Everything was prepared for Aaron Judge to be the owner of the day. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, opening day tie in the Bronx. Judge comes to bat and starts a line drive double to the left field corner. He has to jog with the winning run, right? Surely that would happen next.
Well, no. Judge was stranded at second base. The Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox, 6-5, on Josh Donaldson’s single in the eleventh inning. Judge was on deck at the end. He was appropriate for a starter who just wasn’t feeling quite right.
Judge had started the day by moving into Brett Gardner’s old locker at Yankee Stadium, a prime property in the local clubhouse: adjacent to a vacant stall, right by the showers, with a clear view of the television.
“I talked to Gardy a little bit about it, he said, ‘Take care of him,'” Judge said. “It’s an incredible honour.”
Judge was more cautious about his contract talks with the Yankees. We’d know from the first pitch, he said, if the team met its deadline for a long-term deal before he becomes a free agent this offseason. Brian Cashman, the general manager, saved us the suspense: two hours before the game, he announced that the talks were over.
“Our intention is for Aaron Judge to remain a New York Yankee as we go forward, and I know that’s his intention as well, which is a good thing,” Cashman said. “Obviously we’re going to enter those efforts into a new arena, which would be at the end of the season, when free agency starts. Maybe that will determine what his actual market value would be, because we certainly couldn’t agree at this stage.”
The 2022 MLB season begins
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Cashman took the useful and unusual step of disclosing the Yankees’ offer: seven years at $30.5 million per season, starting in 2023. The Yankees never share details like that in public, but they always come out, and Cashman said that in really he was just saving himself a flurry of text messages from reporters.
Understandable, to be sure, but transparency is not Judge’s style.
“I don’t like to talk about numbers,” he said after the game. “I like to keep that private. That’s something that I felt was private between my team and the Yankees.”
Okay, but now we know: Judge could have been guaranteed $213.5 million over seven years, after a $17 million salary, or $21 million in 2022, unless the sides avoid an arbitration hearing, but he turned it down. He has every right to seek his true value on the open market and is now prepared to do so.
“At the end of the year, I’m a free agent,” Judge said. “Talk to 30 teams, and the Yankees will be one of those 30 teams. It is always good to try to finish something, the sooner the better. But we couldn’t pull it off, and now it’s about baseball.”
Judge, who turns 30 this month, is an extraordinary player: In the past five seasons, only one other hitter with at least 1,500 plate appearances, Mike Trout, can surpass Judge in both on-base percentage (.391) and career batting. highest slugging percentage (.563). But Judge hasn’t been especially durable; he was healthy as a rookie and again last season, but he missed 37 percent of the Yankees’ games in the intervening three years.
By turning down the deal, Judge now bears all the risk. Which is puzzling, because the offer seemed to coincide with his wishes. Here’s how Judge characterized his emotions about the collapse of contract negotiations:
“I’m just disappointed because I think I’ve been outspoken, ‘I want to be a Yankee for life,’ and I want to bring a championship back to New York. I want to do it for the fans here. they are family. This is my home. And not doing that right now sucks, but I have a job to do on the field and I have to change my focus now and go play some ball.”
Again: It’s Judge’s career and Judge’s life, and no one should sign something that makes him uncomfortable. Maybe he wanted something closer to the 30-year-old Trout, who is averaging $35.5 million a year through 2030.
So what was important to Judge in these negotiations? That question was a stumper.
“What was important to me was trying to reach an agreement,” he said. “We couldn’t do that. So I think it was plain and simple. I’m not going to go into details of anything. I have to focus on bringing a championship back to New York. A lot of time has passed. We just couldn’t agree on something.”
When the Red Sox signed infielder Trevor Story last month (six years, $140 million), they required Story to get a COVID shot. Only vaccinated players will be able to enter Canada for games against the Toronto Blue Jays, and Judge has been coy about his status. Cashman would not say what role, if any, that played in the negotiations, but Judge was adamant that it was not an issue in the talks.
Here we have a player who says he wanted to stay beyond this season, and a team who says they would have paid him $30.5 million a year, through age 37, to do so. And the subject of vaccination, according to Judge, was not part of the talks.
So why didn’t opening day start with a long-term deal between the franchise player and the franchise? Judge isn’t telling, and he’s not the kind of person who seems eager to be fully understood. Cashman said the Yankees would always listen if Judge wants to restart talks, but don’t bet on that happening.
The big bet is on Judge, on himself, a strategy with mixed results for other players. Juan Gonzalez turned down a $140 million offer from the Tigers after they traded him in 1999, earning about $46 million for the rest of his career. On the other hand, Max Scherzer turned down a $144 million offer, also from the Tigers, in 2014, and got a $210 million deal with Washington in free agency.
The judge said he was fine with his bet. As for passing on the Yankees’ offer, he said he was honored to have the conversation.
“I appreciate the Yankees wanting to do that, but I don’t mind going into free agency,” he said, adding that he was now able to fully focus on his job. “I’m not really going to look at all the negatives. Some people do not leave their house if you think about all the things that can happen to them. I just focus on what I need to do on the pitch and everything else will take care of itself.”
It may not be fixed by the Yankees alone. But only the judge has to know why.