Aaron Judge says only the right things publicly, just like a former Yankees captain, so we’ll state the obvious for him.
When it comes to this next pinstriped generation, No. 99 stands alone in the Bronx. Can you imagine these Yankees without Judge? While Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman certainly have considered the possibility of what that future might look like, it’s best avoided at just about any cost.
That’s why the two sides wisely stepped back from the brink of Friday’s salary-arbitration hearing — already logged on to Zoom and minutes away from taking a regrettable leap into a turbulent new reality, the kind created by a fight over money. The Yankees didn’t want to go there with the homegrown face of the franchise, and neither did Judge despite his hardball negotiating tactics.
Cooler heads prevailed. Judge wound up with $19 million for 2022 — the midway point of the submitted arbitration numbers — along with a pair of $250,000 sweeteners for regular-season MVP and World Series MVP, a source confirmed to Newsday. Those incentives are within the realm of possibility for Judge, and the Yankees would be ecstatic to pay out at year’s end.
As for Judge, he still didn’t sound thrilled with the process after Friday’s 3-1 loss to the Astros. When asked if the settlement gives him more confidence that a longer extension with the Yankees is possible at season’s end, he left little doubt about his intentions.
“Ah, no,” he said. “We got this one done, and I was happy about that.”
Happy being a relative term, with Judge apparently irked by waiting this long just to meet halfway.
“You wonder why when you’re going through it,” Judge said. “But I didn’t ask. I didn’t feel the need. It’s business . . . I’m just thankful to get past this, to get it done and go back to focusing on winning some games here.”
Maybe these Yankees can do the unthinkable and topple the 125-win total of the ’98 team in claiming title No. 28, but those dreams don’t have a chance of coming true without Judge, who has managed to separate his business on the field from the financial concerns off it.
Then again, Judge wouldn’t be the first to use his contract year as motivation. Whatever the reason, he is off to a historic start, leading the majors with 27 homers and 58 runs scored through 71 games and ranking second in slugging percentage (.658) and third in OPS (1.037). He’s also excelled as a centerfielder, starting 33 games at the position to allow for the Yankees’ jumbo outfield package, with a half-dozen cameos in the leadoff spot.
That level of production makes him one of baseball’s biggest bargains at $19 million, but at the moment, Judge seems more consumed with finishing the job than the huge payday coming later.
“It’s who he is,” Aaron Boone said Friday afternoon. “I actually think it’s easy for him to separate it. He loves — as much as anyone — to compete between the lines with his teammates and it’s why he’s so revered in there. He’s about winning. He understands there’s a business side to this, obviously. But when he comes and puts his uniform on and is in that clubhouse with those guys, it’s about winning. That’s where his focus begins and ends.”
At the very least, Friday’s settlement keeps the Yankees in play for a contract extension, but that figure is going to be starting north of $300 million, a place Steinbrenner and Cashman were unwilling to go less than three months ago.
A lot has changed since then, statistically speaking. But Judge’s stature on the Yankees, and what he means to this franchise, remains unrivaled on this roster. And that goes beyond his on-field performance.
No one else in pinstripes can touch Judge in popularity. His No. 99 jerseys far outnumber any other Yankee, past or present, every night at the Stadium. Gerrit Cole, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo are competing for a distant second.
You can’t blame the Yankees for taking their Opening Day shot at landing a 30-year-old Judge with that $230 million contract. Back then, I thought it was a fair attempt, and plenty of fans agreed, based on some of the Stadium grumbling that went on during the first couple of weeks in April.
But Judge has blasted his way above that income bracket, and settling Friday now must be considered a jumping-off point to the jackpot, one that keeps him in the Bronx for much of the next decade.
The Yankees really don’t have much of a choice. The fact that they chose to blink Friday shows an understanding of what’s at stake here.
If it’s any consolation, ultimately giving Judge what he wants is another win-win: making the game’s best player, a proven performer on baseball’s brightest stage, a cornerstone for another potential Bronx dynasty, as the ’98 team was.
And for a Yankees team that rarely loses, they can’t afford to take an “L” with Judge.