The Yankees' Aaron Judge reacts in the dugout after he...

The Yankees' Aaron Judge reacts in the dugout after he scored during the seventh inning against the Athletics in an MLB game at Yankee Stadium on June 27. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Hal Steinbrenner already has accomplished something that most of us figured was impossible back in March.

Not only has he built a Yankees’ team that is the best in baseball, running away with the powerful AL East at 35 games over .500 (58-23) entering Wednesday, it remains on pace to potentially be one of the greatest in franchise history.

Show of hands who predicted that (didn’t think so). In fact, I was among the small group of reporters who grilled Steinbrenner on a spring-training afternoon -- at the Tampa ballpark named for his dad -- as to why he didn’t spend big in the shortstop market, or for Freddie Freeman, or otherwise throwing cash around as new Mets owner Steve Cohen did over the winter. 

Steinbrenner was defensive back then. Now? As you might imagine, he’s thrilled how that all turned out.

“Gene Michael always used to say, defense up the middle right?” Steinbrenner said Wednesday during a Zoom call. That’s something we definitely improved upon. I didn’t spend $300 million to do it, but I think most people are pretty happy with Isiah [Kiner-Falefa] and the job he’s done.”

Let’s face it. Steinbrenner got a little lucky -- partly with IKF, but just about everything with this year’s club, which currently weighs in at MLB’s third-highest payroll: $260.3 million for competitive balance tax  purposes (according to Spotrac.com). Aside from the $10 million flushed on Joey Gallo for this season, and the $70-million sunk cost in Aaron Hicks, these Yankees are providing a very successful return on Steinbrenner’s investment.

When it comes to Aaron Judge, however, that’s where Hal’s lucky streak ends, regardless of whether or not this season concludes with elusive title No. 28. That’s because the price of signing Judge has skyrocketed since he rejected the Yankees’ Opening Day offer -- a pre-arbitration, eight-year package that amounted to $230.5 million -- and their window of exclusivity slams shut in roughly four months.

Assembling the ’22 Yankees, and even finding an upgrade or two before the Aug. 2 trade deadline, is easy compared to opening the pinstriped vault for Judge, who is the favorite for AL MVP with a chance to break Roger Maris’ single-season (untainted) record of 61 home runs. That’s because Steinbrenner’s challenge involving Judge is two-fold.

First off, Judge has given the impression he’s looking to break the bank, and for good reason. Judge is 30, he’s about to make his fourth All-Star appearance in six years, and in our opinion, no player in the sport means more to his franchise than Judge does to the Yankees.

The Yankees’ April bid for Judge was a solid attempt -- again, by our estimation -- even if releasing the exact figures was a clumsy negotiating tactic to play in the public arena. The benefit was fleeting. Judge was booed sporadically during the first two weeks it took for him to get in gear. Now, he can’t reach for a piece of gum without hearing MVP chants in the Bronx. Also, Judge wasn’t thrilled to be pushed to the brink of an arbitration hearing last month only to settle for the $19-million midpoint. 

“Aaron is a great Yankee, and he’s very valuable to this organization,” Steinbrenner said. “He’s a great leader. Obviously he’s performing extremely well this year, which we’re all thrilled about. With any great Yankee, yes, it’s going to be something we’re going to be looking at and talking about seriously.”

Which leads us to the second part: if an average annual salary of $28.75 million was “fair” -- Hal’s words -- three months ago, what’s Judge worth now? And can Steinbrenner stomach having a trio of $300-million players on his roster, as Judge surely will seek to join Gerrit Cole ($324M) and Giancarlo Stanton ($325M) on that pedestal?

Steinbrenner steering clear of this winter’s priciest free agents was a logical strategy for putting aside the funds to lock up Judge long term. But the price has gone up since Hal was planning his budget for 2022 and beyond, and there’s no acceptable Plan B for having Judge bolt at season’s end. Steinbrenner can’t just have GM Brian Cashman reach for another IKF-type and sell that as a bargain-basement Judge.

Judge is squeezing Steinbrenner in a Jeter-like vise. And the owner has to be feeling the heat again, just as he was back in spring training. Hal and his front office emerged from that in spectacular fashion, restoring the franchise’s greatness when the Yankees’ brand seemed in danger.

But there’s only one solution for keeping Judge in pinstripes, and that’s unavoidable without Steinbrenner writing a big check this time.

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