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The great mistake of the Baby Bomber era

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Aaron Judge is a free agent in twelve months. It should never have happened like this.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s kick off this post with a list of names, and see if you can guess what they all have in common — Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon, Christian Yelich, Nolan Arenado, and Jose Altuve. Those eight guys were the only players in baseball to put up more fWAR between August 13th, 2016 and the end of 2018 than Aaron Judge did.

That means that, despite an underwhelming first six weeks of his career, and despite sitting out 50 games in 2018, it was already clear, just over two years into his Yankee tenure, that Judge was one of the absolute best players in the game. And ahead of the 2019 season, the Yankees tendered him a contract for the MLB minimum salary of $684,300.

Wander Franco signed a massive extension earlier this week, potentially staying in Tampa Bay for the next 12 seasons, despite only appearing in 70 major league games to date. He’s obviously on track to be one of the best players in baseball, and Tampa Bay is doing that thing that teams do, where they pay a little more than they absolutely need to in the first years of a player’s tenure, in order to secure a significant discount on the final year of arbitration and first, most valuable years of free agency.

Fernando Tatís Jr. was extended after his first two seasons, albeit injury shortened ones, while Ronald Acuña Jr. was given his eight-year extension after his rookie season, where he won the NL Rookie of the Year ... and spent time on the IL. Aaron Judge’s 2017 season was better than Acuña Jr.’s rookie season, by quite a bit. In that season, Judge was a win and a half better than El Niño was in 2019 and 2020 combined. In fact, between 2017 and 2018, Judge put up more than a full win of value more than Tatís Jr has in his entire career, despite having just one single PA more than the Padre-for-life in that span.

We’re spending a lot of time and energy this winter talking about whether the Yankees should, and will, extend Aaron Judge. He’s headed into his age-30 season in 2022, the last one of Yankee team control, he’ll earn around $17 million in arbitration, there are concerns about how his body type will age ... oh, and he just finished fourth in MVP voting. He’s one of the best players in baseball, I do not expect him to be interested in an extension this winter, and the Yankees failed by not having him under contract a whole lot earlier.

Even if your response to that argument is injury risk, Judge has been the fourth-best player in the game since he debuted, and accrued more PA than guys like Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon. He put up 10 wins across 2018-19, despite only playing in two-thirds of the club’s possible 324 games. He’s that good!

Now obviously Judge is older than the three guys discussed above — in fact, he debuted at 24, and Acuña, the oldest of the trio, is just entering his age-24 season in 2022 — so his extension wouldn’t have been as gaudy as what the Padres gave out, but no less critical. Any deal with Judge, whether an extension this season or free agency after next, starts to buy up his age 36 season and above, where we really see players decline. Had Judge been extended, say for eight or nine seasons at 25, your risk of a player completely cratering is a lot lower.

The other element of extensions that’s often overlooked is payroll consistency. Yes, you’re paying more for Judge in 2019 than you would be without the extension, but you’re probably paying him less in 2023 than you would otherwise, and you know years in advance what he’s going to cost. Having more information should lead to you making better decisions, and more cost certainty makes it easier to envision roster additions — and a lower cost for a player like Judge going forward means it’s easier to pay for someone like Corey Seager.

Aaron Judge is entering his final season of arbitration, the last twelve months where we know for sure he’ll be a New York Yankee. Maybe I’m wrong and the two sides work out an extension. Maybe a club with a young, cheap, talented core outbids the Yankees to raise the ceiling of their roster in a year. Regardless, the fact that we’re even wondering and debating the merits of an extension now is a black mark on the Yankees’ front office. Clubs around the league keep locking up their young, multidimensional, MVP-caliber, marketable stars, and the Yankees passed the buck for five straight seasons.