We don’t know what New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge is thinking about his impending free agency and where he wants to play. We suspect he wants to get paid well and that he wants to go to a contender with a realistic chance at making the World Series; a tertiary thought is that he wants to go home to California and play closer to home, since he grew up near Stockton, CA.
The closest MLB team is, of course, the Oakland Athletics, but they’re not going to be signing anyone to that kind of deal until they move to Las Vegas and/or get a new stadium. That leaves the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Angels, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and perhaps even the San Diego Padres in the mix—to go along with the Yankees, the New York Mets, and any other teams willing to spend $400M.
That is our guesstimate on what it might cost to land Judge, since he made $19M last year with the Bronx Bombers, and in entering his age-31 season, he’s going to be asking for a lifetime of financial security with this deal. Ten years makes sense, and $40M/year does, as well, since he hit an all-time “clean” record 62 home runs last year—in addition to posting 10.6 WAR, a career high.
Two things we say to buyers in being aware: First, Judge’s defense has declined from earlier seasons, as he posted a 0.0 dWAR this season with half his games in spacious Yankee Stadium. That is way down from the career-best 1.8 dWAR he posted in 2019 at age 27. Any team that signs him has to consider his glove a little bit, since they cannot expect him to be hitting 62 HRs every season from here on out.
As he gets older, too, the glove will get worse—or have to be moved to a less-damaging position. Yes, the bat can overcompensate, but it is still something to consider for an everyday outfielder. Think about the unique dimensions of AT&T Park in San Francisco, for example: The Giants’ three most-regular 2022 starters there posted a combined -2.3 dWAR, and none of them were youthful (average age was 29).
The second issue is Judge’s age: He will be 31 next season, so a 10-year deal theoretically takes him to his age-40 season. The most common player-peak seasons end at age 31, and then the inevitable decline for the honest player(s) begins. A new team could reasonably expect Judge to hit at least 40 HRs in 2023 when taking into account adjustments, pressure, and razing from opposing fans everywhere.
After that, though, the production should decline naturally. Judge put up 8.0 WAR in his rookie season (2017), and then he followed that up with an average of 5.8 WAR in the three full seasons between then and now (2018, 2019, 2021). That’s good production for a guy in his prime seasons, but it’s not $40M/year production. Judge probably won’t replicate 2022, so a team shouldn’t pay for those numbers.
A team needs to pay for the numbers it expects to get, and being generous, let’s say Judge posts 8.0 WAR again in 2023 at the tail end of his prime. As a “late bloomer” (he was a rookie at age 25), the odds don’t bode well for him sustaining his peak past age 31, in truth. But we give him 8.0 WAR in 2023, and then there are still 9 years on a potential contract at $40M/year.
We don’t think an 8.0 WAR season warrants a $40M annual salary, but we don’t own an MLB team, either. Either way, we can expect Judge’s production to drop significantly as soon as 2024 at age 32. If he dips down to that 5.8 WAR average from ages 32-35, that would be a “win” for any team that signs him, in truth—and a financial disaster at $40M/year.
After age 35, Judge will be lucky to post 5.0 WAR for the final five seasons of a 10-year deal. We see a reasonable average for a guy with an already mediocre glove to be closer to 2.5 WAR each year for the last half of that projected deal. So, overall, reasonably, a team might get around 44 WAR total out of Judge over the next 10 seasons—unless he takes the Bonds/Verlander route, of course.
If he gets $400M, that’s roughly 4.4 WAR per year on average for $40M—a great gig if you can get it. Sure, he will sell some jerseys right away and put some butts in the seats, yet overall, it seems like a risky proposition to sign Judge to anything like this contract. In the end, only a few teams can take this kind of risk and absorb the financial beating if the player doesn’t perform: the Dodgers and the Yankees.
We’d expect the Yankees to match/surpass any offer on the table for Judge, but as we noted, he may want to go to the West Coast. Playing for a contender also would seem to rule out the Giants, who have just one postseason appearance in the last 6 seasons. Remember, when S.F. signed Barry Bonds prior to the 1993 season, the Giants still didn’t make the playoffs until 1997. Judge can’t wait that long, really.
His best shot at money and a World Series ring resides still with the Yankees or the Dodgers. He will attract good teammates, too, who want to get a ring and unseat the cheating Houston Astros. It will be interesting to see where he decides to play in 2023 and beyond. Only time will tell, at that point, how his performance rates against his salary over the length of the contract he ends up signing.