SAN DIEGO — Aaron Judge’s 63rd home run was his negotiating style.
In the spring, Judge turned down seven years at $213.5 million, followed that with an AL-record 62 homers and left for his offseason vacation having scored a nine-year, $360 million contract to stay a Yankee.
Judge’s greatest tape-measure distance — an additional two years and $146.5 million — came via the power of not just, well, power, but self-belief and stoicism.
This began with the Yankees not believing their best player would leave, that he needed them more than they needed him. It ended with them as a Judge supplicant. Their late offers followed a trajectory with which Judge had become familiar — All Rise.
Hal Steinbrenner decided he needed Judge for his roster, his television network, his attendance, his marketing and — perhaps most vital of all — for the owner’s reputation against the mounting criticism and boos.
Judge was all poker face, all the time. He followed the accepted script about wanting to be a lifelong Yankee, but never flinched in his belief about his worth. He made it clear he didn’t like the spring extension offer being made public. He did nothing to dispel stories about his childhood passion for the Giants. He made it clear that free agency brought possibility that he had earned.
And unlike, say, Derek Jeter, Judge talked with other organizations. He engaged the Giants and, at a late moment, the Padres. The Yankees believed the Padres would go to 10 years at $400 million. They believed the Giants would mirror any offer at any time. Most importantly, Judge — whether any of that was true or not — made the Yankees believe he would take an offer elsewhere.
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So Steinbrenner, on vacation in Italy, stayed in persistent contact with Judge, who closed the deal after flying to San Diego on Tuesday. The Yankees owner could not imagine his lineup without Judge nor his day-to-day life explaining it.
And that is how this road was transversed:
In the spring, when they perceived they had the upper hand, the Yankees played the incremental game of offering a per-annum salary of $30.5 million that inched above Mookie Betts’ $30.42 million for the second-best among outfielders, well below the $35.54 positional record of Mike Trout that Judge indicated he wanted.
On Dec. 7, 2022, Judge actually agreed to just less than Betts … in terms of his total Dodgers package of $365 million. Judge’s $40 million per is way more than Trout’s annual value. It was a home run for Judge. No. 63. He went from being questioned about the sanity of spurning so much guaranteed money on the brink of the 2022 season to the largest winning bet in the history of the sport. Regardless of what the Padres or Giants were willing to do, Judge got what he wanted — to stay a Yankee on his terms.
What did the Yankees get?
A temporary reprieve. Steinbrenner was booed last season during a Derek Jeter ceremony and looked like Mike Tyson against Buster Douglas — stunned by the punches. The criticism only worsened for the boss and the organization with a disappointing second half and, ultimately, a four-game flameout in the ALCS against the Astros. Judge carried the Yankees in the second half with a 1.286 OPS when the rest of a struggling team managed a combined .652. He was what the crowd cheered (until the ALCS) and what the Yankees marketed around.
That combination felt irreplaceable to the guy who writes the Yankees’ checks. Could the Yankees have tried some combination of, say, Carlos Correa and Brandon Nimmo to replace Judge? Sure. But it would have cost more in the aggregate, and the Yankees knew Judge worked with their team and their fan base.
But that is now. He will play next year beginning at 31, and just how many of the 1,458 regular-season games for which he is signed will Judge play? How many will he play at a star level? Judge gambled on himself, and now the Yankees are betting the generational wealth does not change the motivations of the man. They need Judge to stay as dedicated to his conditioning and his craft as he has been to this date. They need him in good health and as an MVP-caliber player at least until his mid-30s, if not beyond.
These are the Yankees, so there is still enough financial room to pursue more, especially if they really are going to plug the minimum wage-ish Oswaldo Cabrera, Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe into prominent roles. They want a left fielder (a reunion with the lefty contact bat of Andrew Benintendi is their preference) and to add to their rotation (they are attracted to the high-end stuff of Carlos Rodon).
If they believe DJ LeMahieu is healthy — and they might have a better idea of that by next month — then trading Gleyber Torres and/or Isiah Kiner-Falefa becomes more probable as they further try to deepen their pitching in particular.
But they feel now they have kept their key cornerstone in Judge, and that makes it easier to build around in the short term. They will worry about 2030 and 2031 when those years arrive. Those are two seasons the Yankees were not offering in the spring with their extension bid. However, then Judge hit 62 homers and convinced the Yankees he could be going, going, gone.
His 63rd homer was making the Yankees — fittingly — go deep into their wallet, much further than they had once imagined.
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