Aaron Judge will spend baseball season in spotlight after failed long-term contract negotiations with New York Yankees

Aaron Judge will spend baseball season in spotlight after failed long-term contract negotiations with New York Yankees

As the Yankees opened the 2022 Major League Baseball season Friday, all eyes were on Aaron Judge – but not for anything he did on the field.

In separate sessions with reporters, Judge and then Yankees general manager Brian Cashman revealed they had been unable to reach an agreement on a long-term contract. Without significant concessions from either the player or the team, it is all but certain that before Judge tests the free-agent market in the fall. And he will then find himself in a familiar position: the spotlight.

That’s nothing new. Five years ago, during a Yankees’ Sunday Night Baseball game in 2017, Judge, then a rookie, clubbed a late-inning homer in a one-sided game. (The Yankees play the Red Sox on Sunday Night Baseball again on ESPN tonight at 7 ET.) When a reporter asked Judge to stop for a postgame interview on the field, Judge demurred – stating that other Yankees had done more in the game and were more deserving of the camera time.

That’s not the point, he was told: “You’re the biggest star in the sport right now.” Eventually, he relented, only to bust out a joke just before the cameras rolled. Judge looked at the reporter and asked, “Do I have anything in my teeth?”

For some agents not involved in Judge’s negotiations, that interaction is indicative of so much that could separate the slugger from other players who have sought the kind of big deals that he seeks. He has already demonstrated a comfort in a big market – and proved that he can thrive as the face of a franchise in a market of any size, with an outward geniality and a resolute sense of self.

Heading toward free agency this winter, having turned down the kind of Yankees contracts of which most players dream, he will need all of that self-assuredness. Aaron Judge – at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, the largest position player in the history of major-league baseball – is betting big on himself.

On Friday, he was asked if he thought his stance in the negotiations was a gamble. “Every day is a gamble,” he said. “Stepping outside your house is a gamble. … But I don’t mind going to free agency. It is what it is, and I’ve got a job to focus on.”

The Yankees and Judge were not close to reaching an agreement in their negotiations, according to sources; in fact, they weren’t really even in the same financial universes. In speaking with reporters Friday, Cashman outlined the Yankees’ extension of $ 213.5 million over seven years, or $ 30.5 million a year – and sources said that total package was about 60 to 70% of the range that Judge sought: $ 36 million annual salary over a contract length of nine or 10 years.

In designing their offer to Judge, industry sources say, the Yankees considered the contracts among the big league’s four highest-paid outfielders: Giancarlo Stanton, Judge’s teammate, signed his 13-year, $ 325 million deal at age 25. Bryce Harper signed his 13 -year, $ 330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies at age 23 – for an average annual salary slightly above Stanton’s, about $ 25.4 million annually.

Mookie Betts whose 12-year, $ 365 million deal is considered to have about $ 26 million in annual value, in present-day value, because of the high share of deferred money (a trademark of recent Dodgers contracts).

Only Mike Trout’s whopper deal, signed at age 27, exceeds the annual rate that Judge sought: $ 426.5 million over 12 years, for an average annual value of $ 35.5 million.

The Yankees’ perspective through their negotiations with Judge, who turns 30 on April 26, was that because Stanton, Harper, Trout and Betts signed at much younger ages than Judge, their respective teams had a greater chance to invest in the peak years of those players’ careers. Harper, Stanton, Trout and Betts all first signed professionally out of high school, accelerating their paths to the big leagues at a younger age. Judge attended Fresno State, and was picked by the Yankees in the first round of the 2013, when he was 21 years old.

The Yankees’ offer would’ve covered Judge’s age 31 through age 37 seasons. Yankees officials felt they might be able to entice Judge by offering more in annual salary than Stanton, Harper and Betts, even though it was slightly less than Trout. Judge’s salary request was slightly north of where Trout stands, and depending on the accounting, would make him the highest-paid player in baseball.

Three experienced agents not involved in the negotiations believe that there was enough substance in the Yankees’ offer to bridge toward a deal that would’ve bypassed the risk inherent in waiting for free agency. “You’re talking about a player who has had a lot of injuries,” one agent said.

“Judge is awesome, but I’m terrified of gargantuan people and whether they can stay healthy,” another agent said. “You see someone like Derek Jeter – he’s lithe, he’s more compact. With Judge, when he hits something – if he takes even the slightest dive – the earth rumbles.”

After finishing second behind Jose Altuve for AL MVP in 2017, Judge was out of the lineup in 50 games in 2018, 60 games in 2019, and he played in 28 of 60 games in the COVID-shortened season of 2020. Last year, though , Judge missed only 14 games and played his way back onto the American League All-Star team.

The third agent mentioned Judge’s long arms and unusually large strike zone. “I just don’t know if you can really predict how effective he’s going to be when he gets into his mid-30s,” the agent said. “Because we’ve never seen a player his size. Will he be able to catch up to fastballs when he’s in the back half of his next contract? I don’t know. There are a lot of unknowns.

“To me, if the Yankees were offering $ 230 million, maybe you try to grind them to $ 250 million and get it done.”

But the agents also believe that Judge does have a few factors working for him. Teams tend to be more aggressive following newly signed Collective Bargaining Agreements, and the Players Association and Major League Baseball just settled their labor talks a couple of weeks ago. “All it takes is one owner looking to rebrand his team,” said one agent. “If Judge goes out and has a big year, there’s probably going to be a team that steps up next fall.”

By season’s end, Judge will have already made more than $ 30 million in his career, “so it’s not like he’s going to be standing in soup lines if he gets hurt,” said one of the agents. If he doesn’t, though, Judge’s big bet could pay off: He could benefit from the specter of new Mets owner Steve Cohen, who has demonstrated he is willing to absorb luxury taxes in the pursuit of a championship – and it’s possible that in the fall, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner would have to bid against Cohen, a showdown that any free agent would love to incite.

When star free agents move from team to team, a rival executive said, “there’s always the question of whether the player can handle the spotlight. Not with [Judge]. He’s shown that not only can he handle it, but he’s really good at it. … If he stays healthy, I bet there will be an owner that’ll pay for that. “

Since his first day in the big leagues, Judge has been comfortable playing on a big stage in a way that many others have not, with strong beliefs in how he wants to handle the tidal waves of attention that have rolled at him, especially playing on the most famous and oft-scrutinized team in the country.

One frequent demonstration of that attention: Judge’s protectiveness of his teammates and his dugout, a well-known fact among the TV cameramen who work at the ends of dugouts: They are assigned to search for player reaction, and sometimes that means tracking a happy home run celebration – and sometimes it means zooming in on a slumping, disconsolate player being booed after a strikeout.

Almost all players ignore the cameras, either because they’ve made peace with the reality that this is a fight they aren’t going to win with the sport’s broadcast partners, or because they’ve stopped noticing. Not Judge, who has sometimes stared down cameramen through their lenses, or suggested through body language that they aim in another direction. “He doesn’t think we should be showing someone having a bad day,” one cameraman said last year, shrugging.

That sense of camaraderie with his teammates was shown, too, in another moment in Judge’s rookie season, when he won the Home Run Derby in Miami with a ridiculous display of power. The Reds’ Joey Votto said to a reporter at that event, “I don’t think casual fans understand the degree of difficulty there is in hitting the ball where he was hitting it, in the way he was hitting it.”

As the Derby ended, ESPN’s broadcast producers wanted Judge to quickly get in place for an interview. But Judge refused initially, standing to the side until the pitcher who threw to him, Yankees’ staffer Danilo Valiente, was retrieved from the clubhouse to share in the moment. The following year, there was pressure from within baseball for Judge to defend his Derby title, but right away, Judge declined, saying he has no intention of doing the event again. And he’s never wavered.

In the negotiations between Judge and the Yankees, Judge’s camp made the argument that he’s worth more to the Yankees because he’s already established as a New York star. The Yankees countered that the pinstriped franchise is worth more to Judge than any other team would be, as a foundation for his brand. A decade ago, the Yankees and All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano reached an impasse in their negotiations, and Cano signed a 10-year, $ 240 million deal with the Mariners – and Cano hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since.

Whatever path Judge takes, a friend said Saturday morning: “It’ll be his decision. He’s going to do what he thinks is right for him. He always has.”

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