Is It Time for Yankees to Make Aaron Judge MLB's Next $300M Superstar?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 21, 2019

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 08:   Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees lines out to right field against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning in Game Three of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium on October 08, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

So when will it be Aaron Judge's turn to get paid?

It feels only natural to ask right now. Fellow superstars Nolan Arenado ($260 million), Manny Machado ($300 million) and Bryce Harper ($330 million) signed megadeals in rapid succession in late February and early March, yet it turns out they were only setting a bar for Mike Trout to leap right over.

As first reported by Jeff Passan of ESPN, Trout and the Los Angeles Angels agreed this week to a contract extension worth $430 million over 12 years. Now that it's officially signed, the two-time American League MVP's new deal is by far the richest in the history of professional sports.

If the question is which Major League Baseball megastar might be next to sign a massive contract, it seems Mookie Betts can be ruled out.

On Wednesday, the Boston Red Sox's reigning MVP confirmed that what Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported a day earlier is true. He did indeed turn down an eight-year, $200 million extension offer from the Red Sox after the 2017 season. 

"I don't expect anything to happen until I'm a free agent," Betts said, per MLB.com's Matt Kelly.

If so, then the only player who's been on Trout's level within the last three years won't be signing anything until after 2020. That presents a two-year opportunity for someone else to take the big-money floor.

How about Judge?

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Though the strategy wasn't met with widespread approval, the Yankees may not have signed Machado or Harper this offseason because they have their own guys to take care of.

"I have to look at the big picture, and it is my responsibility ... not just to look at the present but to look at the future, too," Yankees principal owner Hal Steinbrenner said in February, according to Ronald Blum of the Associated Press. "Three, four, five years from now we get a lot of homegrown kids that we love, our fans love, that are going to be coming up for free agency."

The Yankees have already locked up two in-house stars this spring: center fielder Aaron Hicks on a seven-year, $70 million deal and right-hander Luis Severino on a four-year, $40 million pact.

But for a team estimated by Forbes to be worth $4 billion, these are loose-change deals by Yankees standards. They're also a mere fraction of what Judge is hypothetically worth in a long-term contract.

The 26-year-old has only been an everyday player since 2017, yet in that time, he's racked up a .993 OPS, 79 home runs and 13.6 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

Judge's claim to fame is being a singularly dangerous slugger. At a musclebound 6'7", 282 pounds, he certainly looks the part. He also acts it. Out of all batters who've put at least 500 balls in play over the last two seasons, he leads everyone in exit velocity at an average of 94.7 mph.

His home runs tend to be particularly extraordinary displays of power, as he's topped out at 121 mph in speed and 495 feet in distance.

The catch is (and likely always will be) that Judge strikes out a lot more often than the average hitter. But in addition to his booming power, the other good habit he has to counterbalance that bad one is his patience. He draws walks at a much higher rate than the average hitter.

Accordingly, Judge has a firmer place among MLB's best hitters than many might think. According to xwOBA—which measures expected production based on contact quality, walks and strikeouts—the leaderboard for the 2017-2018 seasons breaks down like so:

  • 1. Mike Trout: .428
  • T2. Aaron Judge: .422
  • T2. J.D. Martinez: .422
  • 4. Joey Votto.405
  • 5. Nelson Cruz: .398

Judge is also an exceptional right fielder who's racked up 23 defensive runs saved since 2017. It can justifiably be assumed that won't last forever, but there's little reason to expect that his bat will stop carrying him any time soon. 

Sure, the injury bug could do the trick. However, Judge's past injuries aren't necessarily cause for long-term concern. His 2017 shoulder surgery taught him not to mess with the Home Run Derby again. The wrist injury he sustained last season happened not because of wear and tear, but a hit-by-pitch.

What shouldn't be ignored, meanwhile, is the one definite advantage Judge has on his peers: marketability. 

He was the AL's leading All-Star vote-getter in 2017. His jersey was the No. 1 seller in both 2017 and 2018. He's done well in talk-show spots for Jimmy Fallon and Conan O'Brien. He's done a couple "This is SportsCenter" commercials (here and here) for ESPN.

"When we went to the white board, he was one of the first athletes we wrote down," Carrie Brzezinski, vice president of the network's in-house creative agency, told Newsday's Neil Best in 2018.

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

If Judge was a free agent right now, his market value would be in the neighborhood of $30 million per year for a long-term deal. If not Trout money, he could probably come close to Machado and Harper money.

Of course, Judge isn't a free agent right now. Nor will he be until after the 2022 season. He won't even be eligible for salary arbitration until next year. Between now and then, he'll make only $684,300. 

Them's the breaks for pre-arbitration players, and it points to an obvious reality that the Yankees don't need to hurry to offer Judge anything, much less hundreds of millions.

But a year from now? Maybe.

Judge's first round of arbitration may well be worth more than the $10.5 million Betts earned in 2018. There will thus be some incentive for the Yankees to approach him about an extension that would control his costs at least through his three arbitration years.

But when teams do that, they typically also want to buy out some free-agent years. And if Judge is going to give some away, he might as well offer to give a whole bunch away. As it is, he's slated to hit free agency as a 30-year-old. That's firmly in danger territory for modern free agents, so any deal he signs should either A) not delay his free agency or B) totally wipe out his need for it.

As of now, the eight-year, $260 million extension Arenado signed with the Colorado Rockies in February probably represents the best-case scenario for what Judge could squeeze out of the Yankees next winter. Like Arenado is now, Judge will be coming off his age-27 season.

Judge could only help himself in 2019, however, by putting a mere star-caliber 2018 behind him and reclaiming the superstar form he had in 2017. He had a 1.049 OPS, 52 homers and 8.1 WAR that year, which earned him a second-place finish in American League MVP voting.

Any more of that, and Judge might be able to press the Yankees for more years or dollars in extension talks. Ultimately, he might walk away from the table with a nine-figure contract that starts with a three.

                   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. 

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