The notion of value shadowed Aaron Judge all season. In April, the Yankees placed a price on his long-term future with the team: $213.5 million over seven years. In October, Judge placed a price on the American League home run record: He was going for it, each day, even after the Yankees clinched the A.L. East and a first-round bye within the postseason.
Judge declined the contract offer, broke the record, and on Thursday the baseball writers made a proper decision on his value. Judge was the landslide winner of the A.L. Most Worthwhile Player Award, with 28 of the 30 first-place votes. Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way star, got the opposite two, and the Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez finished third.
(Within 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 without end.”
Judge, indeed, will without end be referred to 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 without end Yankee?
That’s the most important query of the off-season — which stands to reason, because Judge was the most important story of the regular season. He swatted 62 home runs, one higher 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, in fact, those players zoomed past Maris for National League teams, leaving 61 homers as the usual 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 because 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, in accordance with Baseball Reference: a serious league-high 10.6 wins above alternative, a metric that considers defense — which helped Judge, who thrived in center field, win the award. WAR is simply a suggestion, but it surely 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 possibly be necessary — for any team, as Judge rightly mentioned on his conference call with reporters Thursday night.
“This process, I don’t understand 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 construct a winning team, if I can get my stuff out of the best way so that they can sort of move on and add some more pieces to construct something, that’s all the time a bonus for wherever I’m going. So I feel when you sort of get into this, I feel it’d move fast. But you never really know.”
From that statement, it could seem that Judge desires to resolve this quickly. However the offers need to be lucrative, in fact, and comparisons start at the highest, 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 12 months 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 could help to do it early, to have a greater idea of the general budget. If a team commits to the concept of signing Judge, they’d higher do it — because there’s no person like him.
Teams sometimes pivot to the next-best option in the marketplace, and quickly regret it. Remember when the Yankees let second baseman Robinson Canó leave, then signed outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury? Seattle overpaid for Canó, however the Yankees paid less for Ellsbury — and got a much worse deal.
The Yankees properly brought back first baseman Anthony Rizzo this week for 2 years and $40 million, with an option for 2025. But besides Judge, the most effective 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, appear to have a long-term answer there in Anthony Volpe, their top prospect. In the event that they fail to sign Judge, then reach for a shortstop, then trade Volpe or other prospects … well, possibly that would work. But they’d slightly just bring back Judge, who said he has had “positive talks” to date with Steinbrenner.
Here’s what Judge said when asked what matters most to him — besides money — in free agency: “I need to win. I’ve come pretty near the Yankees. We’ve been one game away from a World Series to getting kicked out within the wild card, to A.L.C.S., A.L.D.S, just sort of throughout the board.
“So my ultimate, most vital thing is I need to be in a winning culture and a team that’s committed to winning — not just for the rest of my playing profession, but I need a legacy to sort of survive with any organization. So, at the start, it’s nearly being in a winning culture and winning future.”
Judge has played six full seasons with the Yankees. He’s been to the playoffs each time. Steinbrenner doesn’t bluster like his father, but he understands what his father all the time did: that the Yankees’ business model is built on star power. The union of this slugger and this franchise makes an excessive amount of sense to sever.
Did Judge earn himself an additional $100 million or so together with his M.V.P. season? He did. Anyone can pay it. It must be the Yankees, and it must occur soon.