Thursday is the first day free agents can sign with teams, which means the winter of Aaron Judge is upon us.
Several big-market teams plan to pursue Judge, but none of us know what he’s thinking. Judge and his agents have kept everything close to the vest, outside of Judge’s public comments that he’d like to remain a Yankee. I think that’s likely if the Yankees are willing to make him the biggest offer, but that’s not a slam dunk because when a player of his caliber hits free agency, records are usually broken.
Before the season, Judge wisely turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million extension from the Yankees. Now, I’m predicting he receives an eight-year contract worth approximately $330 million. (See my contract predictions for all the top free agents here.)
Judge, 30, just completed arguably the best single-season offensive performance in baseball history. He slashed .311/.425/.686 with an American League record 62 home runs, 133 runs scored and 131 RBIs. He was worth 10.6 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, and tallied a 211 OPS+. He had six outfield assists and no errors. He led the league in average exit velocity, barrel percentage and hard-hit rate. Just staggering.
So, what uniform will this prodigious talent be wearing next season? A team could always surprise, but there are only five that I could see making a legitimate run at signing Judge in free agency. Here’s my ranking of the teams most likely to land him.
Owner: Hal Steinbrenner
GM: Brian Cashman
The Yankees have made Judge their top offseason priority and they intend to make a strong effort to re-sign him. Judge is the face of the franchise and represents the Yankees organization and the city of New York as well as any player since The Captain, Derek Jeter, retired. The Yankees need Judge more than any other free agent they’ve had during Cashman’s 24-year tenure as general manager.
No one knows how far Steinbrenner will go to keep Judge, or if he’ll even match the best offer the slugger receives in free agency. But the Yankees have the most to lose if they don’t sign Judge. You can’t replace him. There just isn’t an offensive player of that magnitude available via free agency or trade, and any type of pivot will result in a much-lesser talent.
Owner: Mark Walters
President: Andrew Friedman GM: Brandon Gomes
The Dodgers potentially have a lot of money coming off the books, including the salaries of free agent Trea Turner; Cody Bellinger, who is arbitration-eligible and made $17 million this year, but they could trade or non-tender him; Justin Turner, who has a club option at $16 million with a $2 million buyout; and Craig Kimbrel, who made $16 million this year. That’s more than enough to land Judge. Imagine the Dodgers with Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Judge, three of the most talented players in the game, at the top of the lineup.
The Dodgers could have Betts play center field if they move on from Bellinger and land Judge. Or Betts could play second base, if they move Gavin Lux to shortstop and don’t re-sign Trea Turner.
Historically, the Dodgers have preferred shorter-term contracts, and perhaps they could offer Judge a four-year deal in the $200 million range, a strategy they tried with Bryce Harper when he reached free agency and later signed with the Phillies. However, Judge is the type of player they would be willing to go to eight years for, like they were with Betts, who signed a 12-year, $365 million extension in 2020. They are a real threat to offer a deal that could persuade Judge to leave the Yankees.
Owner: Steve Cohen
GM: Billy Eppler
If Cohen really wants Judge, he has the resources to blow the competition out of the water. He could offer a contract of about $400 million, a range that I doubt the Yankees would match. Judge would fit perfectly in right field for the Mets, who could move Starling Marte to center field, his preferred position. Judge, Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso would form a devastating trio in the middle of the Mets lineup.
Owner: Charles B. Johnson
President: Farhan Zaidi GM: Pete Putila
Zaidi has made it clear the Giants are planning to be aggressive in free agency and pursue some of the top names. He’d love to find a way to land Judge, like former owner Peter Magowan signed Barry Bonds at the 1992 Winter Meetings.
Judge grew up in Northern California and attended California State University, Fresno. Players often want to go “home” when they reach free agency, and the Giants hope geography will be one of the reasons San Francisco appeals to him. However, they are retooling and don’t have a clear path to the postseason for at least a few years, especially with the Dodgers and Padres in the same division. That might deter Judge.
5. White Sox
Owner: Jerry Reinsdorf
President: Ken Williams GM: Rick Hahn
I will never count out Reinsdorf from making a big splash with any of his teams at any time. The White Sox are expected to let first baseman José Abreu walk in free agency, and plan to move Andrew Vaughn to first base and open the designated hitter spot at least part of the time for Eloy Jiménez. They do have top prospect Oscar Colas, who profiles as their future right fielder, on the way, but he could move to left field to make room for Judge. The White Sox will need to improve their defense and replace Abreu’s offense, and they could use Judge’s leadership by example and work ethic in their clubhouse.
In 1996, 26 years ago, Reinsdorf made perhaps his biggest free-agent splash when he signed Albert Belle to what was then the richest contract in baseball history, a five-year, $55 million deal. Can history repeat itself and the White Sox shock the baseball world by inking Judge? I doubt it, and there are hints they won’t be in on top free agents. But I would never bet against the White Sox owner if he decides he wants to go down this lane.
Here are the reasons I can’t see any of the other 25 teams having a legitimate chance to land Judge.
Atlanta: The Braves have Ronald Acuña Jr. in right field. If they’re going to spend on a star, it’s more likely they try to sign a top-of-the-rotation starter such as Jacob deGrom.
Arizona: The Diamondbacks are happy with their trio of young outfielders, and they’re sticking with their long-term plan.
Baltimore: The Orioles are ready to start to play in free agency this offseason, but not to the extent required for Judge.
Boston: If the Red Sox aren’t going to pay Betts and are struggling to retain Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts, what makes you think they’ll make a run at Judge?
Chicago (NL): The Cubs have the resources to join the field vying for Judge, but without a clear path to the postseason, I doubt he would pick them. Plus, I doubt they’d be the highest bidder if they did make a play for him.
Cincinnati: They don’t have the resources to compete at this level of free agency.
Cleveland: The Guardians’ big contract extension was with the face of their franchise, José Ramírez, so count them out on Judge. They will mostly move forward with their young roster and strong farm system instead.
Colorado: If they can’t afford to keep Nolan Arenado or Trevor Story, they’re not going to pay Judge. (Yes, I know they signed Kris Bryant to a $182 million deal.)
Detroit: The Tigers aren’t competitive enough to be in the discussion.
Houston: The Astros have a World Series championship team without Judge, and their right fielder, Kyle Tucker, won the AL Gold Glove Award, hit 30 home runs and stole 25 bases.
Kansas City: They don’t have the resources to meaningfully engage Judge.
Los Angeles (AL): The Angels are for sale and although it would be fun to see Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Judge on the same team, the Angels need to put all their resources into pitching, which has long been their Achilles’ heel. Besides, would they be hesitant about another nine-figure deal after failing so many times (Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Anthony Rendon)?
Miami: They don’t have the resources.
Milwaukee: They don’t have the resources.
Minnesota: The Twins shocked us last offseason by signing Carlos Correa, but that was a short-term deal. The small-market Twins shouldn’t put a $300 million commitment on the books and take on the risk, as they should have learned from their failed Joe Mauer contract.
Oakland: They don’t have the resources.
Pittsburgh: They don’t have the resources.
Philadelphia: If the Phillies go big in free agency, it will be for a shortstop, which would allow them to move Bryson Stott to second base. They signed corner outfielders Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber in free agency last offseason, and once Bryce Harper’s right (throwing) elbow is healed, he’ll be in right field most of the time.
San Diego: The Padres are going to do their best to retain Juan Soto beyond 2024, when his deal runs out, and with Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. under contract, they don’t have enough money left for a Judge pursuit.
Seattle: I thought long and hard about the Mariners, but I’m told they’re more likely to add a middle infielder than an outfielder, so I left them off the above list. That said, I never count out Jerry Dipoto, their president of baseball operations, on any transaction. I just don’t see a runway for this to work for Judge or the team.
St. Louis: Tea Cardinals are not expected to play in the Judge sweepstakes. They will focus on landing a catcher and more pitching.
Tampa Bay: They don’t have the resources.
Texas: They spent their money on star position-player free agents last offseason with Marcus Semien and Corey Seager. New manager Bruce Bochy and GM Chris Young would rather emphasize pitching and defense when committing future payroll.
Toronto: The Blue Jays need to prioritize left-handed hitting (to better balance their lineup) and relievers who can miss bats, not more right-handed hitting.
Washington: The Nationals are in a rebuild mode and in the process of selling the team, which means Nats fans can “ALL SIT!” when it comes to Judge.
(Top pic: LM Otero/Associated Press)