It was all set up for Aaron Judge to own the day. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, tie game on opening day in the Bronx. Judge comes to bat and rips a line-drive double into the left field corner. He’s got to trot in with the winning run, right? Surely that would happen next.
Well, no. Judge was stranded on second base. The Yankees did beat the Boston Red Sox, 6-5, on Josh Donaldson’s single in the 11th inning. Judge was on deck at the end. It was fitting for an opener that just didn’t feel quite right.
Judge had begun the day by moving into Brett Gardner’s old locker at Yankee Stadium, prime real estate in the home clubhouse: adjacent to an empty stall, right next to the showers, with a clear view of the TV.
“I talked to Gardy a little bit about it — he said, ‘Take care of it,’” Judge said. “It’s an incredible honor.”
Judge was cagier about his contract talks with the Yankees. We would know by first pitch, he said, if the team has met his deadline for a long-term deal before he becomes a free agent this off-season. Brian Cashman, the general manager, spared us the suspense: Two hours before game time, he announced that talks were over.
“Our intent is to have Aaron Judge stay as a New York Yankee as we move forward, and I know that’s his intent as well, which is a good thing,” Cashman said. “We’re going to obviously be entering those efforts in a new arena, which would be at the end of the season, when free agency starts. Maybe that will determine what his real market value would be, because we certainly couldn’t agree at this stage.”
The 2022 M.L.B. Season
A season that was in doubt is suddenly in full gear.
Cashman took the helpful and unusual step of revealing the Yankees’ offer: seven years at $30.5 million per season, to begin in 2023. The Yankees never share details like that in public, but they always get out, and Cashman said he was really just saving himself a flurry of text messages from reporters.
Understandable, to be sure, but transparency is not Judge’s style.
“I don’t like talking numbers,” he said after the game. “I like to keep that private. That’s something I kind of felt like was private between my team and the Yankees.”
OK, but now we know: Judge could have guaranteed himself $213.5 million for seven years — after a 2022 salary of $17 million or $21 million, unless the sides avoid an arbitration hearing — but turned it down. He has every right to seek his true value on the open market and is now prepared to do so.
“At the end of the year, I’m a free agent,” Judge said. “Talk to 30 teams, and the Yankees will be one of those 30 teams. It’s always nice to try to wrap something up, the sooner the better. But we weren’t able to get it done, and now it’s onto baseball.”
Judge, who turns 30 this month, is an extraordinary player: Across the last five seasons, only one hitter with at least 1,500 plate appearances, Mike Trout, can top Judge in both on-base percentage (.391) and higher slugging percentage (.563). But Judge has not been especially durable; he was healthy as a rookie and again last season, but missed 37 percent of the Yankees’ games in the three years in between.
By turning down the deal, Judge now assumes all the risk. Which is puzzling, because the offer seemed to match up with his wishes. Here is how Judge characterized his emotions on the collapse of contract talks:
“I’m just disappointed because I think I’ve been vocal about, ‘I want to be a Yankee for life,’ and I want to bring a championship back to New York. I want to do it for the fans here. They’re family. This is home for me. And not getting that done right now, it stinks, but I’ve got a job to do on the field and I’ve got to shift my focus to that now and go play some ball.”
Again: It is Judge’s career and Judge’s life, and nobody should sign something that makes them uncomfortable. Maybe he wanted something closer to Trout, 30, who averages $35.5 million per year through 2030.
So what was important to Judge in these negotiations? That question was a stumper.
“What was important to me was trying to get a deal done,” he said. “We weren’t able to do that. So I think it was just plain and simple. I’m not going to get into the details of anything. I’ve got to focus on bringing a championship back to New York. It’s been too long. We just weren’t able to agree on something.”
When the Red Sox signed infielder Trevor Story last month (six years, $140 million), they required Story to get the Covid vaccine. Only vaccinated players will be allowed into Canada for games against the Toronto Blue Jays, and Judge has been coy about his status. Cashman would not say what role, if any, that played in negotiations, but Judge said flatly that it was not an issue in the talks.
So here we have a player who says he wanted to stay beyond this season, and a team that says it would have paid him $30.5 million per year, through age 37, to do so. And the vaccination issue, according to Judge, was not a part of the talks.
So why did opening day not begin with a long-term agreement between franchise player and franchise? Judge is not saying, and is not the kind of guy who seems eager to be fully understood. Cashman said the Yankees would always listen if Judge wants to restart the talks, but don’t bet on that happening.
The big bet is by Judge, on himself, a strategy with mixed results for other players. Juan Gonzalez rejected a $140 million offer from the Tigers after they traded for him in 1999 — and made about $46 million for the rest of his career. Then again, Max Scherzer turned down a $144 million offer, also from the Tigers, in 2014 — and scored a $210 million deal with Washington in free agency.
Judge said he was fine with his gamble. As for passing on the Yankees’ offer, he said he was honored just to have the conversation.
“I appreciate the Yankees wanting to do that, but I don’t mind going to free agency,” he said, adding that he could now concentrate fully on his job. “I’m not really going to look at all the negatives. Some people don’t leave their house if you think about all the things that could happen to them. I just focus on what I need to do on the field and everything else will take care of itself.”
It might not take care of itself with the Yankees. But only Judge has to know why.