With the clock ticking down to the expiry of the most recent CBA, impact free agents flew off the board in a frenzy the likes of which few saw coming. Teams looked to upgrade their rosters early in order to avoid the signing scramble that is sure to come in the brief period between the lifting of the lockout and that start of next season. Surety is a valuable commodity, uncertainty a terror in the night.
Much to the chagrin of their fans, the Yankees sat idle — despite clear needs at shortstop and the starting rotation — while Corey Seager and Marcus Semien signed with the Rangers and the top-end trio of Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, and Marcus Stroman each found new homes. What happened to the Evil Empire who for so long relished dictating affairs at the top of the free agent market?
Many have attempted to explain the Yankees’ inaction. Jake pointed to the Bombers’ bullish ZiPS projections and how the club may view themselves as “good enough” heading into next season. Others have suggested that ownership would prefer a complete understanding of the luxury tax structure under the new CBA before committing to additional payroll expenditures. Today, I’d like to explore a separate explanation: Aaron Judge’s looming free agency.
Before I start, I’d like to preface all that follows with this: the Yankees are more than capable of keeping Aaron Judge in pinstripes AND spending top dollar on premium free agents this offseason. Having reset their CBT offender rates, any penalty they would pay on luxury tax overages would be a relative pittance compared to the team’s skyrocketing revenues. They can spend more freely than just about any organization in the game. However, several signs point to that being far from a guarantee.
Just before the lockout, Evan Drellich and Lindsey Adler of The Athletic reported that Hal Steinbrenner supported a proposal to lower the first luxury tax threshold from $210 million to $180 million while instituting a $100 million salary floor and harsher penalties for offenders. Obviously the reduced payroll parameters of that proposal were a nonstarter for the union, but was the Yankees’ owner telegraphing his comfort level for spending on his own club? He clearly prioritized luxury tax avoidance above all else in 2021, and despite Brian Cashman’s assurances that he would have some latitude to increase payroll in 2022, no mention was made as to whether external reinforcements or internal extensions would constitute such an increase.
Regarding said external reinforcements, there is no player that addresses the team’s needs more than Carlos Correa. He is a top-three offensive shortstop, plays premium defense, and doesn’t turn 28 until the final week of the 2022 regular season. He also just hired Scott Boras as his agent and was reportedly seeking a contract in excess of $330 million prior to the lockout. Signing him and keeping Judge in pinstripes while rolling out a payroll in the ballpark of what Steinbrenner proposed to the union all of a sudden becomes a lot more difficult.
If we accept the premise that ownership will either keep Judge a lifetime Yankee or approve spending on a marquee free agent this winter, but not both, the former is the better option. Despite being two and a half years older than Correa and despite the shortstop vacancy Correa would fill, Judge has demonstrated an offensive ceiling as high as anyone in the league, and certainly far in excess of anything Correa’s been able to muster.
But going beyond the numbers, there is an emotional argument for prioritizing Judge over all else. He is the face of the franchise, a leader in the clubhouse, and a figure around which the team coalesces unlike anyone since Derek Jeter. He wants to remain a Bomber for life, and wishes to eventually go down in history as one of the all-time Yankee greats.
I cannot emphasize enough that my hypothesis that the Yankees would forgo spending this winter to save money for an Aaron Judge extension does not equate to me excusing them doing so. In fact, I maintain that throwing his extension in fans’ faces as a pretext for not improving the team externally is borderline insulting. It’s not an either/or situation. You’re the New York freaking Yankees. Act like it.