Brian Cashman said this many years ago, and it never changes: Desperation drives free agency. A team wants — needs — a player so badly that it will spend whatever it takes to get him, and the salaries climb higher and higher.
Aaron Judge’s new $360 million contract agreement with the Yankees, contingent on a physical examination, will pay him an average of $40 million per season for the next nine years. It’s the richest deal in Yankees history and the highest salary ever for a position player.
Ticket prices are based on what the market will bear, not what owners need to cover their payroll. Unless you worry about how Hal Steinbrenner disburses his fortune, you should rejoice if you love the Yankees.
Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, revealed last opening day that Judge had rejected the team’s contract offer of $30.5 million per year for seven years. Judge then swatted 62 home runs, more than Babe Ruth in 1927, more than Roger Maris in 1961, more than every other hitter in the history of the American League.
It was the most emphatic “Well, watch this!” response since Ruth pointed to the stands in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field. Only this wasn’t a gang of loudmouth Chicago Cubs heckling a slugger who was down in the count. This was a front office trying to be pragmatic with a slugger who was down to his last year in pinstripes.
Neither called his shot, not exactly. But it takes a healthy ego and a flair for showmanship to absorb a perceived insult, tell the world you’re going to do something about it, and then deliver. That’s what we saw from Judge in 2022.
The gaudy statistics, which included major-league-best figures in on-base percentage (.425), slugging percentage (.686), runs (133), runs batted in (131) and total bases (391), added up to a $360 million contract. By betting on himself, Judge earned a $146.5 million increase — more than the payroll of 14 teams last season — from the Yankees’ April offer.
He also led the Yankees to the A.L. East title, keeping the team atop the standings when injuries and struggles infected the rest of the roster. It was only the second division crown for the Yankees in the 10 seasons since Derek Jeter’s last playoff game, in 2012. Judge should soon become the team’s first captain since Jeter; he has been the undisputed clubhouse leader for years, and now has essentially committed to spending his career in the Bronx.
Judge grew up in Linden, Calif., rooting for Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants. They wanted him badly. So did the San Diego Padres, who have a magnetic pull to all superstars these days. But the Yankees needed Judge the most, and translated that need to dollars.
This was always the most logical outcome. Judge did everything possible to earn the right to be the highest-paid position player in the sport, and to eclipse Gerrit Cole’s nine-year, $324 million deal, which had been the richest in Yankees history. It seemed all along, then, that the minimum contract would be nine years and $333 million — that is, $37 million per year.
Factor in the competition on the open market, the round-number appeal of $40 million per year, and there you have it: $360 million for nine years, through 2031, when Judge turns 39.
It’s actually reasonable to think that Judge could still be productive at that age. Twenty-one different players have hit at least 25 homers in a season at age 39 or older, including five in the last decade: Raul Ibañez, David Ortiz (twice), Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltrán and Nelson Cruz.
For the Yankees, though, this contract is not about Judge’s productivity in the early 2030s. It’s about winning a championship this decade. They missed the World Series in the 2010s for the first calendar decade since the 1910s. That’s desperation.
As downturns go, of course, it hasn’t been that bad. Since the last out of the 2009 World Series, when they won their last championship, the Yankees have been the A.L.’s best team by far. They have 1,145 victories across those 13 pennant-less seasons, 59 more wins than the Tampa Bay Rays, who are second in the A.L. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers have more regular-season wins in that span.
Judge has helped the Yankees reach the postseason in all six of his full seasons. In 44 playoff games, he has hit .211 with 13 home runs and 66 strikeouts. Basically, he strikes out a little more and hits fewer home runs than he does in the regular season. He has to be better in those moments, and he craves more chances.
“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,” Judge said last month, on the night he won the A.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award.
“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.”
The Yankees have the culture and the commitment. Judge has the contract confirming his status in the game’s hierarchy. The hard part continues: The pursuit of an elusive championship, and the elevated legacy that comes with it.