Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, December 7, 2022 -- "Aaron Judge"

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Around 4 a.m., I texted a friend to cancel lunch plans for…well, now. It was hubris to make plans during the winter meetings. Maybe I just forgot what the meetings could be like after two years without them. Maybe I expected them to be uninteresting, because interesting baseball Decembers have gone the way of complete games and dedicated pinch-hitters and 16th innings.

The text read, in part, “Aaron Judge is probably leaving the Yankees.” I went to sleep thinking that would be the case, that the most popular athlete in New York since Derek Jeter retired would be taking his talents westward, to the Giants, who need a star like San Francisco needs housing. Signing Judge would serve to replace Buster Posey as the team’s locus, the team’s best player, the team’s likable superstar. 

Then, I slept, and when I woke up, the Yankees were once again the Yankees. The team had agreed to sign Judge to a nine-year contract for $360 million, the third-largest in baseball history, bringing back the 2022 AL MVP, the owner of the AL single-season home-run record, the spiritual architect of the Judge’s Chambers in Section 104.

Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner were trapped by their lack of options. Judge was, for most of last season, the Yankees’ offense. He produced 80 batting runs for a team that produced 96 in total. No returning Yankee produced more than 17. There is young talent coming, including a potential superstar in Anthony Volpe, but the projected Yankees offense without Judge…now around heavy on the same group of thirtysomethings who weren’t good enough or available enough this past season. There was no Judge-like second option in free agency, either. The Yankees’ choices were to sign Judge or not score enough runs to win.

This will surely keep the Yankees in the American League mix in 2023, even perhaps allow them to once again fend off the Rays and Blue Jays for an AL East crown. Judge will be the bridge from this aging, expensive lineup to one with Volpe and Jasson Dominguez and Austin Wells and Oswald Peraza and Trey Sweeney.

The money won’t matter; the Yankees print money. No, how this deal ages will depend on whether Judge can fight the historical trends on tall hitters, both performance and health. The cautionary tale, of course, is right there: Giancarlo Stanton is 2 1/2 years older than Judge and one of the only comps for him in baseball history. Stanton has played just over 500 innings in the field the last two seasons, missed more than 70 games to injury in those two years and hit .211/.297/.462 at age 32. Judge, of course, was a better player than Stanton was at 29 and 30, and so he has further to fall. Judge is likely to be one of the best players in baseball next year and a very good one for a few years to come.

The Yankees have retained their one essential talent, and if in the long term they end up paying for the decline of that talent, well, that is just baseball’s compensation structure. They paid Judge about $36 million for the first six-plus seasons of his career. They’ll pay him more than that, on average, each year for the remainder of it. 

This contract isn’t about 2028 or 2029, though. It’s about 2023. The Yankees kept their best player, a homegrown superstar, by paying him a lot of money to stay. Judge is worth more to the Yankees than he would be to any other team, and come March 30, no one is going to be thinking about the aging curves of tall players or the luxury tax or Judge’s 2027 Steamer projection. They’re going to be cheering #99 on a cool spring afternoon, waiting for the command to all rise.