It’s not easy to find something that all Yankee fans agree upon, but it certainly seemed like the acquisition of Joey Gallo last week was one of them. Even the most finicky and disagreeable of Yankee fans found it hard to not like adding a two-time All-Star in his prime to the team, particularly in this case when there was very little (if any) downside to the move.
Yet perhaps when the dust settles on the 2021 season, there might be an aspect of the Gallo acquisition that many Yankee fans may not like: The chances of Aaron Judge being a Yankee long term just took a big hit.
As you’re likely aware, Judge is due to be a free agent at the end of next season and he is going to be a very rich man, deservingly so. Given a combination of factors such as the Yankees’ current roster construction, the apparent predilection of honoring the luxury tax threshold, and the recent success of a rival in an eerily similar situation, an off-season trade of Judge is not off the table, nor should it be.
Of course, there are innumerable factors that will be hashed out over the next 56 games (especially with this team, for whom daily change has been the only constant), but for discussion’s sake let’s assume the Yankees continue at their current .538 winning percentage and finish the season in an underwhelming manner. That would leave them at 87-75, likely third-best in the AL East and out of the postseason.
Quite similarly, the 2019 Red Sox finished 84-78 and in third place in the AL East. As I’m sure you’re aware, that’s when they traded their “homegrown” fan favorite, the face of the franchise, and one of the best players in baseball because he only had one year left on his bargain contract. Just under 18 months later, the Red Sox are on pace for a 95-win season and hold an 84 percent chance to make the postseason according to FanGraphs.
Could one argue they would be at least as good, if not better with Mookie Betts? Of course — two to three wins better if we go by the WAR of all the players involved in the trade — which is significant given the race they’re in for the division title. But they certainly wouldn’t be $28 million under the owner-reviled luxury tax threshold with Betts as they currently are without him. In an ideal world for Boston fans, John Henry would blow past it regardless, but he seems to treat it the same way as counterpart Hal Steinbrenner. So if Betts isn’t around, Boston will at least invest that money wisely and become more formidable, if the past two decades of history are any indication.
Speaking of salary maintenance, not only would trading Judge this offseason save Steinbrenner the hassle of writing even more large checks than he already is long-term, but it would pay short-term dividends as well. These are not things that most fans really care about, but unfortunately must be considered, given Steinbrenner’s preferences. Judge is arbitration-eligible again, and given the season he’s having is likely going to get a sizable raise from his current $10 million contract.
Obviously, Judge’s absence would leave an immense hole in the roster, both literally and figuratively. This is why Gallo’s addition wasn’t just good for the short term, but he’s a pretty darn good insurance policy should the Yankees decide to part ways with Judge. I’m not going to argue that Gallo is a better player than Judge because over the course of their careers, Judge has been much better. That said, Gallo has been better so far this season by all three major WAR calculations, so that hole may already be filled.
Additionally, Gallo won’t be alone in trying to fill Judge’s shoes should he be traded. Based on what Boston received for Betts, it’s not a stretch to say the Yankees would likely receive a Major League-ready outfielder and two prospects in return for Judge. Add that to Clint Frazier, Miguel Andújar (both of whom, despite much understandable fan skepticism, will only be 27 next season and have hit MLB pitching), and Triple-A prospect Estevan Florial, who are all still in the mix.
Lest we forget Aaron Hicks, who will be returning next season. Hicks, who despite the vitriol he’s received from many Yankee fans, we must recall is a very good baseball player. Frankly, his absence is a bigger contributor to the Yankees’ underperformance this season than most people openly acknowledge in my mind.
Speaking of fans’ vitriol, I’m likely in the minority on this one, but I think there’s a decent chance that Giancarlo Stanton becomes an outfielder again, at least on a part-time basis. It would be an understatement to say the DH role with very strict “load management” isn’t working optimally by anyone’s standards. Putting Stanton in the outfield even on a part-time basis will not only get more of a return on the salary investment but would add some flexibility to a lineup that needs it. Stanton will never be confused with Roberto Clemente in the outfield, but he certainly isn’t a liability either.
Before you laugh and start typing nasty things to me in the comments section about how those are an awful lot of “ifs” and bounces that would have to break in the Yankees' favor, I agree, which is why I’m not arguing that all of them will work out. Yet if half of these aforementioned outfield possibilities do work out, the Yankees will have a pretty productive outfield without Judge. Collectively, it isn’t a bigger roll of the dice than the organization took with the starting rotation coming into 2021. Some might fairly regret that roll, but it’s one the Yankees took regardless. They could do it again.
Speaking of which, the most important aspect of roster construction that’s relevant to this conversation is that the Yankees have other holes bigger than the outfield that need to be filled. Trading Judge now, and not having a big contract around (both short and long term) would make it much easier to fill those holes — under Steinbrenner’s self-imposed limitations, anyway — and would go a long way toward this team becoming the powerhouse we’ve all been expecting.
To be clear, I’m not necessarily suggesting the Yankees should go this route. Committing a lot of money to keep a great player on your team long-term is just as good an idea as the thoughts above. Nor am I suggesting the Yankees will go the offseason trade route with Judge. Of all the fair criticisms you can make of this front office, it typically does what it needs to in order to keep fan favorites in pinstripes.
Yet it is a big enough of a possibility that Yankee fans may want to brace themselves, just in case. When we remove our fandom from the discussion, a trade of Aaron Judge could be in even more serious consideration than most might guess.