Opening day arrived in the Bronx on Friday, sunshine bathing the shimmering green lawn at Yankee Stadium. The Boston Red Sox might as well have floated over from their hotel.
“It’s a special place,” their manager, Alex Cora, said before batting practice. “If you need your alarm clock to go off in the morning today — sorry.”
For the Yankees and Aaron Judge, the alarm played the sound of a sad trombone. They finished the day happily, with a 6-5 victory on a leadoff single by their new third baseman, Josh Donaldson, in the 11th inning. Judge was on deck to slap hands with Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the ghost runner who hustled home from second base.
Today was Judge’s deadline to sign a contract extension before the off-season, when he will be eligible for free agency. There were no last-minute negotiations; two hours before first pitch, General Manager Brian Cashman said talks were over, at least for now.
The Yankees, Cashman said, had offered Judge, their cornerstone outfielder, a seven-year, $213.5 million contract that would start in 2023. Judge, who turns 30 this month, said no.
“Our intent is to have Aaron Judge stay as a New York Yankee as we move forward, and I know that’s his intent as well, which is a good thing,” Cashman said. “We’re going to obviously be entering those efforts in a new arena, which would be at the end of the season, when free agency starts. Maybe that will determine what his real market value would be, because we certainly couldn’t agree at this stage.”
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The Yankees were relatively quiet in the off-season, mostly ignoring a robust free agent market. The idea was that Judge would be their extravagance, and had he signed the contract, it would have been the second-largest deal given out since the World Series, after Corey Seager’s 10-year, $325 million contract with Texas.
The Yankees did add two everyday players, Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa, in a trade with Minnesota for two others, Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela. They retained first baseman Anthony Rizzo and traded for reliever Miguel Castro, but otherwise stood pat.
“In terms of turning the clock back, there’s nothing for me to address there,” Cashman said. “I feel like we’ve improved in a lot of areas we needed to address, as well as, we still have the ability, if anybody changes their mind, to retain the player we’d like to retain.”
There is no rule forbidding the Yankees from continuing to negotiate with Judge. The deadline was his strategy, and Judge hedged on it late in spring training. The Yankees, Cashman said, would be willing to keep talking.
“I’m going to respect his position,” Cashman said. “But I’m never going to rule out, if the opportunity exists, to revisit things over the course of time. I mean, it’s too good a player, from my end, to be stubborn and say, ‘No, no, we’re not going to talk anymore.’ If there’s something for either party to adjust on or listen to, I’m open-minded to that at all times.”
Cashman said he could not know if the Yankees would make the same offer after the season; it might be higher or lower, depending on what happens by then. The risk now shifts to Judge.
Some players bet on themselves and come out ahead; Max Scherzer once rejected a $144 million contract extension from Detroit and then got $210 million from Washington in free agency. Then again, others lose the bet, like Juan Gonzalez, who also rejected an offer from the Tigers, for $140 million, and wound up making about $46 million the rest of his career.
The Yankees and Judge have still not settled on a salary for 2022; they are scheduled for an arbitration hearing to determine whether Judge will get $21 million, as he requested, or the Yankees’ offer of $17 million.
“Just getting into extension talks was a blessing,” Judge said. “I never thought in my life I’d have that opportunity. It’s not something that’s guaranteed. Just the thought of even going down this route with the Yankees is something special. I know I was guaranteed this last year; it was an arbitration year, and that’s what I’m going to focus on. I’ve got one year to play and contract extension stuff is nice, but I’ve got bigger things to focus on.”
It is hard to predict how Judge will age, because there has never been a player his size to use as a basis for comparison. Judge is the only position player in the history of the sport, according to Baseball Reference, to be at least 6 feet 7 inches and 275 pounds.
Adam Dunn was close, an inch shorter than Judge and a little heavier. A reliable 40-homer hitter through age 30, Dunn did not age well and was finished before his 35th birthday. The better comparison is Judge’s teammate, Giancarlo Stanton, who is listed at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds and is signed through age 37.
The Yankees accepted that contract (with some salary relief) in a trade with Miami after the 2017 season. It was natural for them to commit to Judge for the same term as Stanton, who is about two and a half years older. But was it smart?
Stanton, who rifled a homer into the first row of right field seats on Friday, has had two healthy seasons in New York, and two cut short by injuries. Judge has followed a similar pattern: he was durable as a rookie and again last season, but missed 37 percent of the Yankees’ games in the three years in between.
This season, Judge may be forced to miss the Yankees’ games in Toronto. Only players vaccinated against the coronavirus will be allowed into Canada, and Judge has been coy about his vaccination status. Cashman would not say what role, if any, that has played in negotiations.
When the Red Sox signed infielder Trevor Story last month (six years, $140 million), they made it a prerequisite that Story get the vaccine. That is a sensible request for a player in a team sport — especially for a star with clout in the clubhouse, like Judge with the Yankees.
“He’s the ultimate teammate,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s probably the biggest leader in that room and he’s an amazing player that wants to go out and be great and wants nothing more than to be part of a championship club. There’s no doubt in my mind that whatever the outcome is, nothing will change the way Aaron goes about things.”
Boone was speaking before the game, shortly after Judge had met reporters by his locker. He now has the space at the far end of the clubhouse, between an empty stall and the entrance to the off-limits areas. It is a symbol of Judge’s status, bestowed by the clubhouse manager, Rob Cucuzza. Previous occupants have included Jorge Posada, Carlos Beltran and Brett Gardner.
“I talked to Gardy a little bit about it — he said, ‘Take care of it,’” Judge said. “It’s an incredible honor. I actually talked to Robby about it, he asked if I wanted to be down here. I said, ‘I just appreciate that you think I deserve to be down here, that means a lot.’ Hopefully I’ll hold this locker down well.”
It might be a short-term rental.