Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning during the regular season you’ll get a new topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
During the lockdown, when players fought for more money for younger players, a veteran front office executive told me they already had a tool for that very goal.
“More super players should go for five years to listen [in arbitration] Over a lot,” the source said. “Even if I win a low percentage of those cases, the wins set new precedents. Players with a five-year jury can compare themselves to players in any service class. So Tria Turner can compare himself to Francisco Lindor. And it was those victories that set the standards for the group behind them.”
Most players take the safe route. They avoid the risks of hostility that can come with a judging session. For example, Turner has agreed to a contract worth $21 million this season, which is well below Lindor’s average annual value of $34.1 million.
The “chuck-pushing” stars remembered the pay scales when Aaron Judge turned down the “Safe Route”: a seven-year contract extension from the Yankees at $30.5 million a year. Ignore misleading referrals to “eight years, $230 million”. That’s a bogus number that includes his 2022 salary which would be either $17 million or $22 million – the referee figures provided by the player and club – or something in between if settled before the June hearing. The Yankees are trying to buy his free agent years. This is a completely different ball game than when the player is under the control of the team.
The Yankees took the very unusual step of announcing the terms of their offer, which didn’t seem to interest the judge. (That’s, after the biggest refereeing gap of the season remains. Imagine the Yankees arguing against Judge in a $5 million hearing.) There’s nothing wrong with what New York did, especially because with the extensions going, the bid was already fair.
If the judge wants to maximize his value, the tool to do so is free agency. Eight of the 12 highest-grossing AAVs in baseball history resulted from the influence of free agency. After the season ends, Judge can serve any team, not just the Yankees. He has no plans to continue talking about the contract during the season.
“At the end of the year, I’m a free agent now,” the judge told reporters on Friday. “Talk to 30 teams. The Yankees are going to be one of those 30 teams.”
Taking extension insurance (José Ramirez of The Guardians) or maximizing value as a free agent (Max Scherzer rejected a $144 million extension from Detroit before getting $210 million from Washington as a free agent in January 2015) is a personal decision. There is no right or wrong answer.
This is the only time in his career that a judge has had this kind of earning power. From 2017-19, when he was third in majors in OPS+ and fifth in slugging and bWAR, he earned just $1.85 million. Total.
Judge plays next season at age 31. At the end of his next contract, whether from the Yankees or another club, he will be too old to have anything close to that leverage.
Keep that in mind, and then consider that the Yankees bid $30.5 million a year less than they would pay Gerrit Cole at age 37 ($36 million), which is less than they would pay Giancarlo Stanton from 2023 to 25 ($32 million), less than what they would pay Giancarlo Stanton from 2023 to 25 ($32 million)). The Tigers paid him Miguel Cabrera on his extension eight years ago ($37.15 in today’s dollars) and less than the Angels paid Anthony Rendón as a free agent over seven years ($35 million).
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Moreover, Judge is one of the few or biggest drawing cards in the game. Early in his career, the Yankees helped promote him with a personal oath in the correct field seats, the Judge Chambers, where the actual Supreme Court justice once began playing. What is the remaining value to the player and team judge to remain Yankees? Much more than most players.
Before Zach Wheeler signed a five-year, $118 million contract with the Phillies, he returned to the Mets to give the club the last refusal to keep him there. Nothing is heard. Brodie Van Wagenen, then general manager, explained that “the expectations we got for Zack – in the short and long term – did not match the market he was able to enjoy.” Wheeler has since gone to the next level with the Phillies.
The club must know its players better than those who acquire them. Reliance on “forecasts” based on superposition and aging patterns is an important part of planning. But the actuarial charts have to be supplemented by the player. And in this case, the schemes do not help much because the judge is very strange. At 6’7 inches and 282 pounds, he’s the oldest player in the major leagues, and at 30 this month he’s played fewer MLB games than 26-year-old Cody Bellinger.
What kind of player will become the judge as he advances into his thirties? The Yankees felt confident enough to secure the big man seven years, from ages 31 to 37. In baseball history, only six position players weighing at least 250 pounds were still playing in the Major Leagues by the age of 37: Jim Thum, A.J. Berzinski, Cabrera and three reserve catchers, Jose Molina, Eric Kratz, and Corky Miller. None of them were outside players.
Over 250 pounds didn’t hold up for long, including Prince Felder (32), Adam Dunn (34), Dmitri Young (34), Ryan Howard (36) and Frank Howard (36). Frank Howard seems like the closest companies to the judge. He was 6’7″, 255 pounds and was athletic well enough to once pull off 32 rebounds in a game for the Ohio State Championship basketball game at Madison Square Garden. From ages 31 to 34, Howard posted OPS+ of 167 and made the All-Star Team all four seasons—his only picks like that. But his career faltered to a quiet end in the following two seasons. He tried to continue playing in Japan, but lost his back.
Frank Howard last played his game 49 years ago. Due to developments in training, nutrition, medicine, and diagnostics, Judge is losing much of its meaning.
Injuries are a factor when deciding whether to hold a judge. He’s missed 23% of Yankees games since 2017. He’s played only two seasons with 500 plate appearances—and each time he finished in the top five in the Player of the Year vote. Shortstop Corey Seager brought a similar injury history to the free agent market — just three seasons with 500 appearances, finishing one of the world’s top five best players — and still netted $32.5 million a year from Texans until age 37. (Seger is three years younger than the judge.)
As Scherzer did, the judge is betting on himself, ready to risk another injury that weakens his market. And yes, it is possible that Judge wants to remain a Yankee and get his true market value. The concepts do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Judge is a tremendous asset to the Yankees: He’s a homegrown slugger with his own marketable brand, much of it due to his out-of-the-box size. Only four local players have scored 300 Yankees players: Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, whose last games were in 1968.
With the way he hits fast balls on the short porch on the right field, Judge is built for Yankee Stadium. He cut 609 in the field. Only three players have shot better on NYC: Babe Ruth and Greg at Yankee Stadium and Duke Snyder at Ibbits Field.
Judge has taken Yankees and Yankees out over the next seven years, and there is no one who could completely replace him, his popularity and his relationship with the franchise. That’s why the judge is turning to a free agency rather than actually signing the extension. It’s really weird, with this one chance to find out what it’s worth.
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