NEW YORK -- The Yankees had reached the midpoint of their Grapefruit League schedule and there were legitimate conversations taking place behind closed doors to identify the Opening Day right fielder. Having Aaron Judge begin 2017 in the Minors, with Aaron Hicks playing every day, was very much a possibility.
It seems laughable now, considering Judge compiled one of the best rookie campaigns in history, slugging 52 homers before earning unanimous selection as the American League's Rookie of the Year. But the episode serves as a useful reminder to Judge that nothing will be handed to him when the 25-year-old slugger aims to follow up on that season for the ages.
"Fighting for a job, that's been my mindset every Spring Training," Judge said. "Even in the Minor Leagues, I thought you have to go out and earn a spot. Nothing is ever given to you. It was the same when I was told I'd be the starting right fielder. You have to earn your job every day. Even going into next year, I'm still going to be fighting for that right-field job, fighting for my spot."
With the December trade for reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees believe they have assembled a modern-day version of the fabled Murderer's Row, stacking their lineup with the right-handed power of Judge, Stanton and Gary Sanchez.
"We're excited to get better together and use our talents together, because we're very similar," Stanton said. "We're going to learn from each other and make each other better."
Stanton led the Majors with 59 homers, but no one hit the ball harder in 2017 than Judge, who compiled an average exit velocity of 94.9 mph to pace all big leaguers. Judge's June 10 homer off the Orioles' Chris Tillman had an exit velo of 121.1 mph, the hardest-hit homer ever recorded by Statcast™.
Judge paced the AL in runs scored (128), homers, walks (127) and ranked second in RBIs (114), on-base percentage (.422) and slugging percentage (.627), leading the Majors with an 8.2 WAR. With a 1.049 OPS, Judge was just the fourth rookie since 1900 to have an OPS of 1.000 or greater, joining Joe Jackson (1911), Ted Williams (1939) and Jose Pujols (2001).
Carsten Sabathia spoke for many during the final day of the Yankees' season when he glanced toward Judge's locker and said, "Great year. Best rookie season I've ever seen; I think all of us have ever seen."
Every American League opponent served up homers to Judge, who hit 33 homers at Yankee Stadium, toppling Babe Ruth's 1921 mark for the most hit at home by a Yankees player. En route to shattering Mark McGwire's 1987 record of 49 homers by a rookie, Judge headed into the All-Star break with a Major League-leading 30, having surpassed Joe DiMaggio's club mark of 29 homers by a rookie.
Then came the unforgettable evening of July 10, with Judge having punched his ticket to the festivities in Miami by pacing all AL players with 4,488,702 All-Star votes. Judge overcame a 22-homer deficit to the Marlins' Justin Bour in the first round of the T-Mobile Home Run Derby, then dispatched Cody Bellinger (12) and Miguel Sano (10).
The first rookie ever to win the Derby outright, Judge slugged 47 homers on 76 swings; stacked end-to-end, his drives would have traveled 3.9 miles from home plate at Marlins Park into adjacent Biscayne Bay.
"I just think of myself as a little kid from Linden, Calif., getting to live a dream right now," Judge said that night.
He wasn't done. After a six-week, strikeout-filled slump that was widely attributed to a left shoulder injury, Judge powered the Yankees into the playoffs by making September his strongest month, hitting 15 homers -- the most by any Yankee in a calendar month since Roger Maris hit 15 in June 1961.
Judge added four more homers in the postseason, including three in the seven-game American League Championship Series against the Astros, and contributed one of the great Game 7 catches of all time when he brought back a potential Yuli Gurriel home run in Houston.
Though his Yankees finished one win shy of advancing to the World Series, Judge left Minute Maid Park that evening believing that the best was still yet to come.
"I'm still sitting back trying to think about it all happened this first year," Judge said in November. "From battling in Spring Training, to the highs and lows throughout the season, to the playoff run we had, coming up short. It's what you dream about. I wouldn't change a thing, the ups and downs, how things happened this year. It all molds you into who you are now. It was an incredible year."