With the 2022 season behind us and the Hot Stove ready to burn, we're taking a close look at some of the most prominent players eligible for free agency.
Name: Aaron Judge
Position: Outfielder (CF/RF)
Team: New York Yankees
Age (as of Opening Day 2023): 30
2022 stats: .311/.425/.686, 62 HR, 131 RBIs, 133 runs scored
It’s difficult to remember a player delivering a season in his walk year like Judge did, setting an American League record with 62 home runs.
But home runs were just the beginning. Judge led the AL in on-base percentage (.425), slugging percentage (.686), runs scored (133), RBIs (131) and total bases (391), finishing second in batting average (.311) to just fall short of the AL Triple Crown. His 11.5 fWAR was nearly five full wins higher than any other position player in the AL -- and even two wins higher than two-way star Shohei Ohtani, whose combined fWAR checked in at 9.4.
Judge also played a superb center field for half the season, continued to be a stellar right fielder, and, perhaps most important, showed once again that he can stay on the field, playing 157 games.
The Yankees offered Judge a seven-year, $213.5 million extension prior to the season, but he opted to play out the year and bet on himself. That bet paid off like few others have, setting up an offseason bidding war for one of the faces of the game.
How important was Judge to the Yankees this season? The Nos. 2-5 hitters in the lineup (Jose Trevino, D.J. LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Anthony Rizzo) combined for an 11.8 fWAR, barely edging Judge by himself. Off the field, Judge was one of the biggest draws in the game, helping the Yankees boost their TV ratings while topping three million in attendance. Letting Judge leave as a free agent would create a huge hole for the team in the lineup and the clubhouse -- he will likely be named captain if he signs a long-term deal. The Yankees know they’ll need to pay significantly more than they offered back in April, but will they spend whatever it takes to keep Judge in pinstripes? Stay tuned.
The Dodgers have several free agents to deal with, namely Trea Turner, Clayton Kershaw and Tyler Anderson. But given Mookie Betts’ ability to play second base, right field could be available for Judge if Los Angeles decides to go big-game hunting. Adding Judge to a lineup that already includes Betts, Freddie Freeman and Will Smith would make the Dodgers’ potent lineup even scarier.
The Giants have long been considered the biggest threat to a Judge-Yankees reunion, because the slugger grew up in Linden, Calif., less than 100 miles from Oracle Park. San Francisco has tried to import big sluggers in recent years -- namely Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper -- but has been unable to make it happen. The Giants' payroll has plenty of wiggle room (especially after Carlos Rodón opted out of his contract), making San Francisco a legitimate contender to sign Judge.
By far the juiciest scenario imaginable, just think of the madness that would ensue in New York if Judge changed zip codes from the Bronx to Queens. Steve Cohen has the money to go after anyone he wants, and while the Mets’ offense ranked third in the National League in runs scored in 2022, they’re facing the loss of Brandon Nimmo to free agency. Judge and Starling Marte could fill center and right field in some fashion, while the addition of Judge would give the Mets a 3-4-5 of Francisco Lindor, Judge and Pete Alonso. The only hitch? Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker are free agents, and closer Edwin Díaz agreed to a five-year $102 million deal, so the Mets will need to address their pitching staff first and foremost.
On second thought, this might be the juiciest option. Judge defecting from New York to Boston would instantly make him the biggest figure in this rivalry since some guy named Ruth. Boston had a disappointing 2022 season, and while the Red Sox have a significant amount of money coming off the books this winter, they are more likely to shell out a nine-figure extension to Rafael Devers than to pay Judge. For what it’s worth, Judge didn’t dismiss the idea when asked about it last month, telling reporters, “We’ll talk about that at the end of the year.” Hey Aaron, it’s the end of the year.
Chicago’s 2023 payroll projects to be around $125 million, and with Jason Heyward’s $22 million set to come off the books after next season, the Cubs have the ability to spend big this offseason. Shortstop figures to be the priority -- and given the depth of high-end talent there this winter, acquiring one of those stars should be possible -- but Judge would give the Cubs an immediate identity as they look to build their next contender.
“The MVP candidate is a superstar-caliber player with elite power and plate discipline. Judge is a middle-of-the-order impact bat. His strength combined with ability to control the zone leads to a rare combination of hit ability and power production which is presently at the top of the scale. An extremely athletic and massive human, Judge moves well and provides plus defense on the corner with the ability to spell in center field. He appears to be as professional as they come and someone worth investing in both on and off the field. The questions about the consistency of health will persist despite his ability to log over 550 at-bats in the last two seasons. How a long-levered, strength- and power-based athlete ages will be a question that pursuant clubs delve into. Overall, I think that there will be a few teams with a lot of resources who will drive the bidding for a unique, cornerstone, power-production player.”
There isn’t much to nitpick about Judge’s game after his phenomenal season, though his lack of success against offspeed pitches -- he had a .198/.210/.374 slash line and a 40.5% whiff rate against them in 2022 -- could change the way he’s pitched in future seasons. The biggest question regarding Judge is whether potential suitors will be expecting another 60-homer campaign. The only players with multiple seasons of 60-plus homers are Sammy Sosa (three) and Mark McGwire (two).
For comp's sake
Despite the fact that he will be entering his age-31 season, Judge could very well be poised to join the exclusive $300 million club this offseason. Bryce Harper’s 13-year, $330 million contract remains the largest guaranteed free-agent deal in history, while Mike Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million extension is both the largest contract ever signed and the highest average annual value ($35.5 million) for a position player. Judge isn’t likely to sign for more than eight or nine years, but an AAV approaching $40 million per year is not out of the question. That’s a better bump than Roger Maris got after his 61-homer season in 1961, when he salary jumped from $32,000 to $70,000.