The notion of value shadowed Aaron Judge all season. In April, the Yankees placed a value on his long-term future with the team: $213.5 million over seven years. In October, Judge placed a value on the American League home run record: He was going for it, every day, even after the Yankees clinched the A.L. East and a first-round bye in the postseason.
Judge declined the contract offer, broke the record, and on Thursday the baseball writers made a formal decision on his value. Judge was the landslide winner of the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award, with 28 of the 30 first-place votes. Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way star, got the other two, and the Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez finished third.
(In the National League, Paul Goldschmidt of the St. Louis Cardinals beat out his fellow finalists, Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado, for M.V.P.)
“Enjoy this moment,” the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton told Judge, after making the announcement on MLB Network. “It’s going to be forever.”
Judge, indeed, will forever be known as an M.V.P. winner, a distinction he shares with 13 other Yankees, including hallowed names like Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, all one-team legends. Will Judge, too, be a forever Yankee?
That is the biggest question of the off-season — which stands to reason, because Judge was the biggest story of the regular season. He swatted 62 home runs, one better than Roger Maris for the Yankees in 1961. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds all topped Maris’s mark between 1998 and 2001, but all have been strongly linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
Conveniently for Judge, of course, those players zoomed past Maris for National League teams, leaving 61 homers as the standard for A.L. sluggers. Judge surpassed it on Oct. 4 in Arlington, Texas, when he pulled a slider from the Rangers’ Jesús Tinoco over the left field fence at Globe Life Field.
Judge finished the regular season as the league leader in several other categories — R.B.I. (131), runs scored (133), on-base percentage (.425), slugging percentage (.686) and total bases (391). His .311 average trailed only Minnesota infielder Luis Arraez’s .316.
There was also this figure, according to Baseball Reference: a major league-high 10.6 wins above replacement, a metric that considers defense — which helped Judge, who thrived in center field, win the award. WAR is only a guideline, but it raises a relevant concern for the Yankees: If Judge is baseball’s most irreplaceable player, how would they possibly replace him?
Judge has spoken with Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, who has said publicly that he wants Judge to return. The timing could be important — for any team, as Judge rightly mentioned on his conference call with reporters Thursday night.
“This process, I don’t know how fast it’s going to go or how slow it’s going to go,” Judge said. “But definitely there’s teams that we’ve talked to, and for me if we’re going to build a winning team, if I can get my stuff out of the way so they can kind of move on and add some more pieces to build something, that’s always an advantage for wherever I go. So I think once you kind of get into this, I think it might move fast. But you never really know.”
From that statement, it would seem that Judge wants to resolve this quickly. But the offers have to be lucrative, of course, and comparisons start at the top, with Angels outfielder Mike Trout, the majors’ highest-paid position player. Judge is eight months younger than Trout, who has never been a free agent and thus never had Judge’s leverage.
Trout will make $35.45 million per year through 2030, which works out to nine years and $319.05 million. Naturally, if a team signs Judge for that much money (or more), it would help to do it early, to have a better idea of the overall budget. If a team commits to the idea of signing Judge, they’d better do it — because there is nobody like him.
Teams sometimes pivot to the next-best option on the market, and quickly regret it. Remember when the Yankees let second baseman Robinson Canó leave, then signed outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury? Seattle overpaid for Canó, but the Yankees paid less for Ellsbury — and got a much worse deal.
The Yankees wisely brought back first baseman Anthony Rizzo this week for two years and $40 million, with an option for 2025. But besides Judge, the best free-agent position players are shortstops: Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson and Trea Turner.
The Yankees, for all of their playoff follies at shortstop, seem to have a long-term answer there in Anthony Volpe, their top prospect. If they fail to sign Judge, then reach for a shortstop, then trade Volpe or other prospects … well, maybe that could work. But they’d rather just bring back Judge, who said he has had “positive talks” so far with Steinbrenner.
Here’s what Judge said when asked what matters most to him — besides money — in free agency: “I want to win. I’ve come pretty close to the Yankees. We’ve been one game away from a World Series to getting kicked out in the wild card, to A.L.C.S., A.L.D.S, just kind of all around the board.
“So my ultimate, most important thing is I want to be in a winning culture and a team that’s committed to winning — not only for the remainder of my playing career, but I want a legacy to kind of live on with any organization. So, first and foremost, it’s just about being in a winning culture and winning future.”
Judge has played six full seasons with the Yankees. He’s been to the playoffs every time. Steinbrenner doesn’t bluster like his father, but he understands what his father always did: that the Yankees’ business model is built on star power. The union of this slugger and this franchise makes too much sense to sever.
Did Judge earn himself an extra $100 million or so with his M.V.P. season? He did. Somebody will pay it. It needs to be the Yankees, and it needs to happen soon.