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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Aaron Judge returning to Yankees on $360 million deal

Aaron Judge set career highs in batting average (.311), home runs (62) and R.B.I. (131) in 2022.

By Scott Miller

Aaron Judge’s record-smashing year is ending with one more big swing. Like his others, it is sending the New York Yankees smiling into tomorrow.

Nine months after declining a $213.5 million contract extension from the Yankees, Judge, who proceeded to set an American League single-season record with 62 home runs, has landed the biggest free-agent contract in baseball history. The deal, which is pending a physical examination, will be for nine years and $360 million, said two people familiar with the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

The deal will go down as one of the best bets in sports history. On opening day, the Yankees made it known to the news media that Judge had declined the team’s offer of a seven-year extension. Judge, who has been one of Major League Baseball’s top sluggers since his rookie season in 2017, chose to pass up immediate financial security in hopes of earning more as a free agent. He then broke Roger Maris’ AL record with 62 home runs, won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award and has now cashed in with a deal that is two years longer and carries $146.5 million more in guaranteed money.

The agreement came after some nervous days for the Yankees at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego. The San Francisco Giants, whom Judge had rooted for growing up, made a spirited attempt to sign him. As the negotiations reached their climax, the Yankees were unsure whether Judge, a California native, might opt to play on the West Coast, leaving them with an enormous hole in their outfield and a public-relations disaster.

Instead, Judge, 30, who captivated the baseball world with his chase of Maris, will now have ample opportunity to secure a lasting legacy as a Yankees great — perhaps even as the successor to Derek Jeter as the team captain.

“We’d love to continue to call him our player every step of the way as he follows what looks like, as long as nothing happens, a career path to Cooperstown,” Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, said Monday. “We’d love him to be in pinstripes every step of the way.”

To keep him, the Yankees not only had to fend off the Giants and others, but they also had to use some of their formidable resources. The deal will surpass the free-agent contracts of Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million), Texas’ Corey Seager (10 years, $325 million), the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole (nine years, $324 million) and San Diego’s Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million).

In terms of total dollars, Judge’s deal will trail only those of the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout (12 years, $426.5 million) and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts (12 years, $365 million). Both of those deals came via contract extensions, not free agency.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone, speaking Tuesday before Judge had made a decision, said he had remained in touch with the outfielder this winter but did not have a good feel for which way his decision would go. When a rumor swept the winter meetings Tuesday that Judge was close to signing with San Francisco, Boone, who was in his hotel room, said he immediately phoned Cashman to ask what he knew.

“Nothing,” Cashman said, according to Boone.

From a long, wide-ranging conversation with Judge at season’s end, Boone said he knew the impending free agent was stung by the club’s decision in April to release details of the negotiations between the player and the team.

“He and I talked a little bit about it right at season’s end, kind of walked through that a little bit,” Boone said. “So I knew that he was a little disappointed about that.”

Why that came up during their discussion at season’s end, Boone said, he didn’t know.

“We talked at length that last night. It’s just one of the things we talked about, but I don’t think it was anything intended to be a tactic or anything,” Boone said of the public nature of the negotiations. “It was intended to be, because we knew it was going to be constantly speculated on and out there, and we just didn’t want that to be the case. We kind of wanted to run to the situation.”

Instead, as the season progressed and the home runs began stacking up, the leverage shifted to Judge. Still, team owner Hal Steinbrenner said in November that he believed Judge wanted to remain a Yankee, and Boone agreed.

“I’ve always felt that way with Aaron,” Boone said. “And I always feel like he certainly belongs in pinstripes, and a guy of his stature and his greatness hopefully spends his entire career into Monument Park and into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee.”

A first-round pick by the Yankees in the 2013 draft, Judge hit 52 home runs in 2017 and won the AL’s Rookie of the Year Award. It was an outsize season for the outsize slugger (6 feet 7 inches, 282 pounds). Five seasons later, he produced a season that was bigger and better in every way.

In addition to the 62 home runs, Judge was in the race for the triple crown until the final week of the season. He batted a career-high .311, led the majors in runs scored (133) and tied Pete Alonso of the New York Mets for the major league lead with 131 RBIs. He also led the majors in on-base percentage (.425), slugging percentage (.686) and total bases (391). He was nimble on the bases (16 steals) and flexible in the outfield (74 starts in center field and 54 in right field).

It was a magical season in so many ways, the only flaw being that Judge and the Yankees couldn’t write the ending they wanted. An organization that prides itself on World Series titles was swept by the eventual World Series champion, Houston, in the AL Championship Series, and Judge batted just .063 (1 for 16) with no homers and no RBIs in those four games.

As the Yankees scattered into the winter, they had no idea whether Judge, their prized slugger, would be back with them in 2023.

Cashman acknowledged this week that the club was “not flying the plane,” but “we’d love to land the plane favorably here in New York.”

On Wednesday, they did. And now, as Steinbrenner suggested was possible last month, there is thought that Judge will follow in the tradition of Jeter, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson and others and be the Yankees’ next captain.

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