When news broke that Fernando Tatís Jr. had signed a 14-year, $340-million extension, a whirlwind of thoughts swept through my head. I felt elated that the young megastar had secured generational wealth. I applauded the Padres for keeping the face of the franchise in town for the majority of his career (I hope) and at a reasonable price. At the same time though, I also wondered if maybe Tatís was shortchanging himself, and speculated what reverberations this might cause around the league (I will have more on this later in the week).
My thoughts then turned to the Yankees as I pondered what effect if any this deal might have in the Bronx. The Yankees have their own budding star shortstop in Gleyber Torres inching closer to free agency with each passing season. Last week, my colleague John took a stab at conceptualizing a Torres extension. While he did not provide a distinct prediction in terms of dollars or years, one still has to feel that the Tatís deal will at least come up in discussions, even if Torres is the lesser player.
The Yankees have another star nearing free agency in Aaron Judge, and given the Tatís news and John’s comprehensive analysis, it felt like the perfect time to project the type of extension it would take to keep Judge in pinstripes for at least the next several years.
Judge burst onto the scene in his rookie campaign of 2017, setting the since-broken rookie home run record at 52 dingers, and slashing .284/.422/.627 with a 174 wRC+ en route to an AL Rookie of the Year win and a second-place AL MVP finish. In that season, Judge showed his ceiling as a top-five player in baseball, tantalizing fans and evaluators alike with his MVP-caliber play.
Unfortunately for Judge, he has never been able to replicate the astronomical highs of the breakthrough season. The main culprit: injuries. Since the beginning of the 2018 season, Judge has appeared in only 242 of a possible 384 games (63 percent). In the time that he has been on the field, Judge has seen his rate stats fall slightly, from that of an MVP to that of someone who merits down-ballot votes, with his power numbers declining (~80 point drop in ISO) and his walk totals falling (4.5 percentage point drop in walk rate).
This is the big conundrum for Judge and for the Yankees’ front office as they try to project his future production and value going forward. Because of the significant missed time, Judge has perhaps the widest variance in possible outcomes of any extension candidate. If he continues along an injured trajectory, missing roughly a third of his team’s games each year, Judge has still shown he can accrue around 5 fWAR in value each year, even if that’s far from the heights he achieved three seasons ago.
It would be impractical for me to make any specific prediction of the overall value or length of a prospective Aaron Judge contract. We have no idea what the Yankees’ future financial objectives might be, nor Judge’s. However, the extensions signed in the last two years by the following players can act as a framework to inform our expectations.
In March of 2019, an almost-25-year-old Alex Bregman signed a six-year, $100 million extension that bought out his four remaining years of team control as well as his first two years of free agency. Later that spring, Ronald Acuña Jr. inked an eight-year, $100 million extension despite only having completed his first year of service time in the majors, becoming the first 21-year-old to sign a nine-figure deal.
The following offseason brought a pair of even more lucrative blockbuster extensions. In the first week of March, Christian Yelich signed a seven-year extension, which, when added to the final two years of his previous extension, took the total value of the 29-year-old’s contract to nine years, $215 million. At the time it seemed like a solid deal... that is, until Mookie Betts blew it out of the water. Following his February trade to the Dodgers, Betts signed a 12-year, $365 million extension which took effect after his record-setting $27 million final year of arbitration.
None of these players or deals is a perfect comparison for Aaron Judge. He is in his penultimate year of team control, and is set to become a free agent following the 2022 season. That means Judge will be entering his age-31 season after that winter, making him a good deal older than any of the four aforementioned players. He has also missed significantly more games due to injury. That being said, Judge has shown he can mash the ball harder than just about anyone in baseball.
Taking all this into consideration, I would imagine a prospective extension offer would fall closer to the deals signed by Acuña Jr. and Bregman in terms of dollar value than those signed by Yelich and especially Betts. Even with a fully healthy 2021 season, Judge’s prior injury history might be enough to scare the Yankees away from tendering an amount in the very top tier ($250MM+). Judge’s late start in the majors also works against him, and we have seen in recent years how hard it is for players on the wrong side of 30 to get long-term commitments (DJ LeMahieu’s six-year pact is the longest I can recall off the top of my head).
Aaron Judge has been truly one of the most frustrating Yankees in recent memory. When he is on the field, he is an MVP frontrunner-type talent. If the new training regime instituted by Eric Cressey can keep Judge healthy, he is still in line for a handsome payday, either via extension or free agency. But unfortunately for the hulking superstar, he has probably injured himself out of contention for a stratosphere-level contract.