The big fella’s a Yankee for life (and not a Met). Brian Cashman promised there would be a “pot of gold” waiting for Aaron Judge, the franchise’s best and most important homegrown star since Derek Jeter. Now we know exactly how much it weighs: $360 million, to be paid out through the 2031 season.
Judge will likely play out the final career of this colossal contract — which is the largest ever, and the highest average annual payout for a position player, at $40 million a year — as a 39-year-old designated hitter.
It’s impossible to predict how effective his hitting will be by then, or in the three years before that, but fans of franchises that nearly pried Judge from the Evil Empire (the San Francisco Giants and the San Diego Padres) are already active on Twitter, claiming the Yankees will regret this deal.
And, hey, perhaps — if the outfielder’s 6’7″ frame breaks down and he averages under 120 games a year, or he loses the plate discipline that earned him a .311 BA and .425 OBP this year, it could be a long decade-ish for Hal Steinbrenner’s checkbook. Judge will essentially be earning $110,000 a day.
But ultimately, the $7 billion Yankees could afford this contract. What they couldn’t afford was seeing the face of baseball turn his back on what’s supposed to be the epicenter of baseball…and especially at a time that that core narrative is shakier than ever.
After all, the Yankees are in the midst of a 13-year title drought that includes five ALCS losses. They haven’t had a losing season since the very year Judge was born, but by their infamous standards, they haven’t had a winning one, either. The fans came into the offseason pissed and the franchise insecure. Not even a soaring John Sterling Yankeeography monologue could’ve set things right.
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Aaron Judge might be able to, however. There will be no depressing BTS footage of Yankee Stadium workers demolishing the “Judge’s Chambers” in right field this January. Their superstar will continue to put supporters in those seats, and in the 54,000 others throughout next spring and summer. He’ll continue to sell jerseys, launch souvenirs into the bleachers and chase titles in October.
These are concrete tangibles for the Yankees that on-field analysts and off-field accountants are trusting will keep the franchise rich and competitive for years to come.
But there are intangibles, too. Judge is the perfect soldier to carry on New York’s self-referential mythos. Remember that photo of Jeter tapping the sign in the tunnels of the old Yankee Stadium? The one with the Joe DiMaggio quote: “I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee.” That’s what the Yankees have in Judge. He’s this generation’s guy and the latest link to pinstripes past.
That paragraph will make fans of other teams roll their eyes (if not vomit) but The Bronx is nothing if not consistent. It always needs its name, and it’s hard to imagine this decade’s Yankees without Judge. Who takes the mantle? The mercurial Gerrit Cole? An aging import in Giancarlo Stanton? Or would some years have to pass — and with them, some bizarre starting lineups — until a prospect like Anthony Volpe took up the mantle?
The Yankees eliminated those worries this morning. Judge has his contract, and according to reporting from The Athletic, he’ll have the clubhouse, too — Steinbrenner is expected to announce the 30-year-old as the 16th captain of the team, the first since Jeter.
It’s a tremendous honor, if not completely unexpected. In an interview with The Players’ Tribune (Jeter’s publication, ironically) this fall, Yankee pitcher Nestor Cortes said of Judge: “When we’re on the road, and we finish up that last game of a series and we’re packing up to leave? A lot of the players, myself included, we won’t leave the clubhouse until Aaron leaves. No one says anything. We don’t make a big deal of it. But it’s just like…that’s our guy. It’s a respect thing.”
Hitting 62 home runs in front of your colleagues is guaranteed to warrant respect. But so will engaging in tiny, day-to-day things over the grind of a season, like putting on songs for players who’d like to hear something that reminds them of home before games, or blocking dugout cameras that are trying to record teammates who’ve struck out four times or blown a save.
Cortes and Anthony Rizzo, one of the most respected ballplayers in the game in his own right (who the Yankees locked up with a two-year deal earlier in the offseason), have both called for Judge’s captaincy. They won’t have to clamor anymore. Cashman and Steinbrenner just endorsed it in the most public and resounding manner possible, with a career-long commitment that’s nearly $150 million beyond the extension proposal they originally offered last March.
It’s been a rocky courtship — there were at least five minutes last night, after an erratic, viral Jon Heyman tweet, that Judge seemed destined to return home to California — but #99 will be playing in front of the Bleacher Creatures next season and for the eight years after that.
The 21st-century Yankees are so intertwined with the Jeter story (his plays, his rings, his leadership) that the fanbase still refers to the 48-year-old simply as “The Captain.” Well, there’s a new one in town. Let’s see if he can bring it back to the top of the heap.