SAN DIEGO -- Still smarting from his club’s loss in the League Championship Series, the reigning Most Valuable Player entered free agency. With the calendar reading Dec. 6, a decision was made, the superstar outfielder selecting his hometown Giants over the franchise that drafted and developed him.
That player was Barry Bonds, exactly three decades ago on Tuesday. As evening fell upon the Winter Meetings at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the Yankees anxiously waited to learn if Aaron Judge wishes to play out the remainder of his career in their pinstripes or follow Bonds’ lead in bringing his talents back to the West Coast.
“I don’t even want to go there yet,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “But at the end of the day, we’re the New York Yankees. The task never stops in trying to improve and become the best team we can be. Hopefully, that involves Aaron.”
In an amazing coincidence, both Bonds and Judge batted .311 in their all-important walk years; Bonds with the Pirates and Judge with the Yankees. Though Judge contended for a batting title into the season’s final games, his power stole the headlines, blasting 62 home runs to eclipse Roger Maris’ single-season American League mark.
Judge hit the record-breaking home run in the regular season's penultimate game; the Yankees hope it will not be remembered as his farewell blast. Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has prioritized retaining Judge, meeting face-to-face with the slugger on at least one occasion in Tampa, Fla., where he implored Judge to conclude his career in New York.
General manager Brian Cashman said the Yankees have made multiple offers to Judge since the end of the AL Championship Series. Their proposal of eight years and approximately $300 million has likely been increased in the wake of reports on Tuesday that indicated San Francisco had nine years and $360 million on the table.
Steinbrenner has assured Judge that the Yankees can satisfy his contract and still do more; an important note, considering Judge has said his top priority is to play for a winning team. The Yankees, who won 99 games last year, have been connected to left-hander Carlos Rodón, outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Brandon Nimmo and Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida.
"You kind of describe the free-agent market like pools,” said agent Scott Boras, who represents Rodón and Nimmo. “You have the infinity pool, the lap pool, kind of a lazy river pool, and then you have the inflatable pool. I would say that the Yankees are definitely in the infinity pool seeking great players. There's certainly no shallow Hal in New York."
Yet the Yankees’ confidence in retaining their biggest star could not have been helped by a TIME article published on Tuesday. In it, Judge commented on his displeasure with the April 8 news conference that saw Cashman volunteer Judge’s decision to turn down a seven-year, $213.5 million extension days prior.
“We kind of said, Hey, let’s keep this between us,” Judge told the magazine. “I was a little upset that the numbers came out. I understand it’s a negotiation tactic. Put pressure on me. Turn the fans against me, turn the media on me. That part of it I didn’t like."
Boone noted that Judge discussed the topic in a closed-door meeting held in the manager’s office the night of the Yankees’ season-ending ALCS loss to the Astros.
“I knew that he was a little disappointed about that,” Boone said. “We talked at length that night. I don’t think it was intended to be a tactic or anything like that. We knew it was going to be constantly speculated on and out there. We kind of wanted to run to the situation. I don’t think it’s a factor in anything going on.”
There was some panic in the hallways of the Grand Hyatt around mid-day on Tuesday when an erroneous report suggested that Judge seemed to be ready to choose the Giants. Boone had just exited the shower and, half-dressed, called Cashman to ask what had happened. When Cashman replied, “Nothing,” Boone exhaled and hurried to the Yankees’ suite.
Just how long that sigh of relief lasts remains to be seen.
“I feel like he certainly belongs in pinstripes,” Boone said. “A guy of his stature and his greatness, hopefully he spends his entire career [in New York], goes into Monument Park and into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee. That would be the hope.”