Aaron Judge’s Projected Contract, MLB Free-Agency Suitors After Record Season

Adam WellsOctober 24, 2022

New York Yankees designated hitter Aaron Judge drops the bat after walking against Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Brayan Bello during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh)
AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh

Coming off a historic season that will likely lead to his first American League MVP award, Aaron Judge is poised to hit free agency with seemingly as much leverage as any player has had in years.

The New York Yankees slugger posted the ninth season in Major League Baseball history with at least 60 home runs. He became the first player to hit the mark since Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Judge hit his AL-record 62nd homer on Oct. 4 to leadoff the game against the Texas Rangers.

New York Yankees @Yankees

SIXTY-TWO! BASEBALL HISTORY! <a href="https://twitter.com/TheJudge44?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheJudge44</a> is the American League home run King! <a href="https://t.co/QKrcuOvZMU">pic.twitter.com/QKrcuOvZMU</a>

In addition to his massive home run total, Judge almost became the first player since Miguel Cabrera in 2012 to win the triple crown. The four-time All-Star led the AL in RBI (131), on-base percentage (.425) and slugging percentage (.686). He finished second in batting average (.311), five points behind Minnesota Twins star Luis Arraez (.316).

His 11.5 FanGraphs' wins above replacement was the highest single-season total in MLB since Barry Bonds in 2004 (11.9).

Putting all of these numbers together suggests the 30-year-old could be in line for a historic contract, but there are reasons to believe the deal he actually gets come in a bit lower than anticipated.

Here's a look at the potential contract Judge could get this offseason, as well as teams that could be interested in signing him.

Projected Contract

Thanks to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, we know the absolute baseline that Judge's camp will be negotiating from.

After the slugger and the Yankees were unable to reach agreement on a long-term extension before the start of the regular season, Cashman took the unusual step of going public with specifics of the team's offer to their superstar player.

The New York GM told reporters on April 8 that Judge rejected a seven-year, $213.5 million deal that would have been combined with a $17 million salary in 2022 for a total value of $230.5 million over eight years.

Judge came out ahead on his 2022 salary by settling with the Yankees for $19 million in June to avoid arbitration.

In an early free-agency preview on Sept. 14, ESPN's Jeff Passan emphatically said the Linden, California native "will get $300 million-plus" this offseason.

While the odds certainly favor Judge getting a deal of at least $300 million, let's briefly examine the reasons why teams might not be comfortable going that high on an offer.

First, the odds of him being able to replicate his 2022 season again are low. As mentioned, he had the most valuable season by fWAR in 18 years. He had a better individual season than any year Mike Trout, Mookie Betts or Shohei Ohtani have had by this one metric.

Judge doesn't necessarily have to do what he did in 2022 to be worth a massive contract. His average season from 2017-21 was .280/.391/.563 with 31 homers and a 154 OPS+.

Durability is also a consideration for any team interested in Judge. He missed a total of 142 regular-season games from 2018-20. The past two seasons have helped dispel the notion Judge is injury-prone, as he's played 305 out of a possible 324 games.

But if you want to project ahead, Judge is going turn 31 on April 26, 2023. He's a higher level of athlete than a lot of corner-outfield sluggers in MLB, but there's going to come a point when his bat speed slows down and his already-high strikeout rate will get worse.

Judge would be, by far, the oldest current player to sign a $300 million contract if that's what he ends up getting this offseason. Gerrit Cole was entering his age-29 season when he signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees in December 2019.

A seven-year deal worth exactly $300 million would give Judge the second-highest average annual salary in MLB ($42.9 million), behind Max Scherzer at $43.3 million.

The best option for a team to present him would be a deal with a massive average annual value for fewer years than he might be expecting. An offer in the range of $225 million over five years would only tie him with Joey Votto for the 14th-largest contract in terms of total value, but the $45 million average annual salary would be the highest in MLB.

If Judge wants to get the most total value, it will probably take something in the range of seven years and $300 million to make it happen.

Potential Suitors

New York Yankees

No team needs Judge more than the Yankees. He's a homegrown superstar who has become the most beloved player the franchise has had since Derek Jeter retired after the 2014 season.

When the Yankees were in the midst of their second-half malaise this season, Judge was the single biggest reason they stayed afloat. He was phenomenal after the All-Star break with a .349/.502/.785 slash line and 29 homers in 68 games.

One thing that could work in the Yankees' favor is the market. He is the biggest star in the sport because he plays in New York for the most historic franchise in MLB.

For as valuable as Judge is as a player, his marketability dramatically decreases if he goes almost anywhere else. This isn't to suggest he's going to give them any sort of hometown discount, but it does give them some leverage that other clubs don't have.

Boston Red Sox

Judge has shown himself to be a brilliant tactician throughout 2022. He didn't give in on what he wanted from a new deal and turned in one of the best seasons in MLB history heading into free agency.

As a businessman, he knew exactly what he was doing when he gave a non-answer to a reporter about potentially playing for the Boston Red Sox at some point in his career.

"Ooh," Judge said on Sept. 14 during a series between the Yankees and Red Sox at Fenway. “We’ll talk about that at the end of the year.”

Judge also spoke about Red Sox fans in the same press conference:

"It’s the best, they’re some of the best in baseball. They’re going to boo you, they’re going to say some things, they’re going to make you laugh. It’s all part of it. A lot of great history here, and this is one of the best places to play, so it’s always fun going out there and trying to put on a show for them."

Even if the Red Sox don't believe they have a chance to sign Judge, they should try to make an offer that drives his price up for New York. The Yankees would be in an impossible situation of trying to navigate a public-relations storm of potentially losing their best player coming off a historic season to their biggest rival.

The Red Sox could be poised to make a big splash this offseason. They will have nearly $60 million coming off their books, with J.D. Martinez, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Wacha and Rich Hill set to become free agents.

Xander Bogaerts could become a free agent if he rejects a $20 million player option. The team should also attempt to lock up Rafael Devers, who has one more year of arbitration remaining before he can become a free agent after 2023.

Boston has so many roster holes that spending $35-40 million on one player wouldn't dramatically change its outlook for next season. But it would be entertaining to see the Yankees and Red Sox fighting over a player as they did after the 2003 season, leading to Alex Rodriguez ending up in the Bronx.

San Francisco Giants

If there is a true contender outside of the Bronx to sign Judge, it's the San Francisco Giants.

Per ESPN's Kiley McDaniel, three MLB insiders predicted the Giants would land Judge in free agency.

One obvious connection stems from Judge's proximity to San Francisco. He was born near San Francisco in Sacramento and went to college in the state of California (Stanford).

Beyond that connection, which probably won't matter, the Giants could be poised to be one of the biggest players in free agency this offseason. They had a disappointing season with an 81-81 record after leading MLB with 107 wins in 2021.

Per Spotrac, the Giants only have $103 million in guaranteed money on their books in 2023. Carlos Rodon's $22.5 million player option is the biggest internal decision the front office will have to keep an eye on.

San Francisco has a glaring need for a bat in right field. The team only got a .205/.285/.378 slash line with 23 homers from the position in 2022. There doesn't seem to be much hope on the horizon in the minors.

MLB.com ranked San Francisco's farm system No. 18 in a midseason update published in August. The team only has two top-100 prospects—shortstop Marco Luciano (No. 17) and left-handed pitcher Kyle Harrison (No. 22).

Playing in a division with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have a massive payroll and one of the best development pipelines in MLB, leaves the other four teams with such a small margin of error.

The San Diego Padres haven't been shy about spending money and trading for established superstars in an attempt to keep pace with the Dodgers. The Arizona Diamondbacks look to be on the rise with a top-five farm system and Zac Gallen having a breakout season in the rotation.

As things currently stand, the Giants look to be no better than the third-best team in the NL West. Adding Judge wouldn't solve all of their roster issues, but he would give them a big bat in the middle of the lineup that was sorely missing this season.

St. Louis Cardinals

If you're looking for a potential sleeper in the Judge sweepstakes, the St. Louis Cardinals immediately stand out.

Lars Nootbaar did have a solid second season, showing good patience (.340 on-base percentage, 14.7 percent walk rate) and solid power (14 homers, .448 slugging percentage) as the primary right fielder.

The Cardinals could roll with the 25-year-old as their starter at the position and not look back, but they are looking at a payroll that could clear $90 million this offseason before factoring in arbitration salaries.

That number is assuming Nolan Arenado exercises his player option that will pay him $144 million over the next five years. Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported the seven-time All-Star is expected to opt in to his deal.

St. Louis has operated with a payroll of at least $150 million in every full season since 2018. General manager Michael Girsch should have no problem being able to sign a major free agent if that's something the team is interested in pursuing.

Arenado, assuming he opts in, and Paul Goldschmidt are the only major long-term commitments the Cardinals currently have on the books. Goldschmidt can become a free agent after 2024.

There's no one else in the NL Central who looks anywhere close to competing next season. The Milwaukee Brewers have two elite starters leading their rotation, but the bullpen wasn't the same after Josh Hader was traded to the San Diego Padres.

The Chicago Cubs could be a sleeping giant if ownership allows the front office to start spending like the big-market team franchise they should be. The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates are still years away in their rebuilding efforts.

Everything is already set up for the Cardinals to own the NL Central for a long time. Adding another elite hitter like Judge to a group that already includes Arenado and Goldschmidt would allow them to close the talent gap on the very top-tier NL teams (Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and Atlanta Braves).