In a perfect world, GM Brian Cashman is waiting outside the Yankees’ clubhouse late Thursday night, holding one of those game-show-sized checks, scrawled with Aaron Judge’s name and the sum of $21 million.
No need for Friday’s noon arbitration hearing. No opportunity for the regrettable words to flow. Eliminate any chance of acrimony with the Yankees’ indisputable MVP and the possibility of damaging any further negotiations at season’s end to keep him in the Bronx.
Ideally, that’s how the fantasy ends for Yankees’ fans, because what Judge delivered by smacking Ryne Stanek’s 3-and-0 splitter for the winning single in Thursday’s incredible 7-6 victory over the Astros was nothing short of dreamlike. As this entire season has been, really, as Judge keeps proving on a regular basis that no one is more important to this storied franchise.
Not today, not tomorrow. Maybe not even for the next decade, should the Yankees smarten up in time to hand him whatever contract he wants to stay in pinstripes for the remainder of his career.
What else has to be seen or said? Judge is greeted by MVP chants every time he steps to the plate in the Bronx, regardless of the inning or situation. And the remainder of the 44,071 fans that watched Thursday’s heroics -- his second walkoff winner this season -- showered him with more high-decibel MVP love as Judge was mobbed by his teammates on the infield dirt.
“He means everything to this team,” Aaron Boone said afterward. “And certainly everything to this fan base. He embodies all that you want in your superstar player. I think it’s easy for these people to get behind him.”
Hear that Brian? Boone sounded more like Judge’s agent than his manager, but he was only speaking the truth. And Boone needn’t worry about tipping the scales in Friday’s arbitration hearing -- this season’s stats don’t count. Due to the 99-day labor lockout, these cases, which usually take place before Opening Day, were pushed uncomfortably into the games that count, and Judge’s hearing happens to be the last one, nearly three months in.
Maybe that would have been a distraction to some players. But it’s had zero effect on Judge, other than maybe providing extra motivation after he turned down the Yankees’ April contract offer for what amounted to an eight-year, $230.5-million package.
And now? That number doesn’t even get Judge to answer the phone.
Considering Judge’s skyrocketing value at the moment -- and American League MVP doesn’t even scratch the surface -- it’s almost unfathomable to think the Yankees would choose to go to salary war with him Friday over a difference of $4 million. You read that correctly. Judge submitted $21 million for his arbitration figure, Cashman & Co. offered $17 million.
Even at Judge’s number, he’d still be among baseball’s biggest bargains, crushing home runs (27) at a record pace while ranking third in the majors in OPS (1.037) and fifth in RBIs (52) for unquestionably the sport’s best team. Whatever salary algorithms the Yankees are using to determine Judge’s worth -- penalizing him for his age (30) or a perceived lack of durability because of his 6-7 frame -- they need to factor in some of the intangibles as well.
Judge is turning in his supernatural performance on a New York stage that many can’t handle, despite an unsettled contract status, and functions as the de facto captain of a clubhouse that universally admires him. On top of that, the Yankees have actually increased his value this season by playing him as a centerfielder and occasionally using him as a leadoff hitter -- two premium positions. And all he’s done is deliver in the biggest moments, like providing the finisher to the Yankees’ furious four-run rally in the ninth.
“There’s no better feeling, especially here in New York,” Judge said. “Seeing your teammates, the smiles on their faces, I think is what caps it all off for me.”
For the Yankees, just seeing Judge at the plate is all the confidence they need.
“Every time he comes up in a situation like that,” said Jameson Taillon said, “it feels like the game is over.”
If Judge could present this season’s MVP case to Friday’s hearing, it would be game over for the Yankees, too. But that’s the whole point. The arbitration panel isn’t allowed to consider these numbers, or the impact he’s made over these three months -- but the Yankees can, and should be motivated to do whatever is necessary to keep Judge out of any hearing that might potentially damage this relationship.
As for Friday’s looming confrontation with the Yankees, Judge didn’t offer any hint of apprehension or anxiety. Just like when he came up to face Stanek with the game on the line.
“We’ll talk after,” Judge said, smiling.
You don’t bet against Judge. Every other team in the league knows that by now, and the Yankees should, too.