The ripple effects of Judge not signing extension

Yankees' star outfielder can be a free agent after this season

April 9th, 2022

Opening Day has come and gone, and the Yankees and Aaron Judge do not have a deal on a long-term extension. Actually, they again don’t have a deal; when the Yankees avoided arbitration with 11 of their 12 eligible players last month, Judge was the 12th, meaning an in-season hearing is coming up unless the sides can agree first.

Needless to say, with Judge’s free agency looming at the end of the season, one might say the vibes are bad. None of which, of course, precludes an abrupt change of direction. While Judge has been firm that Opening Day was his deadline, there’s nothing official to that, and given the arbitration situation, his agent and the team are all but obligated to speak in the coming weeks anyway. There’s still a way that this story ends with Judge wearing pinstripes for many years to come.

Either way, this is not exactly the conversation Yankees fans wanted to be having literally 90 minutes before the season began, because this is a big deal, one that will have repercussions on the franchise for many years to come no matter how it is resolved. Where does it leave them -- and Judge?

How did we get here?

The one thing that makes this unique is that we have a very solid idea of what the offer was, because incredibly, Yankees GM Brian Cashman just came right out and told us, when he said the team had offered seven years and $213.5 million atop the $17 million it offered for the 2022 season -- making the entire package eight years and approximately $230 million.

On the surface, the offer seems reasonable enough -- with an enormous caveat that we’ll get to shortly. Judge is, without question, one of the few true superstars in the game; since his 2017 breakout, he’s fourth in Wins Above Replacement among position players behind Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and José Ramírez.

Because so much emphasis is put on his elite power, it’s easy to argue he’s actually somewhat underrated, because he’s a plus fielder, too. Not only does his +19 Outs Above Average place him in the top 25 of outfielders since 2017, he’s capably filled in playing center field as well. There are very few players as talented and productive as Judge is; he cannot simply be replaced.

But he’ll also be 30 years old later this month, with a long enough injury history that he’s played more than 115 games just twice, those coming in 2017 and '21. (It’s true that 2020 had only 60 games to begin with, but he missed more than half of them anyway with a calf injury.)

When you look at the list of highest average annual values and say that the proposed $30.5 million -- the highest in Yankees history -- would be “only” 12th, it’s worth noting how many of those ahead of him signed earlier in their 20s -- or, in the case of Max Scherzer, for only three years. Just last year, George Springer, then 31 and comparable to Judge in terms of accomplishments, received six years and $150 million from the Blue Jays. Teams have made it exceptionally clear how much they value youth.

Plus, as we discussed nearly a decade ago when the Marlins were about to sign Giancarlo Stanton to an extension, the history of players as large as Judge and Stanton staying healthy into their 30s is relatively poor. Judge is listed as being 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds; given the uncertainty about those years-old figures, let’s look through history for all players 6-foot-6 and up or and 250 pounds or higher, seeing how they’ve done from their age-30 season onward.

  • Frank Howard -- 21.8 WAR
  • Adam Dunn -- 2.1 WAR

That’s … it, which does point to how rare a player like Judge has been historically, and how this may not be enough information to really tell us what his future looks like. (If we dispense with the weight requirement, and just look at 6-foot-6 and higher, we’d also add Dave Winfield’s 29.6 WAR, Dave Kingman’s 6.9 WAR and Richie Sexson’s 5.4 WAR.)

Stanton isn’t quite as big -- though he’s similar -- but when he signed his 13-year deal with Miami, it was after his age-24 season. Seven seasons in, he’s shown MVP-caliber production along with continued injury problems; he’s contributed 22.5 WAR, or just over 3 WAR per season. He's owed $189 million more though 2027, assuming a 2028 buyout is exercised.

If it sounds like we think Judge will have a hard time topping this offer on the open market, we do, because teams have made it increasingly clear that deals stretching a decade or more are reserved for the youngest stars (like Wander Franco, 20; Fernando Tatis Jr., 22; Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, each 26), since deals that long for players already in their 30s (like Albert Pujols, at 32, or Miguel Cabrera, at 31) have generally been poor investments for team success. (For the team, anyway; they were well-deserved rewards for superstar players.)

But: We did say there was a caveat here, and really, there are two. First, you can’t find another Judge. If he’s not in your lineup, then someone (presumably) worse than him is. Second, the Yankees have not added any star position players in their primes of late, choosing not to sign Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien or Freddie Freeman, or trade-and-extend Matt Olson, settling instead for much lower-level moves, all this after not previously signing Harper or Machado in years past.

Yankees fans probably expected both, that a big-ticket free agent would arrive and that Judge would be extended. That was probably never actually going to happen, but to end up with neither? That would be a difficult pill for fans to swallow, understandably.

What would adding Judge mean to the free-agent market?

What if Judge does reach free agency? We should point out that simply reaching the market does not preclude a return; two years ago DJ LeMahieu, coming off a pair of great seasons with the Yankees, remained unsigned until Jan. 15, 2021, before agreeing to a return on a six-year deal.

Let’s look ahead to next year’s free-agent market. With Byron Buxton sticking with the Twins, the best free-agent outfield bats look like this, with 2023 age and ZiPS WAR projection:

  • Judge -- 31 -- 4.8 WAR
  • Joey Gallo -- 29 -- 3.6 WAR
  • Brandon Nimmo -- 30 -- 2.8 WAR
  • Kiké Hernandez -- 31 -- 2.8 WAR
  • Mitch Haniger -- 32 -- 2.3 WAR
  • Andrew Benintendi -- 29 -- 1.9 WAR
  • Michael Brantley -- 37 -- 1.9 WAR
  • Lorenzo Cain -- 38 -- 1.2 WAR
  • Adam Duvall -- 35 -- 1.2 WAR
  • A.J. Pollock -- 35 -- 1.1 WAR
  • Joc Pederson -- 31 -- 1.1 WAR
  • Jackie Bradley Jr. -- 33 -- 0.5 WAR
  • Charlie Blackmon -- 36 -- 0.1 WAR

No one’s close. There are non-outfield options -- Trea Turner and Max Muncy might be nice fits, and there’s a possible second chance at Correa should he opt out of his Twins deal, as expected -- but no one is Judge. There are no other Judges. Whether it's to the Yankees or somewhere else, a healthy Judge would easily be the top outfield option available this winter.

What would the Yankees do without him?

With Gallo also an impending free agent, the 2023 Yankees' outfield depth chart currently consists of … Stanton and Aaron Hicks. Since the Yankees don’t have an outfielder currently above A-ball among their top 15 prospects, reinforcements are unlikely to come internally. That's simply not going to cut it, so the Yankees will have to add an outfielder, whether that's a new deal for Judge, a free agent from the list above or an as-yet-unforeseen trade.

It’s possible that Judge just wants to test the market, to get the opportunity that he’ll have heard. It’s possible he’s ready to play somewhere else. It’s possible the Yankees remember how disastrous the seven-year deal they gave Jacoby Ellsbury (entering his age-30 season) went, and how much time Hicks has missed in the three seasons since signing his own seven-year deal.

Ultimately, this represents a gamble by each side. Judge is gambling he'll have a healthy, productive season and enter the market as the best outfielder available, with full freedom not only to explore his market value but to choose where he'll get to call home -- while also carrying the risk of another injury as he enters his 30s. The Yankees are gambling on what their future looks like if they lose him, not to mention the disappointment of the fan base if he departs without another star incoming.