You can practically hear the sigh of relief coming from New York, both from the Yankees themselves and perhaps even more so from their fans.
For against what like pretty good odds, Aaron Judge is coming back.
There were indeed signs aplenty throughout 2022 that the 30-year-old outfielder could leave the Bronx this winter. The most recent came Tuesday when the Yankees got a brief yet system-jolting scare from a report that Judge was headed to the San Francisco Giants.
The guarantee makes Judge's deal the richest free-agent signing in MLB history, surpassing Bryce Harper's $330 million pact with the Philadelphia Phillies from 2019.
What happens next for Judge and the Yankees will be determined over the next nine years. For now, it ought to be good enough for anyone with so much as a passing interest in the franchise that such a dramatic chapter in its history has gotten a happy ending.
This Season Wasn't All a Feel-Good Story
It's amazing how, when broken down to its essentials, a story can look so different on paper than what everyone lived through in real time.
The Baseball Reference page for the Yankees' 2022 season is a good example. It shows that they won 99 games and went to the American League Championship Series, and that the 6'7", 282-pound Judge aided the cause with 62 home runs, 131 runs batted in, 133 runs scored, a 1.111 OPS and numerous other stats that made him easily deserving of his first MVP.
A person who looks at that page years from now could get the impression that the '22 season was nothing but good times for the Yankees, and especially for Judge. But us? In the here and now? Yeah, we have the context.
We know that the Yankees went into their '22 campaign on a wave of disappointment, starting with yet another playoff loss to the Boston Red Sox in October 2021 and continuing with a weirdly underwhelming offseason.
The Yankees might have redeemed themselves if they offered Judge, already a three-time All-Star and the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year, a contract extension to his liking before his self-imposed Opening Day deadline. Yet they did not, as he swatted down a final overture that would have paid him $213.5 million over seven years.
Low-balling Judge was merely one of the Yankees' questionable decisions. The other was going public with their terms, which Judge admitted being irked at to Sean Gregory of Time:
“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.”
The Yankees' tactic seemed to work initially. Though Judge started the year in a funk, it's hard to imagine him hearing boos at Yankee Stadium if not for the lingering drama of his contract negotiations.
For a time, things got good. Very good. Judge put himself on pace for home run history and, in turn, elevated the Yankees to historic heights. Through July 8, he already had 30 home runs and the Yankees were off to a 61-23 start.
But while Judge eventually did break Roger Maris' 61-year-old AL home run record, the Yankees skidded to a 38-40 finish and were little more than a pushover in the playoffs. So much so that the boo birds were out at Yankee Stadium in the final two games of the Yankees' ALCS sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros, including for a slumping Judge once again.
In keeping with his usual demeanor, Judge himself took the playoff boos in stride. The general mood of the team, though, was dour. Per SNY's Andy Martino, having the home crowd turn hostile during the ALCS was an "unusually brutal experience" for multiple Yankees.
In Defense of Yankees Fans
Others have made this point better than we're prepared to, but Yankees fans really showed their butts in 2022.
In addition to the misguided boo birds, who can forget the ugly incident involving Myles Straw and the Cleveland Guardians? Or the treatment of Joey Gallo, who was feeling like, well, less than his best self at the end of his Yankee tenure?
There's only so much one can defend any of this, particularly knowing that bad apples are going to be bad apples and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Yet there also seemed to be another element at play in this behavior that smacked of frustration boiling over.
And that, at least, is understandable.
Though nobody can call the Yankees fans of today "long-suffering," there are at least two things they can justifiably gripe about. The first is that, while 30 straight seasons of winning records is all well and good, the club's 13-year World Series drought is not at all in keeping with a tradition that includes 40 pennants and 27 championships.
And thus, the second thing that Yankees fans can justifiably gripe about: The team hasn't been trying hard enough to live up to that tradition.
Consider the trajectory of the club's payrolls. The Yankees used to go into every season with the league's highest payroll. Save for the shortened 2020 campaign, that hasn't been the case since 2013:
It would be one thing if this could be traced back to sudden shortages of resources, but Forbes has consistently pegged the Yankees as MLB's most valuable franchise. Its revenues hit $482 million in 2022, and $668 million as recently as 2019.
Rather than one of an inability to spend, the story here has often seemed like an unwillingness to do so. And for this, there's even a smoking gun.
“That’s my job every year, to make sure that we’re financially responsible,” Yankees chairman Hal Steinbrenner told reporters in March. “I’ve got a lot of partners and banks and bondholders and things like that that I answer to. But at the same time, it’s always the goal to win a championship.”
Financial responsibility first, championships second. A fine way to manage the expectations of stakeholders, maybe, but a piss-poor way to placate fans who see 27 representations of the latter every time they visit Yankee Stadium.
A $360 Million Olive Branch
And yet, here we are in a world where Judge is going to be a Yankee for the next nine years precisely because the man at the top threw caution to the wind.
It wasn't just the Giants, who reportedly offered $360 million, and the San Diego Padres, who offered a whopping $400 million, who forced Steinbrenner's hand. It was also Judge himself, who Martino says personally bargained with Steinbrenner on Tuesday night:
Perhaps Judge left money on the table by not taking San Diego's offer, but his new deal otherwise leaves him lacking for nothing.
Judge will earn $40 million per year—a first for an MLB position player—through his age-39 season in 2031. He gets to stay at Yankee Stadium, which has a short right field to suit his aging legs as well as it has his opposite-field power. And true to Steinbrenner's word, it sounds as if Judge will become the Yankees' first captain since Derek Jeter:
Thus is the way pointed for Judge to truly cement his place among the Yankees' ample stable of icons. There are already many numbers out in Monument Park, but one can easily imagine "99" there as well.
Especially, of course, if Judge helps the Yankees win at least one World Series before the end of his deal.
His signing makes that eventuality so much more likely in the short term, as retaining him means the Yankees are keeping a source of 24 percent of the home runs and nearly 20 percent of the WAR they produced in 2022. The long term hinges on how they build around him, but, hey, that's where such a notable recommitment to spending is even more encouraging than the bounty of potential stars the team has in its farm system.
So as far as Yankees fans should be concerned, the Judge deal is as much a peace offering as it is a transaction. It's a piece of business that signifies that, no matter how overdue, the team clearly means business again.