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The Yankees and contract-year decisions (part one)

Looking back on the notable players Brian Cashman had to bring back or let walk.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Judge’s 2022 would have been incredible under any circumstance, but there’s no denying that the intrigue was multiplied by the fact that it also doubled as one of the greatest “walk” seasons (in contract terms) in sports history. It’s not just a monumental season on its own terms — it’s forced the Yankees to make a decision that will shape the direction of the team, and the league as a whole, for years to come.

It’s not necessarily the kind of decision that the Yankees are used to making. Before Brian Cashman assumed greater control of baseball operations in 2006, George Steinbrenner was liable to “audible” on just about any contract for any player, and often did. Even since then, it’s been nearly a decade since they’ve been in a situation remotely resembling the one they’re in now. I looked at these situations for you — some were boring, some were contentious, and in any case, it will be fascinating to find out where Judge falls within the scope of how these things have been approached by the Cashman front office.

Jorge Posada

Year: 2007

Stats: 144 G, .338 AVG , 20 HR, 90 RBI, .970 OPS, 157 wRC+, 5.4 rWAR

Posada picked an excellent time to have his last truly great performance, finishing fifth in the majors in hitting and pacing AL catchers in WAR in the final season of a six-year, $63 million extension signed in 2002. At age-36 and coming off a stinging ALDS loss to Cleveland, there was little chatter of Posada landing elsewhere beyond brief flirtations with the Mets, but the Yankees didn’t get him at a discount, ending his free agency after barely a week with the four-year, $52 million contract that would take him to retirement.

Mariano Rivera

Year: 2007

Stats: 67 G, 3-4 W-L, 71.1 IP, 3.15 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 74/12 SO/BB, 2.0 rWAR

On the other end of the spectrum, Mo became a free agent in the wake of his worst season as a pro. In today’s more risk-averse front office environment, this one might have played out slightly differently. Those numbers are still elite, of course, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a team today that would give a reliever a 40% raise after seeing a decline in effectiveness — even to that above-average level — from a soon-to-be 38-year old. He was no ordinary reliever, as we know, and that’s exactly what the Yankees did, paying him $45 million over three years with the only drama coming from Rivera’s initial (and ultimately futile) insistence on a fourth year. Though he reportedly received offers from multiple other teams after the conclusion of that contract, there turned out to be little question that he’d be back in the fold after another trio of dominant seasons.

Alex Rodríguez

Year: 2007 (Opt-out)

Stats: 158 G, .314 AVG, 54 HR, 156 RBI, 1.067 OPS, 175 wRC+, 9.4 rWAR

The opt-out heard around the world! A story in which A-Rod says he wants to be a Yankee for life in the midst of his third MVP run and fourth time leading the majors in homers! In which Scott Boras announces his opt-out in the middle of the World Series anyway! In which the Yankees don’t get $20 million of the Texas Rangers’ money because of the torn-up contract! In which A-Rod fires Boras, chats with Warren Buffett, and goes directly to Yankees ownership — then heavily influenced by the late Hank Steinbrenner — and winds up with another $275 million!

It’s worth remembering that the history of public resentment towards Rodríguez long predates the Biogenesis scandal, with this ordeal being a prominent chapter. It’s hard to top the tension of Judge’s historic rampage after publicly turning down more than $200 million, but in terms of pure controversy, beating A-Rod is always a herculean task.

Derek Jeter

Year: 2010

Stats: 157 G, .270 AVG, 10 HR, 67 RBI, .710 OPS, 93 wRC+, 4.0 rWAR

Much of what I just said about Rivera’s 2007 can also be said about Jeter’s 2010, in which he was a below-average player offensively for the first time in his career at age-36. There would be no raise, considering he was already the highest-paid shortstop in the game at the time. It was the first time in his career that Jeter had reached the open market, and he and the Yankees simply could not come to an agreement, with an anonymous team source reportedly telling Jeter to “drink the reality potion” and bring his demands down.

While the standoff lasted until early December, long past when most re-signing players would have already done so, Jeter ultimately caved, “settling” for a contract that would ultimately be three years and $51 million (followed by a new one-year pact in 2014) to end his career in pinstripes.

Nick Swisher

Year: 2012

Stats: 148 G, .272 AVG, 24 HR, 93 RBI, .837 OPS, 128 wRC+, 4.0 rWAR

Though Swisher’s time in the Bronx lasted just four seasons, it was memorable enough that he found himself out on the field waving a flag for a playoff game a decade after his departure. The switch-hitter was one of the most eerily consistent hitters in the game through the end of his tenure as a Yankee, running an OPS+ between 122 and 129 every year but between 2006 and 2012.

Swisher He was as effective as ever in his walk year as a Yankee, and given the popularity that his explosive personality endowed him with, it might have rung as somewhat surprising that Cashman opted to roll with Ichiro Suzuki on a two-year, $13 million pact rather than match the sizable but not outrageous four-year, $51 million deal Swisher subsequently received from Cleveland. Given that Swisher was out of the league at the end of that contract and that both Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltrán would be in pinstripes less than 12 months later, it perhaps makes a bit more sense in retrospect.

Curtis Granderson

Year: 2013

Stats: 61 G, .229 AVG, 7 HR, 15 RBI, .723 OPS, 98 wRC+, 1.1 rWAR

Perhaps if Granderson hadn’t missed so much time in his walk year with the Yankees due to unlucky beanings, he would have received a healthy chunk of the money that Ellsbury got to take over his roster spot. Like Swisher, the Grandy Man was a fan favorite, but a much more dangerous hitter at his peak. The 84 homers he hit between 2011 and 2012 weren’t very far in the rear-view mirror, but that mid-2010s roster had a golf course’s worth of holes to address.

But even after giving out more than $270 million in guaranteed money to Ellsbury, Beltrán, and Brian McCann, there was room to pay Granderson. Rather than give him the four guaranteed years he ultimately got from the Mets, they effectively replaced his stick with Beltrán’s, who was available at the same salary point but for just three seasons.

Robinson Canó

Year: 2013

Stats: 160 G, .314 AVG, 27 HR, 107 RBI, .899 OPS, 143 wRC+, 6.6 rWAR

There’s absolutely nothing of value that I can say about the end of Robinson Canó’s time as a Yankee that hasn’t been iterated a hundred times before. Canó remains the painful experience at the source of many fans’ angst about Judge’s free agent foray, as likely as a reunion may end up being. This was the first (or at least, the most hard-hitting) sign that Hal was definitively not his father.

Ten years is a long time and $240 million is a lot of money, but for someone virtually certain to be a inner-circle Yankees legend, it’s what you have to do. At least, it’s what they usually did until Hal took over. Despite the recent suspensions that marred the final few years of Canó’s terrific career, no Yankees hitter came close to matching his 17.2 rWAR between 2014 and 2016 — one wonders, as they failed to break 87 wins in any of those years, whether they’d have done things differently with hindsight.

Come back tomorrow for part two!