Over the past six seasons, no player has been more synonymous with the Yankees, certainly one of the most important brands in all sports, than outfielder Aaron Judge.
In 2017, he won the American League Rookie of the 12 months Award and was the runner-up for the Most Beneficial Player of the 12 months Award. He quickly became the face of the franchise and certainly one of the most important stars in Major League Baseball. He has been an All-Star 4 times, including this season, when he set an A.L. record with 62 home runs and carried the Yankees through their many ups and downs.
So it was only fitting that Judge got here as much as bat within the ninth inning on Sunday in Game 4 of the best-of-seven A.L. Championship Series with the Yankees trailing the Houston Astros, 6-5, and representing his team’s last hope. But even Judge couldn’t save the day.
Capping a disappointing postseason by which he hit .139, Judge swung at an outdoor pitch and produced a weak ground ball that Astros closer Ryan Pressly flipped to first baseman Yuli Gurriel for the ultimate out. Because the Astros began celebrating their fourth trip to the World Series in six years, Judge was the Yankee Stadium home dugout for what might need been his final time.
“Anybody that celebrates on that field, it’s not fun to look at,” he said late Sunday night while standing in a solemn Yankees clubhouse.
Now, the baseball world will watch as Judge’s future is set. Five days after the World Series ends, Judge, 30, will probably be allowed to discuss with any of M.L.B.’s 30 teams as a free agent for the primary time in his profession. The long run of the Yankees — a franchise that likes to have a good time its winning tradition but hasn’t been to or won a World Series since 2009 — is intertwined with Judge’s.
“He’s a giant a part of this organization,” Yankees pitcher Nestor Cortes said. “That is the organization that drafted him, and he’s been here for a very long time. He carries quite a lot of weight around here. He’s a superstar.”
“The cash he’s delivered to this organization, to this franchise, to the sport of baseball, I’m sure just the cash alone in September of him chasing 62 was enough to simply pay,” Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “There’s loads of money on this game to be spread around. For him, whatever he gets goes to be astronomical, and he deserves it.”
“Hopefully we’ll see him in pinstripes for a very long time,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “I don’t even wish to think in regards to the alternative at once. But he means loads to quite a lot of us in that room.”
The Yankees face many questions this off-season, starting at the highest. Brian Cashman, the longest tenured general manager in M.L.B., has been in his position with the Yankees since 1998. He has a five-year deal that expires this season, and barring an unexpected change of approach by the Yankees’ managing general partner, Hal Steinbrenner, Cashman is anticipated to return. And despite one other early playoff exit, the Yankees signed Boone to a three-year extension before the 2022 season.
But, overall, how much change is required to ensure that the Yankees to finally get past the Astros, who’ve made six straight trips to the A.L.C.S.?
The Yankees have reached the playoffs six straight years but have been stopped within the A.L.C.S. by the Astros thrice in that span, including during Houston’s since-tainted 2017 World Series-winning season.
The gap between the 2 franchises — despite a cheating scandal that rocked the Astros and value their G.M. and manager their jobs and the free-agent departure of stars reminiscent of Carlos Correa, George Springer and Gerrit Cole over time — was stark during this A.L.C.S. Including their postseason sweep of the Yankees, the Astros went 9-2 against their rival this yr and outscored them, 45-31. After Sunday’s victory, Astros players partied with booze and brooms.
“Realistically, with the remainder of the league, we’re still probably right up there toward the highest, but they beat us in every facet,” said Cole, who signed with the Yankees before the 2020 season.
Added Yankees pitcher Jameson Taillon: “They showed up when it mattered and proved how good of a team they were. The starting pitching throughout the bullpen, quality arms. They do a bit little bit of every thing well in that lineup. They’ve got the facility, they’ve got the dearth of chase, they don’t strike out a ton. A very deep, complete team.”
The Yankees looked like one, too, in the primary half of the season, once they were on a record-setting pace. But a lot went unsuitable within the second, from health to performance. Still, they finished the regular season with 99 wins, an A.L. East title and the A.L.’s No. 2 seed within the playoffs.
Their bullpen, which was depleted by injuries, faces quite a lot of turnover this winter, with longtime relievers reminiscent of Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Chad Green eligible without spending a dime agency. So are Taillon, a reliable starter, and Rizzo, a standout first baseman who said he had not yet decided if he would opt out of the ultimate season of his two-year, $32 million cope with the Yankees.
But, after all, the Yankees’ biggest free agent — and the most important in your entire sport — is Judge, and never simply because of his 6-foot-7 frame.
In spring training, Judge turned down a contract extension that might have guaranteed him $213.5 million over seven years. He also declined to barter throughout the season. That bet has paid off: After several injuries in previous seasons, Judge played in 157 of the Yankees’ 162 regular-season games, rewrote the record books, played strong defense and was a team leader. All of the while, he significantly helped boost the viewership of the YES Network, which is partly owned by the Yankees.
So how much money — and over what number of years — are the Yankees willing to commit to re-sign Judge? The Yankees, who produce other holes to fill on the roster, had a $259 million payroll, the third-largest in M.L.B. this season, and have $205 million already committed next yr, based on Cot’s Baseball. Could the San Francisco Giants, who’ve only $141 million on their ledger in 2023 and were the team Judge grew up watching in his native Northern California, come calling?
Before the playoffs began, Cashman called Judge’s gamble “the all-time best bet” and complimented how Judge has handled himself.
“There’s a pot of gold there,” Cashman said of Judge’s prize this winter. “It’s yet to be determined what the gold — how much it weighs — however it’s a pot of gold, little doubt about it. So, good for him. It was already a giant pot, and clearly it’ll be greater.”
After Sunday’s game, Judge wasn’t prepared to speak much about what was next. He said he had loads of time later to debate it together with his family and agent. He insisted he didn’t spend any time fascinated about the way it might have been his final Yankees game since it ended so quickly and he was so focused on attempting to win.
As he has after past playoff exits, Judge said that it was a failure any time the Yankees weren’t the last team standing. He said that his much-followed chase of 62 home runs didn’t take a toll on him going into the postseason, when he hit two home runs within the division series but went 1 for 16 within the A.L.C.S.
Boone said even great players like Judge struggled at times. Although the Yankees’ strikeout-prone offense has sputtered in past Octobers, Boone said the lineup was undermined this time by injuries to high-contact hitters reminiscent of DJ LeMahieu (foot) and Andrew Benintendi (hand). Judge said he believed the Yankees had sufficient talent to win a title.
“If I had the reply for what we were lacking, we might have addressed it by now,” he said. “As a player, all I can do is do my best each day with the fellows I’m fighting with. That’s what the front office and management and everybody else, they maintain stuff behind the scenes.”
Judge said he wasn’t sure what to anticipate in free agency, but he would still love to stick with the Yankees.
“I’ve been clear about that since I first wore the pinstripes,” he said. “But we couldn’t get something done before spring training, and we’ll see what happens.”
Cortes and Rizzo each said Judge, if he returned, needs to be named the Yankees captain, which the team hasn’t bestowed on a player since Derek Jeter, who retired in 2014. LeMahieu, who’s weighing off-season surgery on his injured foot, said “we’d all be dissatisfied” and “shocked” if Judge weren’t back but that he understood the business side of the game. Cole said his advice to Judge was to take his time with the method. Rizzo said Judge should enjoy being wooed by teams.
“He bet on himself on the most important stage in the most important market and did it with ease and needs to be rewarded as the best paid player in the sport,” Rizzo said. The very best paid position player in total contract value — $426.5 million — and average annual salary — $35.5 million — is Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, a three-time A.L. M.V.P.
Rizzo continued, “He’s the brand new gold standard for my part, and it’s all about market timing for probably the most part and what higher time than 62 home runs, hitting over .300 and the way he’s not a Gold Glove finalist is beyond me.”
Regardless of what, Judge said he was pleased with his time as a Yankee and called it “an incredible honor” to don the pinstripes and play right field at Yankee Stadium.
“I check myself pregame and say a bit prayer, and I go searching the stadium and sort of pinch myself,” he said. “There’s only a few individuals that get a probability to expire on the sphere and do this and play in front of the fans who support us throughout my whole six years here. It was a special time. I just kick myself for not bringing home that championship.”