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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Aaron Judge

The decision that will define the offseason.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to think about what to say in a post like this. What haven’t we already said about Aaron Judge, fresh off the best non-Barry Bonds season in my lifetime, and also fresh off another disappointing end to the season?

He hit 62 home runs with an 1.111 OPS, an 11.4 fWAR season. He was in the 99th or 100th percentile in eight Statcast hitting metrics. He played a strong right field as always, and even held his own in 78 games in center — he didn’t set the world on fire, but 1 OAA in 632.2 innings gave the Yankees critical flexibility while Aaron Hicks took a step back defensively and Harrison Bader recovered post-trade. He will be 31 next April.

You all know how good he is, so there’s not much point in giving a statistical breakdown. The big question is, what the hell do you pay him?

FanGraphs’ Top 50 Free Agents has him settling somewhere around $300 million, while MLB Trade Rumors is more aggressive, predicting $332 million over eight years. I know there’s been this driving narrative that he’ll exceed $40 million AAV, but I’m actually on the low end there. I think $40 per is a number that executives are going to be shy on, just because it eats up so much of your CBT space.

I don’t think Judge gets 10 years on the market, but I think that teams will be willing to go to nine in order to push that AAV down, even if only a couple mil per, and retain a little bit of flexibility. As we saw with Judge this year, even having an All-World player have an All-World season isn’t enough on it’s own, so avoiding that big $40 hit allows you to make an extra depth move or two.

I also don’t think there are that many bidders. The Yankees and the Giants have made their interest pretty known, I think the Cubs make some sense, and there’s always a mystery team that pops up when you’re not expecting it. At most you’re looking at four, maybe five teams that are going to be at the table.

The risks with bringing Judge back is age and peak. He’s probably never going to have an 11.4 win season again. His 2023 FanGraphs DC projection has him at 6.7 wins and a 157 wRC+, much closer to his career 163 — for context, that’s 10 points higher than Juan Soto’s career wRC+. If that projection holds, he would go from the MVP favorite to merely an MVP finalist, oh the pain of it. Still, you’re not getting Barry Bonds, probably, merely one of the six or seven best players in baseball.

And then there’s age. He’ll be 31 shortly after Opening Day, you can all do the math on what an eight or nine year deal would take him to. There have been a few comparisons to Albert Pujols’ free agency, as a cautionary tale, who was a year older than Judge at the time he hit the market. I don’t think its quite so simple, though.

So first of all, Judge is one full year younger, and with contracts like these, every year counts since you know the back end is going to be bad. Second, what’s always stood out to me about Judge is how stable his performance is. Pujols is probably the best right handed hitter I’ve ever seen, at least at his peak, but he was on a three-year decline before hitting free agency.

Judge is coming off a career year, but he’s been remarkably stable in the runup to his career year. 2020 is a weird year for everyone, but in the three full seasons between his Rookie of the Year campaign and likely MVP season, his OPS has has just a five point spread, bottoming out at .916 and capping at .921. He has the highest floor of any player in baseball, and I think that’s more encouraging for teams worried about his 30s — you may not get the 1.111 OPS season again, but his stability is a good sign relative to someone like Pujols, who was already getting worse.

Last, there’s what Aaron Judge means to this franchise. He is the best pure baseball talent the team has produced since Mickey Mantle. In so many ways, he is the face of baseball, and the de facto captain of the Yankees. There is a certain brand value that the Yankees gain by having him on the roster that isn’t really accounted for in $/WAR. What’s the value, for the Dodgers, of keeping Clayton Kershaw in blue for his entire career, or how much would the Mariners have gained as a brand had they found a way to retain Ken Griffey Jr.?

What the Yankees do with Aaron Judge will define the offseason for all of MLB. The Yankees are not very good without him, barring any other major moves. There are no guarantees that if the Yankees let him walk, they’ll “spread the money around”, especially when the commitments to guys like Trea Turner or Carlos Rodón are going to be close, if not as high, as what Judge will get. If you pass on giving $38 million to Judge, and $30 goes to Turner, you don’t have that much left over to make a real impact move — and as much as I love Trea Turner, he’s projected to be two full wins worse than Judge next year.