Brian Cashman wouldn’t comment on any potential talks with Aaron Judge on Friday, but the Yankees' general manager didn’t shy away from heaping praise on the slugger he identified as a generational talent the team is highly motivated to retain.
Cashman and manager Aaron Boone expressed a strong, if obvious, desire to keep Judge in pinstripes during their year-end news conference — one in which Cashman assured reporters that owner Hal Steinbrenner fully appreciates what the outfielder brought to the franchise both on and off the field.
And though Cashman wouldn’t say how high he will go, he made it clear that the Yankees are at least open to whatever price Judge is sure to command this offseason. Teams may begin speaking to free agents five days after the end of the World Series, meaning that, for at least a little while, the Yankees own the floor with Judge, who rejected a seven-year, $213.5 million extension before the season.
Cashman said the decision to reveal the terms of that rejected contract extension — something generally leaked but rarely announced — was communicated to Judge’s agent about a week before it happened. He does not believe this will sour future negotiations, though at the time, Judge publicly took exception to that announcement.
“It was going to go public off the record,” Cashman said. “I was very transparent [to his representation] . . . that this was going to happen so they weren’t caught off guard.”
Cashman said Steinbrenner appreciates that Judge singlehandedly captured the attention of the city. “We’d love to be able to bring Aaron Judge back and have him maintain being a member of this franchise, and the career path he’s currently on is Hall of Fame-like,” he said. “Certain individual players transcend the team, and everything stops when they’re at the bat or if they have the ball in their hand, and he’s one of those types of talents.”
Of the fans, he said: “[Steinbrenner] wants to make them happy, and he’s always been driven that way, to try and make our fans happy. Hopefully we’ll have some positive conversations that lead to the outcome we want, but we’ll see.”
Judge broke the American League record with 62 home runs and carried the Yankees through a second-half swoon in which their 15 ½-game division lead dwindled to 3 ½ games by mid-September. And though he struggled in the playoffs, going 5-for-36 with 15 strikeouts and three RBIs in nine games. Judge “put himself in a great position to have a lot of choices,” Cashman said.
Boone said he had a positive conversation with Judge at season’s end. “I think most of you know how I feel about him,” he said. “I hope he’s back and a Yankee forever.”
Judge is by far the Yankees' biggest story this offseason, though Cashman acknowledged there still is some work to do as the team navigates the aftershocks of its four-game ouster by the Astros in the ALCS.
Still, Cashman and Boone insisted the Yankees weren't far off from a championship. Cashman expressed unequivocal support of the job Boone did this season, attributing many of the team’s failures to ill-timed injuries. (Boone is being retained for next season; Cashman has not had his contract renewed yet but will continue to work as an at-will employee until that occurs, as he and Steinbrenner have expressed a mutual interest to get a deal done, he said.)
“I think it doesn't reflect the talent,” Cashman said, responding to the Yankees going 38-40 after July 8. “It reflected a lot of havoc wreaked on the roster as we entered the second half as well as entering the postseason, and put us in a position to be kind of trying to figure it out. We were rehabbing the closer [Clay Holmes] in the postseason.”
Injuries to DJ LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi had the effect of making their lineup more one-dimensional — something that cost them in the ALCS as Judge went 1-for-16, the team struck out 50 times and runs were at a premium against the Astros' superb pitching staff. Cashman, though, said they were pleased with the defensive improvements and contact bats they added during the previous offseason, adding that this year, they’ll look to resolve their hole in leftfield and eventually decide whom they want at shortstop. Additional talks will occur in the coming week, he said.
A complete overhaul, though, shouldn't be expected.
“We’re a really good team,” Boone said. “We’ve been knocking on that door now for a long time. We haven’t punched through. I certainly understand the frustration of that . . . We have a team that is in that conversation — realistically in that conversation. There are a lot of things that play out over the course of the year.”
Boone also put his support behind two of this season’s lightning rods — Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, both of whom came to the Yankees in the package that sent Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela to the Twins. Kiner-Falefa, whose defensive gaffes attracted the ire of the fan base, was far better defensively than he was given credit for, Boone said (advanced metrics are split on whether this is true, and Boone did acknowledge that some of the shortstop's mistakes were high profile). Donaldson, who had the worst offensive year of his career, could bounce back, he added. Meanwhile, Cashman wouldn’t say whether the Yankees will try to move another underachiever in Aaron Hicks.
The goal next year, Cashman said, won't just be to beat the Astros but to keep an eye on teams like the Orioles, who are making significant strides in the shadows, and the Guardians, who pushed the Yankees to five games in the Division Series.
"Back to the drawing board," Cashman said. "Continue to explore all opportunities, improve on what we already have control of and import — whether it's free agents or trades — things that can make a difference."