Aaron Judge's epic run to 62 homers transcended contract year tension. Can the Yankees really let history go?

On opening day, we didn’t know how much the New York Yankees would pay Aaron Judge this year. We knew he had turned down a $213.5 million extension offer, leaving open the possibility that the 2022 season would be his last in the Bronx. We knew he would be closely watched, a barely precedented superstar playing out a contract year as the face of the game’s most storied franchise. He didn’t homer in that first game, but by the time the sides settled on a $19 million salary on June 24, he had gone deep 27 times.

A few months later, all eyes have been glued to Judge’s at-bats for a different reason. He just finished rewriting the AL home run record book, surpassing Roger Maris with his 62nd homer. Threatening to win the Triple Crown, he’s turning in the sort of offensive performance we haven’t seen since Barry Bonds.

Back when Judge turned down the extension offer — which longtime general manager Brian Cashman promptly disclosed to the public to accentuate how reasonable it seemed — there were plenty of parameters and comparisons to consider.

Judge will be 31 when the 2023 season begins. Recent history has discouraged teams from heaping long-term commitments on players after age 30. Funnily enough, fellow home run history-maker Albert Pujols’ steep decline with the Angels was often Exhibit A. (Maybe the real lesson is to not sign with the Angels.)

At 6-foot-7, Judge is a remarkable athlete who has proven himself competent in center field this season in the Yankees’ time of need. History also doesn’t look favorably upon Judge’s chances of aging gracefully. Since integration in 1947, only six hitters standing 6-foot-5 or taller have managed a baseline star-level 3-WAR season after age 33. The best of those came from Mark McGwire, potentially aided by performance-enhancing drugs.

All of that will be taken into account in more grounded moments this winter. Front offices will perform their due diligence. They will seek negotiating points to tamp down the eventual price of employing the most prolific slugger baseball has seen in decades, even fresh off a season that will still glow generations after the dollars and cents are forgotten.

It will be much harder now than it was last spring.

New York Yankees' Aaron Judge gestures as he rounds the bases after hitting his 62nd of the season against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Judge’s offensive output has been staggering. By the park-adjusted metric OPS+ — which lets us compare batters across eras by scaling their rate stats against league average — he’s posting the best 162-game season since Barry Bonds. He will notch a 10-WAR season, elite territory only two other active players (Mike Trout and Mookie Betts) have reached.

Long discounted for failing to stay healthy, Judge is about to log his second consecutive season with well over 600 plate appearances. And, to get back to the point, this one is going to have a number greater than or equal to 62 in the home run column, along with league-leading marks in RBIs, runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and possibly batting average.

Asked to predict the deal that will eventually secure Judge's services this winter, a sampling of MLB executives gave ESPN's Kiley McDaniel forecasts ranging from $259 million to $375 million, with averages of 8.6 years and about $320 million.

Players like this just don’t reach the market very often. If we lower the bar a little bit — to seasons when a hitter posted at least a 175 OPS+ and 9+ WAR — we find that Alex Rodriguez is the last one to become a free agent the winter immediately afterward. And even that one is sort of a technicality — he opted out of his contract after 2007, but quickly re-signed with the Yankees.

Prior to that, you’ll have to stretch back to the winter between 2001 and 2002. Jason Giambi’s second consecutive mammoth season for the Oakland Athletics cleared our bars, and earned him a seven-year, $120 million deal with the Yankees entering his age 31 season, just like Judge. That same offseason, fresh off setting the all-time home run mark at 73, the 37-year-old Bonds signed a five-year, $90 million contract to stay with the Giants.

Agent Scott Boras gave a quote about that Bonds deal, which I promise I’m not making up, that underlines the type of history we’re talking about with Judge right now, and the way it could — keyword: could — push a calculating industry to behave more emotionally than usual.

“He did not require the optimum contract,” Boras said of Bonds, according to ESPN. “He just wanted to be placed in the group of top players. Tradition is a hard thing to negotiate, and his tradition lies with the San Francisco Giants.”

That was obviously coming from the player's side. And Bonds’ connection to San Francisco doesn't neatly map to Judge in New York. His dad didn’t wear the pinstripes before him, nor did an inner circle Hall of Famer he called his godfather. But in surpassing Roger Maris and Babe Ruth, Judge is effectively placing an order for a granite monument with his name and number inscribed.

That's why the Boras quote might work the other way this winter. Cashman and the Steinbrenner family have an unstoppable machine that produces winning baseball teams, hordes of fans and an unfathomable stream of money. Losing Aaron Judge wouldn't break it — and a majority of those executives ESPN surveyed guessed Judge would land elsewhere — but the Yankees are surely aware of the soft factors, of what Being The Yankees means in this situation.

By greatly benefiting from the most memorable individual season most living Yankees fans have ever witnessed, the front office may have ceded the grounds to push for the optimal contract it had in mind, the one that attempts to account for Judge’s age and size and a potential future where he can no longer even man right field, much less center.

It’s a different landscape now, undeniably. Juan Soto is on the Padres, Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts are on the Dodgers and the Angels still can’t figure out how to get Mike Trout or Shohei Ohtani to the playoffs. The franchise that splurged for Giambi and kept A-Rod has already been transformed, has already made decisions that signal its evolution into a more fiscally concerned operation, a franchise that is less an outlier than a particularly shiny point near the top of the bell curve.

But are they willing to drop the veil entirely? Can the Yankees really stomach seeing Aaron Judge walk away over the potential inefficiency of their spending in 2029?

There is risk in Judge’s blend of Statcast God measurables and mortal giant realities, but no one has felt any of that at Yankee Stadium in a while. There is just Judge, a gigantic man with a bat he makes look like a twig, standing in and calmly staring out at a pitcher hoping not to make the highlight reel (or maybe secretly hoping he does).

There’s the windup and the pitch, and in the instant where everyone holds their breath, this version of Aaron Judge feels like forever — projections, comparisons and contracts be damned.

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