A Healthy and Empowered Aaron Judge Is Primed to Lead Yankees to the Top

Bob KlapischFeatured Columnist IJuly 11, 2020

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 08:   Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees stretches during summer workouts at Yankee Stadium on July 08, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Believe it not, the fact that Gerrit Cole utterly destroyed his New York Yankees teammates in an intrasquad game was not the biggest news out of the Bronx this week. Not if you factored in that A) Cole is already hitting 99 mph on the radar gun and B) he's so competitive that he regarded the one-on-ones against the Bombers as total war.

Who would've expected anything less from New York's most celebrated free agent since Reggie Jackson? It would've taken an opposite chain of events to light up social media: Cole showing up without his fastball or with an extra 20 pounds around the middle or getting lit up by the Yankees' B squad lineup.

Instead, what has the Yankees buzzing is Aaron Judge's clean bill of health and the promise of having him ready for the world champion Washington Nationals on July 23. The proclamation comes from the man himself after a long rehab from a stress fracture of the first right rib and collapsed lung.

When Judge told me, "I've been waiting months for this," he spoke for the entire Yankees family. And that was before the pandemic halted the season. Staying healthy is the slugger's first order of business in 2020. It's a 60-game sprint, and while the Bombers consider themselves favorites in the American League, Judge has plenty at stake personally. He's determined to make up for lost time.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
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Judge has missed 110 games over the last two seasons, roughly a third of the action. A wrist injury cost him 50 games in 2018, and another 60 games were lost in 2019 because of a strained oblique.

Judge then broke his rib diving for a sinking drive last September, although the extent of his injury wasn't fully known until a CT scan in March. The Yankees also learned about Judge's collapsed lung at that time. Had it not been for the pandemic, he would've yet again been on the injured list on Opening Day.

It was a brutal stretch; Judge's patience was tested while the rib seemed to take forever to heal. "Blood flow to that region is more difficult," general manager Brian Cashman told reporters of the injury back in May. 

One of the few upsides to MLB's four-month shutdown was the time it afforded Judge to finally shake off the pain in his torso. The Yankees say the slugger is locked and loaded; the power and bat speed has returned, as has his ability to catalyze a cult following in the Bronx.

Make no mistake: Judge is the face of the Yankees. Homegrown, a light spirit without baggage, a breeze to root for. No player on the current roster has bonded with the fans like Judge. His home runs routinely send the stadium crowds into a frenzy, with strangers suddenly high-fiving each other in the stands, and along the concourses, there are thousands wearing his No. 99 jersey.

It's no coincidence that Judge's jersey has been MLB's top seller for three straight years. And it's not just New Yorkers who buy in. He's been an industry-wide rock star since setting the rookie home run record in 2017 with 52 bombs, subsequently broken by the Mets' Pete Alonso in 2019. Judge has represented everything that's good about the game: hardworking, courteous toward others and a fierce competitor.

You don't have to be a Yankees loyalist to recognize Judge as a good guy with a conscience. He was one of several players who spoke in an emotional Black Lives Matter video recently, appearing first and last on the 55-second spot.

But according to ESPN's Howard Bryant, Judge defied the Yankees' insistence he opt out of the video.

"The Yankees subtly [are] discouraging their new superstar, Aaron Judge, from being publicly vocal on racial issues, encouraging him to follow the racially disengaged, politically neutral model of Derek Jeter," Bryant wrote.

Manager Aaron Boone strongly refuted the report on Thursday. 

"As far as I know, that's absolutely false," Boone said, "In fact, if anything, we encourage our guysif they want their voice to be heard on whatever the subject may bewe're always going to encourage them to speak their mind and their heart."

Those who know Judge best say he was simply speaking his mind, not looking to pick a fight with anyone, least of all the Yankees. It's why opponents like him, and why even umpires seemingly have a soft spot for him. But there's still a long way to go before Judge succeeds Jeter as a generational icon.

Winning a championship is part of that calculus. Jeter collected five World Series rings. Judgealong with the current crop of Yankeesis still looking for his first. That's where Part 2 of the equation comes in. Judge, paired with Giancarlo Stanton, gives the Yankees a ferocious middle of the lineup. And unlike past years, the Bombers have a Game 7 ace in Cole and will enjoy the additional stimulus of the black cloud that hovers over the rival Houston Astros

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

So let's say the narrative plays out to perfection: Judge has a monster year, albeit an abbreviated one, and the Yankees roll straight through the World Series. Asterisk or not, they'll finally clear the bar they set back in 2017. They arrive in camp next February as rulers of the baseball world. Judge solidifies his standing as the team's unofficial captain. The clubhouse is his.

Does ownership take the next step and award the slugger a long-term contract? It'd be a gamble, although not an impossible leap of faith. Judge, after all, is only 28, barely at the doorstep of his athletic prime. And after historically waiting until near free agency to reward their young players, the Yankees chose to splurge on Luis Severino in 2019, despite the fact he was only 24 at the time with just four years of service.

By agreeing to forfeit his first year of free agency in 2023, Severino was given a four-year, $40 million deal. Judge will hit the open market after the '22 season. One club official declined to say whether the Steinbrenner family would be ready to make a similar commitment to Judge, even if he were to play straight through summer 2020.

But he was quick to add, "We obviously like Aaron very much. I'd have a hard time imagining him [playing] anywhere else in his career."

Some players, the executive added, are meant to be Yankees from start to finish. It’s awfully hard to project contract numbers off a 60-game schedule, but conservativelyif Judge stays healthy and is reasonably productiveI could see the Yankees offering eight years, $270 million. It’s not a Mike Trout deal, but enough to keep Judge away from free agency. 

On the other end of the spectrum, what could go wrong? Another serious injury would officially turn Judge into one of the unlucky ones—a Greg Bird (although with far more talent). Or he could struggle at the plate. Or the Yankees could simply come up short in October. But that would be an organizational setback, and not a reflection on Judge or Cole or any individual player.

All of that will be decided in due time. For now, it's nothing but positive vibes for Judge. At 6'7", he's always stood out, even without a chip on his shoulder.

Unlike Randy Johnson, another giant of a man who hated the attention on New York's streetsthe Big Unit got into the face of a local CBS cameraman who dared to take his picture on his way to an introductory press conference in Manhattan in 2005Judge is much more easygoing.

"I've gotten those weird looks my whole life," Judge told me in 2018. "You can't go anywhere [in New York City] without people saying something. Being different got me ready for that. Now it's just nothing to me. I say, 'Hey, what's going on?' instead of 'You guys got a problem or something?'"

The point of the story hardly needs translation: Baseball could use a feel-good story like Judge's. He's ready to write the next chapter.

There's no shame in rooting for it.

      

Follow Bob Klapisch on Twitter 

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