NEW YORK -- It came down to Aaron Judge once again, a situation that the Yankees have steered into all summer long. Assuming the familiar, imposing stance that cracked an American League-record 62 home runs during the regular season, the game’s most recognizable slugger was the team’s last hope of staving off winter for another evening.
But the clock had already struck midnight in New York, and soon it would too for the 2022 Yankees. Judge’s mighty cut produced only a routine tapper back to pitcher Ryan Pressly, who jogged the ball to first base with an underhand flip, the final out of the Astros’ 6-5 victory over the Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
Judge jogged down the baseline, planted his right foot on first base, then glanced over his left shoulder as the Astros began to celebrate on the field -- his field. Though technically it wasn’t anymore: for the first time in his professional career, Judge will be untethered, testing the waters of free agency. There is a chance that we have seen his final at-bat in a Yankees uniform.
“Getting a chance to wear the pinstripes and play right field at Yankee Stadium, that’s an incredible honor,” Judge said. “I definitely didn’t take it for granted at any point. I always checked myself pregame when I’d say a little prayer, I’d kind of look around the stadium and pinch myself. There’s very few individuals who get a chance to run on that field and play in front of the fans.”
It was, as general manager Brian Cashman has said, “the all-time best bet.” Judge turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million extension from the Yankees on Opening Day, responding with a season for the ages. In 157 games, Judge batted .311/.425/.686, leading the Majors in homers, runs (133), RBIs (131), slugging percentage, on-base percentage, OPS+ (211) and total bases (391).
His chase to shatter Roger Maris’ 61-year-old AL record for home runs in a single season captivated the sports world, culminating with a 62nd home run in the first game of an Oct. 4 doubleheader at Texas.
Yet the postseason did not go swimmingly for Judge, perhaps gassed by the grueling chase for the mark, though he’d never admit it. In nine postseason games, Judge hit .139 (5-for-36) with two homers and three RBIs, going hitless with a walk in the ALCS finale. He was 1-for-16 against Houston.
Asked if he hoped to stay in New York, Judge said: “I’ve been clear about that since I first wore the pinstripes. But we couldn’t get something done before Spring Training, and now I’m a free agent. We’ll see what happens.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that Judge’s 2022 season was “incredible,” adding that Judge is “someone that I've grown close with and just admire and respect and hopefully, we'll see him in pinstripes for a long time. I don't even want to think about the alternative right now.”
It is not immediately clear what Judge will seek in free agency, though it’s notable that Gerrit Cole is currently the club’s highest-paid player at $36 million per year; Judge will certainly seek north of that (Mike Trout is the game's highest-paid position player in terms of average annual value at $35.5 million), and Judge could potentially look to exceed Max Scherzer’s AAV record of $43.3 million.
“Whatever he gets is going to be astronomical, and he deserves it,” Anthony Rizzo said. “He bet on himself on the biggest stage, in the biggest market and did it with ease. He should be rewarded as the highest-paid player in the game. He’s the new gold standard, in my opinion.”
Earlier this postseason, Cashman acknowledged that Judge has “a pot of gold” waiting for him at the end of the offseason.
“It was already a big pot and obviously it’ll be bigger,” Cashman said. “He’s put himself in an amazing position to have a lot of choices. We’d like to win the day on that discussion. We said that before the season, we said it many times during the season. If you need to hear me say it again, I’ll say it again. We’d love to have Aaron Judge back as a New York Yankee.”
Judge said that he plans to take some time to discuss his pending free agency with his agent, Page Odle, and his family. Judge said that he has spoken with Giancarlo Stanton and Cole about their respective contract pursuits, though Stanton’s situation was different because it was a long-term extension with the Marlins. Cole advised Judge to “take your time.”
“He’s a close friend of mine and a great teammate, so I’ll be keeping in touch with him,” Cole said. “As far as what the future holds between the negotiations, I’ll just be a supportive friend and reiterate everything that he means to us -- the support and the talent and the type of player he is, it’s just so special. He deserves to enjoy this courting process and he deserves everything that’s coming to him.”
His teammates are hopeful and optimistic that Judge will remain in the Bronx; DJ LeMahieu said that he would be “shocked” if Judge was not in the Yankees’ lineup next season, adding, “I feel like he wants to be here, but when it becomes a business, it changes a lot.” Pitcher Nestor Cortes said that he believes Judge should be named team captain if he stays, a stance seconded on Sunday by Rizzo.
Perhaps most jarringly, in a glimpse of what is to come this offseason, Judge spent the majority of his postgame remarks speaking about the Yankees in the past tense.
“It was a special time,” Judge said. “I just kick myself for not bringing home that championship.”