $5 million through his first four-plus big-league seasons — in addition to whatever he and the Yankees agree to in arbitration — Aaron Judge will become a free agent following the 2022 season. Seeking his first big payday at age 30 if no extension is reached, the Yankees will need to decide at what price they’ll be willing to retain their current face of the franchise moving forward.

Hopefully, with the United States coming off of the tail-end of the purported financial losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, MLB teams will have more money at their disposal to sign free agents. This first post-COVID offseason will be incredibly informative as to how the league as a whole — and the Yankees in particular — will behave financially as long as teams remain in the red.

With MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners expiring after next season, there might not even be a 2022 season, of course throwing a wrench in Judge’s statistical and contract projections. Since the league’s status is so wildly in flux, tying an exact number to Judge’s worth in free agency is effectively impossible. However, under the presumption that the league exists in two years, we can get a sense of what Judge’s market value might be relative to the circumstances of the MLB as a whole, even without speculating on a precise dollar value.

Of course, Judge’s next two (hopefully) full seasons of play will be crucial to the Yankees’ decision-making process, as their financial commitment to any player is mostly, if not entirely, dependent upon projected performance.

Suffering from a plethora of injuries all over his enormous body, Judge’s wOBA has dropped each consecutive season, from a .430 wOBA 2017, to .391 in ’18, then .382 in ’19, and finally, last year, posting a .375 wOBA. Steamer, a relatively conservative projection service, anticipates Aaron Judge’s moderate regression from all-time great to pretty good continuing on-trend, expecting a career-low .367 wOBA from him in 2021. Since 2018, they’ve been very slight drops, but drops nonetheless.

Steamer’s 2021 projections seem to pin Judge’s season somewhere around the low-middle in terms of a possible range of outcomes. After missing 92 out of 222 possible games over the past two seasons, Steamer’s 136 games played feels a tad high to me. Even with production and playing-time stunted by injuries, when he makes contact, Judge has continued to hit the ball as hard as anyone not on the Yankees. More to the point, he’s unlikely to lose bat-speed before turning 30, so I have a hard time reasoning why his offensive production would fall off any further than it has, unless his body breaks down. If that were the case though, the 136-game projection makes even less sense.

ZiPS is slightly more optimistic than Steamer, as is often the case, predicting a .380 wOBA and 4.6 WAR over 118 games played for Judge in 2021. ZiPS anticipates him continuing to struggle to stay on the field, but maintaining his offensive production over a larger, healthier sample size than 2020, when Judge played in fewer than half the games. In 2022, ZiPS expects more of the same as Judge nears the tail end of his prime, improving a tick at the plate while continuing to regress ever so slightly on defense.

Before playing out the Yankees’ options in the free agency preceding the 2023 season and presuming Occam’s razor comes to fruition, let’s get the less likely scenarios out of the way. If Judge suffers a catastrophic injury (or injuries), causing him to miss scores of games while underperforming along the way, the Yankees could probably re-sign Judge for a bargain. They’d be hopeful he re-emerges as an MVP candidate, but acceptant if he doesn’t, as they wouldn’t be paying him like one.

The alternative scenario is what makes Judge such a tantalizing talent to continue keeping under contract. If he maintains his rate of production, but is able to remain healthy over a full season (something he hasn’t done since his rookie year), he becomes a six-win player, a no-brainer All-Star starter worthy of MVP consideration in any year. Even with Mookie Betts-like production, the Yankees shouldn’t and wouldn’t absolutely need to pay him $365 million to stay in New York.

Since Judge took a while to develop in the minors, entering the bigs as an older rookie, he will be three years older than when the Dodgers extended their 27-year-old right fielder for 13 years. The Yankees shouldn’t be willing to overpay Judge in his late thirties in order to retain him in his early thirties, since his twenties are already accounted for under team control. When the Red Sox shipped Mookie off to LA, the move drew the ire of Sox Nation, chiding the team for being too cheap to pay their young superstar what he deserves.

The dissimilarities between Judge and Mookie, however, don’t stop at age, health, and reliability (especially on defense and the basepaths). The fact that Judge hasn’t yet won a World Series in pinstripes matters at least a little, as the club shouldn’t necessarily be willing to overpay for sentimentality — as they did for Jeter (who won five) — without a trophy already on display. If the Yankees were to win a championship in the next two seasons, especially if it comes with Judge shining as a major postseason contributor, as Mookie did with the Sox, the Yankees would understandably be more apt to pay the man.

As things stand, however, Aaron Judge is an aging superstar coming off another injury-shortened season, followed by the worst postseason of his career, where he posted an OPS under .700. If ZiPS’ projections bear out, or worse yet, Steamer’s, the Yankees shouldn’t feel forced to retain the largest human in the league at a premium. A contract as big as the man himself would become a burden if Judge becomes the next Jacoby Ellsbury; a legitimate possibility if the injuries increase exponentially. Paying Judge tens of millions each year to rehab myriad maladies would — according to Hal Steinbrenner’s self-imposed budget anyway — hamstring the franchise’s opportunities to improve externally, unable to move his behemoth contract or add premier free agents. That would be an especially compromising position considering their relatively recent win-now additions of Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton, and the rest of their potential stars either just reaching or in the heart of their primes.

If the Yankees don’t win a World Series in the next two seasons, they likely only have a bite or maybe two more at the apple with Judge at his peak anyway. Already, the team has effectively leveraged a decade of inconsistent performance into a couple more seasons at contention, on the hook for half a billion dollars to Cole and Stanton. However, the Steinbrenners would likely consider a third massive financial undertaking to be too many eggs in too few baskets. Barring a championship or two uncharacteristically healthy and highly productive seasons, if another club craves Judge enough to back up the Brink’s truck, the Yankees might end up letting the man earn his bread elsewhere.