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Aaron Judge’s free agency might break my fandom

The superstar is a free agent and I’m not prepared to handle what comes next.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

It really should be the easiest thing in the world. Yesterday began a five-day window for the Yankees where other teams aren’t even allowed to talk to Aaron Judge, and this “problem” shouldn’t take more than one day. Brian Cashman just needs to walk into a room with a blank check, tell Judge’s agent to fill it out, shake hands, and maybe pop open some champagne. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Yankees are going to follow the Metsexample here.

I haven’t been a Yankees fan for my entire life. I’m 32 years old and I haven’t even followed this team half that time. When I did start to follow this team, though, I went all-in. I love this team and I love this sport, even if this team has been breaking my heart for the last decade.

Even though I’m not a “lifelong fan” of the team, I was born and raised in New Jersey, so I heard about the team. All I heard growing up was “This team buys their championships and that is A Bad Thing.” Then I started following baseball and I started to think “Who cares? It’s a team that wants to win and is doing what it takes to win and field the best team possible.” And in my first year following the team, they went ahead and won the World Series after bringing in CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett in free agency. Winning is fun! And I was hooked.

Thanks to my now sister-in-law, I chose to follow a team that won often and puts forward a great product. What can go wrong? Little did I know, that wouldn’t be the case for long and by the time the realization hit, I was committed. For years, I’ve watched as the Yankees let top-tier talent sign with other teams without showing any real interest in them, like the Bryce Harpers, Max Scherzers, and Manny Machados of the world. It was annoying, but I was still there.

I’ve also watched with heartbreak as Yankees I’ve loved have left in free agency. Think what you may about Robinson Canó, but you’ll never convince me that not re-signing him when he was a free agent was good idea. Aside from Canó, I’ve had to endure David Robertson leaving (twice!) and Masahiro Tanaka exiting the league. Obviously, Tanaka’s situation isn’t as cut-and-dry, but I do believe that he’d be a Yankee right now if the team actually put in some effort. It was upsetting, but I was still there.

The point I’m getting at is that the Yankees just don’t really try their best anymore and as much as I don’t like it, I’ve adjusted my expectations and learned to follow this team in a way that works for me. Sure, they acquired Giancarlo Stanton after 2017 and signed Gerrit Cole to a monster contract, but there were still other needs that needed to be met during those times which eventually got thrown to the side. This team won’t go out and address all their needs and put the best product out there, but they’ll do the bare minimum and make one big move and “compliment” that move with a bunch of smaller moves (as Matt Provenzano recently discussed).

They’ll make a “splash” to get Josh Donaldson and then convince fans that Isiah Kiner-Falefa is one of the five-to-seven best defenders at shortstop in the league, without actually sharing what metrics they use to measure. Hal Steinbrenner’s mandate is pretty clear even if he’ll never admit it. Field a team that’s good enough to make the playoffs and then hope for the best. Do what it takes to make the playoffs, because they’re a “crapshoot,” and that is the bare minimum.

Back to Aaron Judge. He’s the face of the New York Yankees. He just broke the American League single-season home run record. He’s played in 729 games and has hit 220 home runs. He’s not just a “home run hitter” either. He does it all at the plate and he’s a tremendous fielder. He’s been the Yankees’ best player since 2017 and is one of the best players in baseball. He’s going to cost a lot of money. He is the Yankees’ “bare minimum” this winter.

Locking up Aaron Judge needs to the team’s big splash move this winter. I’ll welcome multiple splashes, but none of it works without No. 99 in pinstripes. Hal wants to make the playoffs, he needs to make the playoffs, and without Judge it’s just hard to see that happening. Remove Judge and his monster year from the 2022 roster and this team probably doesn’t make the playoffs.

I’ve learned to adapt my expectations for this team. I don’t like it, but I accept they’re not going to put their best foot forward. But if they don’t bring back Judge, they’re not even doing the bare minimum anymore. If they’re not doing that, are they even trying anymore? And if they don’t care, how can I?

Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

I’m not going to make any big proclamation like “if Aaron Judge isn’t a Yankee, I’m not watching any more games!” or anything like that. But I will say, I’m going to find it difficult to care. Outside of this year, I’ve been able to follow the team in my own way, sometimes I’d go a week or so without watching a game because they were just too hard to watch. This year’s team pulled me back in, and I followed with a passion again. If they go backwards from here, I don’t know if I have it in me to continue.

The other problem is that I feel like the Yankees are already prepared for Judge leaving. They’ll probably treat Judge the way they handle any other big free agent. “Here’s our number, take it or leave it; there will be no further discussions.” Brian Cashman’s Opening Day presser where he announced they didn’t reach an agreement with Judge and he told everyone what he offered him was one step in that direction. Andy Martino, who is as connected to the front office as anyone outside of the YES Network itself, reported about Yankees players not wanting to play in The Bronx because of boos and that also feels like just preparing another excuse for Judge walking.

Considering Judge’s great relationship with the fanbase, I doubt he walks because of some boos. If Judge walks, it’s most likely because the Yankees just didn’t do what it takes to keep him around. If they did that from the beginning, he’d likely have signed an extension and we would be focused on other areas. Obviously, there’s a world where the Yankees do offer Judge what he’s worth but he still chooses to sign elsewhere. It’s not a scenario that happens often, but players do have preferences and as a New Jersey Devils fan who lived through Zach Parise’s free agency, I know it happens sometimes. In that off-chance scenario, I can’t fault the Yankees.

The Yankees don’t need me and honestly they probably don’t need Judge either. They’re still going to make their money, regardless of where Judge signs. I don’t need the Yankees either. I’ve lived more than half my life without this team and have been able to check out when necessary. The thing is, though, I like having this team in my life. I like going on this ride every year, and it’s not one I want to get off anytime soon.

Aaron Judge doesn’t need the Yankees, some other team will give him the payday he deserves and he certainly doesn’t need me. But I like the Yankees, and I like Aaron Judge, and in order for me to continue having the former, I need the latter. If he’s wearing a different uniform next year, it might just break my fandom.