Of course it had to be Aaron Judge. On the eve of his arbitration hearing. On a night when we might’ve permitted the first tendrils of doubt over the legitimacy of the team’s record to creep in. The MVP frontrunner, the face of the franchise, the homegrown hero delivered as only he could.
Less than 24 hours later, we got news that he and the Yankees would avoid their arbitration hearing, settling on a $19 million contract for 2022 with additional incentive-based escalators. We could rejoice knowing the two sides would avoid the acrimony that characterize these proceedings, with team officials trashing their players to avoid paying them a few million dollars — something with which Yankees fans are well acquainted. And yet I still couldn’t shake this feeling of distaste at the way the Yankees handled this scenario.
Did it have to come down to the eleventh hour, with the threat of defamation looming over the day? Then I remembered that that’s just how the Yankees do business. If you’ve followed the Yankees over the last year, you’d recognize this as par for the course. So yes, it was always going to play out like this. But that doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be.
The very fact that it even got to this stage all over an unwillingness to pay Judge an extra $4 million dollars is repugnant to me. Then again, they partially punted on the 2021 season, choosing to prioritize resetting the tax rate over fielding the most competitive roster possible, all to save roughly $9 million in tax payment this year. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at all.
I also found myself repulsed that it took until moments before the arbitration hearing for an agreement to be made, almost as if the Yankees were playing chicken with their superstar. This brinksmanship mentality the Yankees wield in negotiations with the face of their franchise is nothing new. They waited until the final day of spring training to tender a contract extension offer to Judge, as if bum-rushing him at the last second to prevent any sort of coordinated counter by his team.
Then came the strategic leaks of the terms of the contract — one I freely admit was a fair offer — in an attempt to turn the tide of fan opinion against the star outfielder. The tenor of these leaks is particularly unpleasant. When you have media lackeys using wording like “Aaron Judge gets his first reward by betting on himself,” and “Aaron Judge declined a $19 million settlement offer from the Yankees and is instead aiming for victory in arbitration,” (emphasis my own), it sets up a player-versus-team dichotomy from which there may only emerge one victor. It gives the perception that the player puts self before team, that he is somehow being greedy, that player-team interactions are a zero sum game and god forbid the player be on the winning side.
It’s the sort of behavior we’ve come to expect seeing baseball clutched in the vice grip talons of vulture capitalism, obsessed over extracting every last drop of surplus value at the detriment of the long-term health of the sport and its players. Owners are happy to alienate their fanbases by selling off players and threatening to relocate the franchise to a taxbase willing to foot the largest portion of the bill for a new stadium, all because they’ve decided the short-term gain of pocketing payroll savings outweigh whatever profit might be gained from fielding a competitive ballclub.
We’ve heard about the deplorable living conditions for minor leaguers, all in the name of saving money around the margins... which is insane when you consider that young, underpaid talent is the lifeblood that allows owners to field continuously shrinking payrolls. MLB’s failure to enforce their own rules in the international free agent market amounts to an implicit admission of predatory practices of international player pipelines.
It’s all enough to make your blood boil. And yet there’s a part of me that comes away from this also feeling optimistic. Seeing the cutthroat manner in which the Yankees interact with their players, the fact that the two sides could come to a compromise is encouraging. It provides hope that similar common ground can be found in the more important negotiations in the future.
On the Yankees’ side, to see them increase their initial offer was pleasantly surprising. They are notorious for setting their valuation of a player in stone, refusing to budge off that stance in all but the most extreme of cases. Could this newfound willingness to meet Judge halfway portend similar behavior when his free agency rolls around? Would they again increase their offer over their internal valuation, knowing how valuable Judge is to the club? I sure hope so.
On Judge’s side, I was admittedly shocked that he came down from his ask to meet the Yankees in the middle. He has spoken about how he wants to play his whole career in pinstripes; is this a sign that securing top dollar in free agency really isn’t the only factor in play? Would he actually be amenable to giving the Yankees a hometown discount? (For the record, I strongly advocate for him signing the biggest deal he can. This is more me asking, if the money is close, whether this is as sign Judge would be willing to forgo that extra year, or those few extra millions of dollars.)
Maybe I’m just getting ahead of myself — perhaps this was just the most painless way for Judge and the Yankees to put this episode behind them and focus on this season. That being said, I never expected either side to reach the compromise they did. It is for that reason that I’ll allow myself to feel optimism for future accord.