Judge Rules: Baseball’s Latest Home Run Giant Remains a Yankee

Aaron Judge
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

SAN DIEGO — The early hours of Wednesday morning at the Winter Meetings brought a giant-sized deal for baseball’s latest home run giant… but not from the Giants. After a day in which it appeared as though Aaron Judge had decided he was not in fact prepared to be “a Yankee for life,” as he had previously professed, and would instead leave the Bronx to sign with the the team for which he grew up rooting in Linden, California, about two hours from the Bay Area, the 2022 AL MVP has returned to the Bronx via a record-setting nine-year, $360 million deal.

The move happened only after Judge arrived in San Diego on Tuesday night and heard overtures from a third team, the Padres, who had reportedly offered Trea Turner a $342 million deal before the shortstop signed with the Phillies on Monday. Via USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, San Diego offered Judge $40 million per year over 10 years; whether either deal included deferred money isn’t known. According to the New York Post’s Jon Heyman, the Yankees had offered Judge eight years and $320 million — about $90 million more than the offer that he spurned just before Opening Day. “Once Judge told Hal Steinbrenner he wanted to be a Yankee (but had more $ on table elsewhere — SF and SD) Hal sealed the deal by bumping it another $40M and one year,” Heyman wrote.

The contract makes Judge, who will turn 31 on April 26, the game’s highest-paid position player in terms of average salary:

Highest Paid Position Players
Rk Player Team AAV Years
1 Aaron Judge Yankees $40.0 M 2023-31
2 Mike Trout Angels $35.5 M 2019-30
3 Carlos Correa Twins $35.1 M 2022-24*
4 Anthony Rendon Angels $35.0 M 2020-26
5 Francisco Lindor Mets $34.1 M 2022-31
6 Nolan Arenado Cardinals $32.5 M 2019-26
7 Corey Seager Rangers $32.5 M 2022-31
8 Miguel Cabrera Tigers $31.0 M 2016-23
9 Mookie Betts Dodgers $30.4 M 2021-32
10T Manny Machado Padres $30.0 M 2019-28
Shohei Ohtani** Angels $30.0 M 2023
SOURCE: Cot’s Contracts
* = opted out after 2022
** = designated hitter/pitcher

The deal is the largest free-agent contract in baseball history, and the third-largest overall when you consider extensions:

Largest Contracts
Rk Player Team Total Yrs Type Period Age
1 Mike Trout Angels $426.5 M 12 Ext 2019-30 27
2 Mookie Betts Dodgers $365 M 12 Ext 2021-32 28
3 Aaron Judge Yankees $360 M 9 FA 2023-31 31
4 Francisco Lindor Mets $341 M 10 Ext 2022-31 28
5 Fernando Tatis Jr. Padres $340 M 14 Ext 2021-34 22
6 Bryce Harper Phillies $330 M 13 FA 2019-31 26
7T Giancarlo Stanton Marlins $325 M 13 Ext 2015-27 25
Corey Seager Rangers $325 M 10 FA 2022-31 28
9 Gerrit Cole Yankees $324 M 9 FA 2020-28 29
10T Manny Machado Padres $300 M 10 FA 2019-28 26
Trea Turner Phillies $300 M 11 FA 2023-33 30
SOURCE: Cot’s Contracts
Age = seasonal age as of June 30 in first year of contract.

Judge’s age stands out in that table as much as the dollar value. A late bloomer given that he won AL Rookie of the Year honors in his age-25 season, he almost certainly would have netted more — with more teams bidding — had he hit the market at a younger age. The last player to sign a mega-deal entering his age-31 season was Robinson Canó (10 years, $240 million from the Mariners starting in 2014); that one aged poorly due in part to the second baseman’s two PED suspensions. The Yankees re-signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $275 million contract entering his age-32 season, and while he helped them to their most recent World Series win in 2009, that didn’t age so well either due to injuries, a year-long PED suspension, and an in-season retirement in his ninth year after one more burst of glory.

Counting Cole, the Yankees are the second team to sign two $300 million free agents after the Phillies (Harper and Turner). They’re the first to roster three $300 million players, with Stanton, whom they traded for in December 2017, the other.

Judge earned this deal with perhaps the greatest walk year of all time. He rejected a seven-year, $230.5 million package prior to Opening Day, then went on to lead a very inconsistent Yankees team to the AL East title, hitting .311/.425/.686 with 62 homers and 131 RBI. While he missed winning the traditional and slash-stat Triple Crowns by about five points of batting average, he set an American League record with his home run total, eclipsing Roger Maris’ 61-year-old mark of 61, and won the MVP award. Both his 207 wRC+ and his 11.4 WAR were the majors’ highest since Barry Bonds in 2004. Judge flat-out annihilated the baseball when making contact, with the majors’ highest average exit velocity (95.9 mph), barrel rate (26.5%), and hard-hit rate (61.8%); it’s his second Statcast Triple Crown, if you will. Defensively, he more than held his own, making 74 starts in center field, or 52 more than his 2016–21 total, and 54 more in right. Presumably, he won’t have to play as much in the middle pasture in 2023 given a healthy Harrison Bader, the Gold Glove-winning center fielder who was acquired at last season’s trade deadline but played just 14 regular-season games while recovering from plantar fasciitis.

Judge grew up rooting for Bonds, whom he called in a September interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea, “The greatest hitter of all time, in my opinion.” But it was Rich Aurilia — who wore number 35 (Judge’s favorite, based on the number his father wore as a basketball player) and played shortstop, Judge’s Little League position — who was his favorite player. Beyond the geographic and emotional connection, the Giants had long seemed to be the most obvious alternative to the Yankees. In Carlos Rodón, Brandon Belt, and Evan Longoria alone, they shed nearly $60 million in salaries from their $162 million payroll, and at the general manager meetings last month, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi told reporters, “From a financial standpoint, there’s nobody that would be out of our capability to meet what we expect the contract demands will be.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the Chronicle’s Susan Slusser reported, “One agent with a client who is close to Judge said that Judge has made his decision and that San Francisco appears to be his destination, while another source said that some Giants personnel are also convinced the team is close to landing the outfielder.” San Francisco signing Mitch Haniger on Tuesday didn’t change that desire, as the team reportedly was looking to add both right-handed sluggers to fill its outfield needs.

As for other potential suitors, the Dodgers, within $200,000 of the $270 million third tier Competitive Balance Tax threshold last year, likely balked at the price. They’ve shed over $100 milion in salary but already have Betts signed to play right field through 2031 and now have glaring needs at shortstop given Turner’s departure, as well as in center field after non-tendering Cody Bellinger (who signed with the Cubs on Tuesday) and in the rotation, where they’ve shed Tyler Anderson (who signed with the Angels) and Andrew Heaney (who signed with the Rangers) and lost Walker Buehler to Tommy John surgery. While Betts was reportedly willing to move back to second base, it seemed possible that was a decoy designed to drive up the price tag if the Giants pursued him.

The Padres, who crossed the $230 million threshold for the second straight season by about $3 million, according to the Associated Press, already have two $300-million commitments to Machado and Tatis, so their participation in the sweepstakes represented something of a wild card. They shed close to $60 million in salaries counting those of other players they obtained in-season, some of which will be eaten up by whatever raise they give deadline acquisition Juan Soto from his $17.1 million salary in his penultimate year before free agency. A lineup with those four superstars — if they kept them all, no small assumption given general manager A.J. Preller’s penchant for wheeling and dealing — would have been a thing to behold.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox appeared more focused on retaining Xander Bogaerts, and an SNY report that Mets owner Steve Cohen would not pursue Judge because he and Steinbrenner “enjoy a mutually respectful relationship, and do not expect to upend that with a high-profile bidding war” triggered a probe from the commissioner’s office regarding possible collusion (the two teams were cleared).

Publicly, Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman repeatedly indicated that Judge was their top priority this offseason and that they hoped they would be able to woo him back. Yet it remained possible that he harbored lingering resentment over the team releasing the details of its offer ahead of Opening Day. In an interview conducted in October with TIME, which named Judge its 2022 Athlete of the Year on Tuesday, he said, “We kind of said, Hey, let’s keep this between us… I was a little upset that the numbers came out. I understand it’s a negotiation tactic. Put pressure on me. Turn the fans against me, turn the media on me. That part of it I didn’t like.”

While other teams may have wanted Judge, the Yankees needed him given the state of their lineup. Despite leading the AL in scoring (4.98 runs per game) and home runs (254, 40 more than the runner-up Astros) in 2022, the offense was running on fumes by the end of the season due to injuries to players such as Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, and Anthony Rizzo (whom they re-signed in November), as well as the declines of Josh Donaldson and Aaron Hicks. Missing out on Judge would have left the team in a quandary as to a path to upgrade. Brandon Nimmo is probably the best remaining outfielder on the market, but he’s not a middle-of-the-lineup slugger, and the Yankees do finally have a center field solution (at least in the short term) in Bader, who homered five times in nine postseason games. Bogaerts and Correa are the best hitters remaining on the free-agent market, but the Yankees have stayed out of the deep shortstop pool in recent years due to their confidence in prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza.

Details on the structure of the contract aren’t known at this writing. Via Dan Szymborski, here’s an updated ZiPS projection for the length of the deal, which covers Judge’s ages 31–39 seasons:

ZiPS Projection – Aaron Judge
2023 .280 .386 .578 543 106 152 24 0 46 118 91 168 9 164 11 7.4
2024 .272 .379 .558 530 101 144 23 0 43 110 89 164 8 157 10 6.6
2025 .262 .369 .525 512 92 134 21 0 38 100 85 160 7 146 10 5.6
2026 .253 .360 .496 490 84 124 20 0 33 89 80 155 5 136 9 4.6
2027 .242 .349 .464 459 74 111 18 0 28 78 73 147 4 124 8 3.5
2028 .235 .342 .444 421 65 99 16 0 24 66 66 139 4 117 7 2.8
2029 .228 .333 .423 381 55 87 14 0 20 57 58 126 3 109 5 1.9
2030 .224 .330 .403 335 47 75 12 0 16 48 51 113 2 103 4 1.4
2031 .220 .325 .390 336 45 74 12 0 15 46 50 114 2 99 3 1.1

If you’re scoring at home, that’s 34.9 WAR, about $10.3 million per projected win, but from the structure of their offer in the spring, it was already apparent that the Yankees were willing to pay Judge a premium based upon his marquee value in the game’s largest market. The projection eyeballs as about four years of star level play, two more of of above-average play, and three of a very pricey decline. His age obviously creates some risk beyond a deal beginning at a younger age; the presumption is that the same is true for his massive body (he’s listed at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds). Will his knees hold up? His back? We’ll see, but it’s worth noting that he played a career-high 157 games, his second straight year with at least 148, after playing in just 242 of the Yankees’ 384 games (63%) from 2018 to ’20. He’s changed his training habits in order to avoid the extra wear and tear that can be the downside of a strong work ethic and a drive to succeed (ask Don Mattingly).

Here’s a look at Judge’s 2023 projection:

ZiPS 2023 Projection Percentiles Aaron Judge (643 PA)
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 34 66 .327 .435 .723 210 11.0
90% 31 60 .317 .423 .695 202 10.3
80% 28 55 .305 .413 .652 188 9.2
70% 27 51 .295 .401 .624 178 8.5
60% 25 48 .287 .393 .599 169 7.9
50% 24 46 .280 .386 .578 164 7.4
40% 22 43 .272 .378 .564 158 6.9
30% 21 41 .262 .368 .539 148 6.1
20% 19 36 .251 .357 .514 139 5.4
10% 17 32 .237 .343 .481 128 4.6
5% 16 28 .226 .327 .454 118 3.8

That’s an MVP-caliber season even with just a 50th-percentile projection. According to Dan, ZiPS suggested a $311 million deal based the nine-year projection, far above the eight years and $184 million it spit out based on its 2022 preseason projection for him, which began with a 36-homer, 5.1-WAR campaign followed by the expected decline. Not only did his performance improve his long-term outlook, but as we’ve also seen so far in this offseason, the industry is flush with cash after apparently setting a record in revenues (just shy of $11 billion) and netting a $900 million windfall — $30 million per team — from MLB selling its remaining 15% stake in the BAMTech streaming platform to Disney. For our Top 50 Free Agents list, Ben Clemens estimated a nine-year, $315 million contract ($35 million AAV), and our median crowdsource figures came in with eight years and $300 million ($37.5 million AAV). All of those are still relatively closer to the mark than, say, the Rangers and Jacob deGrom (five years, $185 million compared to Ben’s three years and $141 million or our crowdsource’s three years and $120 million) or the Phillies and Turner (seven years and $210 million via our crowdsource and $262 million over the 11 years via ZiPS, though Ben’s $288 million over nine years was much closer in terms of dollars).

The Yankees, who ended the 2022 season with a CBT payroll of around $267 million according to the AP ($3 million shy of the third-tier threshold), could have diluted Judge’s AAV by adding on another year or two as the Phillies did with Turner and given themselves a bit more maneuverability relative to the 2023 third-tier threshold of $273 million. They’re at $266.5 million, via Roster Resource, and still need starting pitching and bullpen help if nothing else, and seem destined to push the $293 million fourth-tier threshold. It always seemed as though they would have to flex their muscles to the extreme to retain Judge. They’ve done that, and while they may regret it in the long run, swinging for the fences was their shortest path to a strong 2023.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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1 year ago

AAV of this deal is $40mm by my math (360/9).