NEW YORK — Friday’s Opening Day game had ended nearly an hour before, and most of his teammates had cleared out of the Yankee clubhouse, when Aaron Judge sauntered over to his locker and slowly dressed.
Sitting alone, Judge slipped a black T-shirt over his head, put on a pair of black jeans, then his left sock, his right one, and his shoes.
Teammate DJ LeMahieu, who hit a late game-tying home run in the Yankees’ 6-5, 11-inning victory over the Boston Red Sox walked by, and Judge congratulated him. Judge chatted briefly with someone’s young son in the clubhouse, playfully teasing him, asking whether the child could fit into his size-17 shoes.
Judge looked back, and there were still a couple dozen reporters awaiting, when he gestured towards the interview room. He wanted to make sure his message from him was heard, loud and clear, just as Yankees GM Brian Cashman did in his press conference an hour before the game.
Sure, he was disappointed that he and the Yankees couldn’t reach an agreement on a contract extension before his opening-day deadline. He was surprised the Yankees disclosed their exact contract extension offer: seven years, $213.5 million.
But was he scared, nervous or even apprehensive of rejecting an offer that would have made him the second-highest paid outfielder on an annual average salary ($30.5 million a year)?
Not even close.
“I’m not afraid of searching for a job,” said Judge, a three-time All-Star who hit .287 last season with 39 homers and 98 RBI, finishing fourth in the MVP race.
“I know no matter what, I’m playing here with the Yankees for this whole year.
“At the end of this year, I’ll talk to 30 teams.
“The Yankees will be one of those teams.”
Certainly, Judge is gambling big on himself, believing he’ll continue to be one of the biggest stars in the game and in the MVP discussion at the end of the season.
He insists he’s flattered that the Yankees even wanted to talk about a contract extension instead of simply taking him to arbitration one final season and taking their chances in free agency.
Still, truth be told, the Yankees never gave him an offer he remotely considered.
Maybe he’s not Mike Trout, a three-time MVP for the Los Angeles Angels, but Judge believes he’s close. He was seeking a contract similar to the 10-year, $360 million extension Trout signed in 2019. He wanted at least a nine-year deal for about $324 million, one person with direct knowledge of the contract negotiations told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the private nature of the negotiations.
So, as much as the Yankees touted their offer, telling everyone who’d listen how generous it was – the highest average salary in franchise history – the two sides were at least $100 million apart.
It was never closed.
Now, we’ll spend the rest of the Yankee season determining who was correct in their assessment, resurrecting memories of 2014 when the Detroit Tigers offered ace Max Scherzer a six-year, $144 million contract extension, and infuriated him by issuing a statement:
“The Detroit Tigers have made a substantial, long-term contract extension offer to Max Scherzer that would have placed him among the highest paid pitchers in baseball. And the offer was rejected.”
Ten months later, Scherzer got the last laugh.
I have signed a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Washington Nationals.
Judge says he won’t hold any grudge for the Yankees publicly divulging their final offer, knowing that it’s part of the public-relations game. The Yankees are able to let their fans know they made a serious offer, and if Judge does not spend the rest of his career in a Yankee uniform, it’s his fault.
“I won’t get into the talks,” Judge said. “I don’t want to talk numbers. I want to keep it quiet. …They’ve got a job to do. I can’t control it.
“I’m just disappointed because I’ve been vocal about it. You know, it stinks, but nothing changes. I’ve still got a job to do on the field.”
What Judge can control is his future. The two sides still have yet to agree on a salary for 2022, with the Yankees filing at $17 million while he seeks $21 million in arbitration. But once those talks conclude on a one-year deal, Judge says the next time he’ll talk about a long-term contract will be the offseason, no matter that Cashman plans to leave the door open in case the two sides want to re -engage.
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Judge refuses to be a distraction, and if everything goes according to his vision, he’ll have another fabulous season, and lead the Yankees to their first World Series title since 2009.
Let the Yankees squirm then trying to decide how the price-tag may escalate.
The risk, of course, is that Judge gets hurt – he played just 63% of the games from 2018-2020 while dealing with injuries. Or he has the worst year of his career. Or his skills from him start eroding since he’ll be turning 30 on April 26.
“Every day is a gamble,” Judge said. “Stepping outside your house is a gamble. …I’m not really going to look at all the negatives. Some people wouldn’t leave their house if you think about all the things that could happen.
“I’m just going to focus on what I need to do on the field.”
You can’t find a soul in the Yankee clubhouse who believes his upcoming free agency will be any sort of distraction to Judge.
Let others examine the guaranteed money for players and debate what Judge is worth on the open market. Mookie Betts received a 12-year, $365 million extension from the Dodgers. Yankee outfielder Giancarlo Stanton is in the middle of a 13-year, $325 million contract that he originally signed with Miami. Free agent shortstop Corey Seager got a 10-year, $325 million deal from the Texas Rangers before the lockout.
It just won’t be Judge doing the talking.
“Trust me, he’ll be fine,” Stanton said. “He’ll be focused. He’ll be all right. He’s laser-focused. Nothing will change that.”
Maybe there will be a time this summer when the Yankees will reach out to Judge’s representatives. Perhaps Judge will have a change of heart and listen. But for now, all anyone knows is that the Yankees still want to keep Judge for the rest of his career, and Judge’s preference for him is to stay in New York.
“I’m going to respect his position, but I’m never going to rule out if the opportunity exists to revisit things over the course of time,” Cashman said. “He’s too good a player to be stubborn and say, ‘No, we’re not going to talk anymore.’
“Obviously, our intent is to have Aaron Judge stay as a New York Yankee moving forward, and I know that’s his intent as well, which is a good thing.
“But at the same time, he knows that there’s no guarantee.”
That’s the scary thing.
Maybe more for the Yankees than Judge.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @BNightendale
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism